Last Updated on April 19, 2023 by Bilingual Kidspot
Learning to Read in Two (or more) Languages
Raising bilingual kids and wondering how they can learn to read in two languages? In this article Marie Robert (bilingual pediatric speech and language therapist) goes through everything you need to know about teaching kids to read in multiple languages.
Can children learn to read in two (or more) languages?
Of course! In most cases learning to read will not be affected by bilingualism. It is simply a matter of what order and age literacy in each language is introduced.
Parents will want to think about a few things and make some decisions before introducing written language to their children.
I always tell parents to think about the type of written language and the order of introduction first.
The ‘type’ of written language
While no system is ‘pure’, there are two main types of written language: alphabetic languages and logographic languages.
In alphabetic languages such as English, Spanish or Italian, letters are used to represent sounds and can be combined based on specific rules about what goes together. A letter means nothing by itself in most cases.
Logographic (i.e., marked by a letter, symbol, or sign used to represent an entire word) is the term that best describes systems such as the many Chinese writing systems. Chinese characters are morpho-syllabic.
Each represents a syllable with a distinct meaning. Some characters may have many meanings or many pronunciations. This is not the case for alphabetic languages which include Cyrillic languages as well as those mentioned above using the Roman alphabet.
Learning to read different types of languages requires different skills and parents need to be aware of that.
Logopgraphic languages rely more heavily on visual memory while alphabetic languages require quick access to letter-sound correspondence knowledge.
A child learning several different alphabetic languages may need to encode different combinations of letters of each sound in each language (e.g. ‘ch’ is pronounced differently in English and French despite us using the same combination of letters).
While a child learning logographic languages will have different challenges.
Choices regarding timing – Learning to read in two or more languages
Parents also need to consider two aspects of timing when children are learning to read in two languages.
- in what order will the languages be introduced?
- how much time do you have to dedicate to each language?
Will you introduce one language first, wait a year for your child to achieve basic proficiency and then introduce the second language, or will you introduce reading in both languages at the same time?
There is no right answer and it works both ways, but parents need to consider their plan before they start in order to avoid backtracking later, which can be confusing for children just developing their skills.
Age is also an important consideration as children who are too young will have difficulty and risk missing out on learning other language skills if forced to use all their brainpower learning to read too young.
On the other hand, starting very late can be a challenge too, so a balance is needed.
Most countries start formal literacy training around 5-6 years of age, and some as late as 7 years. Every family’s decision will be different. It’s important that your choices reflect your family conditions.
The amount of time you can devote to literacy training is an important consideration.
Will school cover the community language, leaving you time to deal with the home or minority language? Or will you be handling the literacy training of two languages?
Either way, parents need to decide how much time they can devote to literacy. This helps to maintain everyone’s expectations.
If parents are the sole providers of literacy in one of the child’s languages, it will often take more time to become proficient. However, never fear, slow and steady wins the race!
What is your aim?
In the case of YOUNG children learning to read in several languages, I make sure parents consider their aims for each written language.
Is the aim that the child be able to attend university in all three of their languages? If so, you are talking about a huge investment of time.
Otherwise, will be ok for your family if your child is university-ready in a single language and uses their other written languages purely for pleasure or cultural pursuits?
Discussing these types of issues is a good idea so parents and children can calibrate and set expectations on both sides.
Of course, once children are older, more autonomous and can make their own decisions, these questions become more of a negotiation rather than a parent laying down the law from on high!
Need for exposure to print and pre-reading competence
No matter what decisions you make regarding the type of language, timing or sequence of introduction, print awareness is extremely important before a child learns to actively read.
Always remember to discuss letters, sounds, titles, covers and spines of books with your child.
How might your English books look different from your Japanese books?
How might your sounds be different between English and Spanish.
Even learning the direction of flow of a written language is an important steppingstone, so remember to start early with ‘awareness’ even before you begin actively teaching your child to read.
Pre-reading skills (those needed before actively reading independently) are important in all languages, so parents who are aware of those skills in each of their languages will be able to make sure their child is well prepared before the child learns to read.
Recommended>>> Stages of reading development
Can you be dyslexic in two languages?
Yes! If your child is diagnosed with dyslexia in one language, then they can be considered dyslexic in all the languages they read and write in if the languages are orthographic (using roman letters and a letter-sound correspondence based system).
Remember, dyslexia is not just a reading but also a spelling disorder so it will affect both reading and writing. To know more about dyslexia, read this post:
- Benefits of bilingual education
- Early literacy activities for kids
- Word and vocabulary games for kids
- Learning Chinese characters for kids