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Reading between the languages – the case of multilingual children

“Our son’s teacher has told us he should read in Dutch, even at home, instead of in his other language. Otherwise he might fall behind.”

Parents raising multilingual children hear stories like this all the time. Concerned, they wonder whether their child’s teacher is right, and perhaps a little annoyed, they may wonder why people often find it impressive when children or adults learn English well in school, yet they don’t seem to appreciate other language skills as much. But is it really the case that teaching your child to read and write in your language will be at the expense of literacy skills in Dutch? Obviously, as a parent, you want the best for your child and of course it is important to learn to read and write in Dutch. So what should you do with that other language?

Take it from someone who should know. Goethe said: “One who doesn’t know other languages doesn’t know their own” and he certainly knew his native language extremely well and learned to speak, read, and write at least seven other languages throughout his childhood and youth. And as it turns out, research suggests he was right. Children are not only able to keep apart their two languages, but those who read and write in their home language tend to be better readers and writers in the school language than those who don’t. So, there is nothing wrong with teaching your child to read and write in your mother tongue. If anything, they can transfer their reading and writing skills from one language to the other, boosting their knowledge of both.

It also seems that the school language has a way of creeping in and becoming the stronger language for many children. Studies in the US found that adults who grew up speaking only Spanish at home but learned English in school were better at reading and writing in English than in Spanish, even if they only moved to the US during their childhood. Reading and writing skills mostly depend on explicit teaching and develop relatively independently from spoken language skills, so learning to read and write and using the majority language at school seems to be enough for typically developing children to properly learn the language. What this also means, then, is that just speaking your own language to your child will not be sufficient for them to learn to read and write in it. If you want your child to be literate in your home language, you will have to invest some time and effort in either teaching them yourself or finding someone else to do so.  When you should do this depends on many factors: your child, the languages in question, and the resources available. What is clear, is that learning to read and write in two languages is both possible and something to be proud of. After all, who wouldn’t love to tell their friends that they were already reading and writing in two languages in primary school?

Academic sources for this blog:

Ardila, A., Garcia, K., Garcia, M., Mejia, J. & Vado, G. (2017). Writing and reading knowledge of Spanish/English second-generation bilinguals. Reading and Writing, 30(2), 837-400. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-016-9681-5.

Cobo-Lewis, A. B., Eilers, R. E., Pearson, B. Z. & Umbel, V. C. (2002). Interdependence of Spanish and English knowledge in language and literacy among bilingual children. In D. K. Oller & R. E. Eilers (Eds.), Language and literacy in bilingual children (pp. 118-134). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Hammer, C. S., Davison, M. D., Lawrence, F. R. & Miccio, A. W. (2009). The effect of maternal language on bilingual children’s vocabulary and emergent literacy development during Head Start and kindergarten. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13, 99-121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1088430902769541.

Kremin, L. V., Arredondo, M. M., Shih-Ju Hsu, L., Satterfield, T. & Kovelman, I. (2016). The effects of Spanish heritage language literacy on English reading for Spanish-English bilingual children in the US. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050.2016.1239692

Photo material was retrieved from here: https://pxhere.com/fr/photo/163891

About the author

This blog was written by Annika Schiefner as part of the (Research) Masters course Topics in Second Language Acquisition 2 at Radboud University in Nijmegen. It was edited by dr. Sharon Unsworth.