How Does Being Bilingual Help Kids Learn to Read?
Scientists and language experts have linked learning a second language to a host of benefits for children and adults, but this is especially the case for young children and their blossoming cognitive abilities. These children are given an overall "cognitive edge" when they learn a new language, according to Dr Laura-Ann Petitto of Dartmouth College in the United States. A large number of other studies have also linked language learning to higher exam scores.
But can knowing another language make learning to read easier for your child? A team at Canada's York University has completed a study which suggests that bilingualism may have a positive impact in a number of significant ways on this crucial process for children.
The team was led by Dr Ellen Bialystok, one of the top experts in the world on bilingualism amongst children. Dr Bialystok's team of researchers analysed the effects of bilingualism in a group of more than 100 children just learning to read. Summarising the results, Dr Bialystok reported, "Our research has shown that reading progress amongst all bilingual children is improved" over monolingual children. In a separate statement, she said, "I think there's a lot of worry out there about other languages conflicting with a child's ability to learn to read in English, but that's absolutely not the case. Parents should not hesitate to share their native tongue with their children—it's a gift."
Dr Bialystok and her team concluded that the advantage in literacy which bilingual children demonstrated could be attributed to two specific effects of bilingualism. These effects were a greater "metalinguistic awareness" and a very useful ability to apply the reading skills and principles learned in one language to the other.
The sum of two languages is greater than the parts
The York University team's report, titled "Bilingualism, Biliteracy, and Learning to Read: Interactions among Languages and Writing Systems," states that the first advantage which bilingual students demonstrated is "a general understanding of reading and its basis in a symbolic system of print. This general understanding can be acquired in any writing system and gives children an essential basis for learning how the system works and how the forms can be decoded into meaningful language."
In plainer language, bilingual children are accustomed to thinking of more than one word describing or representing a given object (for instance, they know that "tree" and "árbol" represent or describe the same thing). Therefore, they are naturally more sensitive to language and more readily see it as a system constructed by distinct sounds. A bilingual child can transfer this sensitivity to reading and particularly to the practice of associating letters in print with sounds. As Dr Bialystok says, "Really, it's all about decoding ability. These children can more quickly grasp the concept that letters make sounds. They realise that this same concept can be applied to both languages, and suddenly a light goes on. It's a transferable set of strategies and expertise."
The general sensitivity to language and especially to its decoding is often called "metalinguistic awareness." Metalinguistic awareness can be acquired regardless of which languages one is exposed to—it can be French or Farsi or Finnish! The key is establishing a greater awareness of language itself. Dr Bialystok describes this condition as "the knowledge of two languages is greater than the sum of its parts."
Bilingual children don't need to reinvent the alphabet
In addition to greater metalinguistic awareness, bilingual children also demonstrated "the potential for transfer of reading principles across the languages." In other words, bilingual children are able to take methods or insights they have gained while learning one language and apply them directly to the other, without having to recreate the process from the beginning. For instance, they needn't relearn the concept of an alphabet in English if they have been taught it already in French.
Because the bilingual children in the study were in the process of learning to read in both languages simultaneously, Dr Bialystok and her team hypothesised that the additional practice was giving the bilingual kids their edge. Some of the bilingual children were indeed receiving more total hours of instruction, but the final results of the study proved that instruction time was not the determining factor. The advantages the bilingual children demonstrated were independent of instruction time in the other language. The key was not so much how many hours were spent practising as the ability the other language gave them to combine their insights and strategies. The York University team credited this as "the additional advantage of applying the concepts of reading that they learn to their two languages, enhancing both and boosting their passage into literacy."
When you learn a new language, you also learn more about your own
As a child sets out to learn a new language, she also discovers many new things about how languages work in general. Many older students find that their knowledge of English grammar is supplemented or even corrected by learning a foreign language. The rules of English grammar may seem so natural to us that we barely give them a thought—until, that is, we come upon the grammatical rules of another language. We may ignore the oddities and grammatical exceptions of our own language, but we see them anew when something new comes along, making us aware of how our first language works.
As very young children, this awareness and these discoveries happen quickly and often, as a child's speech and thoughts grow from simple demands and exclamations to more imaginative and dramatic stories bursting with new and descriptive vocabulary. Learning a new language opens up a new dimension for these discoveries. Your child's broader awareness of language and of the world will encourage her to take hold of language in a new way.
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