Learning to read: does being bilingual help or hinder?

Does learning to read in one language help children learn to read in another language? Research on children learning to read in two languages with similar writing systems (e.g. English and Spanish) suggests that it might. But what if the writing systems differ as dramatically as, for example, English and Chinese? Does this still give bilinguals an advantage? Or might knowledge of one language actually be a hindrance in learning to read in another, very different, language?

Learning to read requires a complex set of skills that depend on the sound system of the language, the nature of the writing system and the teaching method used. English and Chinese are very different in all three respects. In English, being able to identify individual sounds (called phonemes; e.g. d – a – d in dad) is more important than understanding how sounds group together into larger units (called syllables; e.g. air – port in airport). The English alphabet is based on a correspondence between phonemes and letters (although with many exceptions and special rules!), and learning to read focuses on discovering these correspondences. In Chinese, on the other hand, syllables are more important. The components of characters used in writing do not systematically correspond to individual sounds or groups of sounds, and teaching to read focuses on memorization of whole characters.

So does learning to read in one language help or impede learning to read in another language with a different writing system? Researchers at York University (Canada) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong explored this question in a collaborative study which has since been cited in over 150 further publications. The study compared children in their final preschool year or first year of primary school from three different linguistic backgrounds: monolingual English-speaking children from Canada (64), bilingual English-Cantonese children from Canada (70), and Cantonese-speaking children from Hong Kong who were learning English at school as a second language (70).

The researchers tested several things. For example, how many words did the children know in their language(s)? To what extent were they able to play with syllables and phonemes (e.g. say new airport without new; say cup without the first k sound)? And were they able to read a few simple words? Then the researchers compared the results across the three groups.

The most important finding that came out of the study was that there were no significant differences between the monolingual and the bilingual children, as long as the children were able to understand a similar number of spoken words. Put differently, when learning to read there appear to be no advantages or disadvantages to being bilingual (even in very different languages), but there are advantages (for both monolingual and bilingual learners) in having a larger vocabulary of spoken words in the language they are learning to read in.

The researchers also found that bilingual children could transfer skills involved in learning to read in one language to learning to read in another, as long as these skills were useful. In the study, the Cantonese-speaking children learning to read in English could initially apply the same memorization strategy they used for Chinese characters to English words, and this helped them during the early stages of learning to read in English. The English-Cantonese bilinguals in Canada, on the other hand, could not transfer their skills from reading English to reading Chinese, because being able to identify letter-sound correspondences does not help in recognising Chinese characters.

In short, knowing how to read in an alphabetic system like English won’t help with learning to read in a non-alphabetic system like Chinese – although it won’t do any harm either. But children with a larger spoken vocabulary will find it easier to learn to read, so by supporting your child’s spoken bilingualism, you will make it easier for them to learn to read in two languages as well.

Bialystok, E., McBride-Chang, C. and Luk, G. (2005) Bilingualism, Language Proficiency, and Learning to Read in Two Writing Systems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 580-590. Read the article here



Speak Your Mind