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To Italian version of "Bilinguismo e Multilinguismo"

7. Learning to read and write in different languages

Welcome to the seventh appointment of Multilingualism matters!

This article will explain why it is important to learn to read and write in both languages for bilingual children. This is not always the case, for example, when bilingual children attend a monolingual school. They will learn to read and write in the so called “dominant language”, which is the language of instruction, but they still have the chance to learn to read in the “non-dominant language” at home, or attending extra courses. A growing amount of research evidence shows that being able to read in more than one language can give some benefits.

Let’s start with reading. When we read, we simultaneously decode the text and comprehend the message contained within the text. Therefore, reading can be defined as a combination of these two fundamental skills, decoding and comprehension. First of all, one needs to be able to decode words, i.e. to literally decipher the written symbols on the page and to translate them into meaningful (spoken) words; secondly, one needs to be able to keep those words in mind while reading the subsequent words in order to gain the general meaning of the text. Clearly, different languages have different writing systems. Therefore, a bilingual child needs to understand how each language is represented in the written form.

Why is it so important to read to children when they are young? First of all, reading is an additional kind of language exposure, which the child can have access to at a slower pace compared to spoken language. The child can learn new words just by listening to someone reading a story, and she can learn even more when talking about the story and trying to guess what comes next. Therefore, for a bilingual child it would be recommended to be exposed to reading in both languages.

But when can we start reading to children? As soon as possible! Research evidence shows that there is a direct correlation between exposure to books in early childhood and literacy skills developed later on. During the preschool period children learn the so called “pre-reading” skills. For example, a pre-reading skill is knowing the single sounds of the words and being able to recognize them. Learning nursery rhymes is a great (and funny) way to help kids develop these skills. Another pre-reading skill is knowing the particular convention of print of the languages a child is exposed to. As parents point the lines of the book while they are reading, for example an alphabetical language, they show children that the text is read from top to bottom and from left to right. Research evidence shows that having this kind of knowledge aids in the process of learning to read later at school. Furthermore, studies on predictors of reading success show a causal link between preschoolers’ phonological skill and later reading achievement. The phonological skill is the most important cognitive factor in learning to read, it represents the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of a language.

When reading to your child in the non-dominant language, you may need to choose a book that is not too complex and probably easier to understand, than a book in your child’s dominant language. But remember that the focus should be on comprehension and enjoyment, and not teaching her the maximum number of words. Storybooks that come with an accompanying CD can also give your child the opportunity to hear other fluent native speakers.

When children are older and start school, they learn to read in the dominant language if they attend a monolingual school, or in more than one language if they go to a bilingual school. Being able to read in more than one language can bring some advantages and it is not a burden for the child’s brain, as some of us might think.

First of all, oral skills of the non-dominant language can be strengthened by reading in that language, especially if the child doesn’t speak it very often, and if it is the language she has less contact with. Reading is important because it helps increase the vocabulary of the child, and therefore it facilitates language comprehension. The more words a child knows in a language, the more she will be able to understand and speak that language. Furthermore, it also helps the child reach higher proficiency skills in that language, she can formulate and understand more complex sentences and can express herself with greater efficiency. Reading in the second language, or the language that is not the language of the country where a child lives, is also an independent activity, through which the child can keep contact with the language, even when she will have less opportunity to speak it regularly in the future.

Interestingly, research about the relationship between bilingualism and reading seems to show that some skills, such as phonological skills, can be easily transferred across languages, while others, such as decoding, are specific to each language and should be learned. However, studies show, that the extent of the bilingual facilitation for early reading depends on the relation between the two languages and writing systems. For example, if the two languages share the same alphabetic writing systems, like Italian and Spanish, and also a similar orthographic representation, it is more likely that children will transfer some skills across the languages and they will learn to read these two languages very easily.

What about writing? Learning to write in the language not used at school can be a creative exercise and it can help the child become much more proficient in that language. However, it is not a good idea to become improvised teachers. If you have the possibility, let your child attend a writing and reading course in the non-dominant language. If not, you can still encourage your child to write in that language, by writing yourself. For example, leaving notes for your child, making shopping lists, and writing down family’s schedules. This way you show your child that writing in the second language is natural, and she can benefit of a richer linguistic environment. Another idea is to encourage your child to have a pen pal, or to write e-mails to relatives living far away who speak that language, or encourage her to keep a daily journal written in the second language. This can be a great way to ensure that writing becomes a daily habit.

When bilingual children attend a monolingual school, the most important thing to remember is that a period of language mixing is to be expected. Since spelling and grammar rules are different in the languages that the child speaks, it could be the case that she will mix them. For example, if the child is learning to write in German and you speak Italian in the family, it can happen that she will write the Italian word “lumaca” (snail) with a ”k” because she has learnt at school that this sound in German is mostly represented with the letter “k”. Another example: in German all nouns start with a capital letter, while in English only proper nouns do, so it can happen that the child will write all the English words with capital letters.

Consider that any mixing of spelling and rules is usually temporary and, if we give them time, children will learn to consolidate the rules in each language and no longer mix them up. However, it is very important for parents not to panic during this “mixing period”. If the child attends a monolingual school it may be helpful to explain to your child’s teacher (who most likely has been trained to teach monolingual children), that your child is in the process of learning two sets of spelling and grammar rules and that she just needs time to master them both. It is important not to show anxiety to your child and tell her, for example: “You did a great job, Maria! I just saw you wrote a “k” instead of a “c”. Remember that in Italian the word “lumaca” is written with a “c”. I’m sure you will soon understand how this works in German and Italian!”

In our final article, we will discuss about “Third Culture Kids”, children who spend a significant period of their childhood in different countries.

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