What to Expect when Your Bilingual Child Starts Learning to Read

A quarter of one million people migrate to the UK each year¹, increasing the number of children growing up bilingual or multilingual. As both a practicing child psychologist and speech therapist, I am often asked questions by parents of bilingual children learning to read. Some of the most common are:

  • Does a psychological conflict cause reading impairments in multilingual children?
  • How is reading fluency connected with verbal language development in multilingual children?
  • Are reading disorders a consequence of language uncertainty or bilingual education?
  • Which prevention strategies can help alleviate reading impairments in multilingual children?

In this article, I'll address each in turn. Many children who learn two or more languages simultaneously while growing up -- for example, the mother speaks English and the father Spanish -- learn both languages with relatively little delays in development and pace of learning. However, other children might struggle and experience delayed speech and literacy development. These children often mix languages, use false words, or form grammatically false sentences.

Does Bilingual Education Affect Literacy and Reading Development?

The opinions of even foremost experts in this field differ. In this article, we look into causes of reading impairment in a specific case of multilingual upbringing. At the end, we'll formulate recommendations and prevention strategies that could help parents and educators.

Does a psychological conflict cause reading impairments in multilingual children?

Scientists and educators point out to the psychological conflict with multilingual children, which can be one of the causes for language disorders. The psychological conflict derives from the child’s natural inclination to his native language and the necessity to communicate in a different language, language of the country of living etc. For example, in the case of multilingualism the child uses one language at home, another at school and on the street (the language of his environment). In another case, the parents speak two different languages at home and in addition to this, a third local language is added.

Multilingual children are forced to used words and sounds to communicate that are foreign to them. This can lead to internal dissatisfaction and create a communication barrier. Some children need time to determine their native language which leads to the child being more silent. The consequence of insufficient verbal exercise can lead to a stagnation in the early language learning process and delayed language development.

The psychological conflict described above can lead to language impairments and in some cases dyslexia, a persistent reading disorder.

How is Reading Fluency Connected with Verbal Language Development in Multilingual Children?

In a multilingual upbringing the following factors can have a negative impact on reading competencies:

  • Psychological conflict
  • Language impairments
  • Learning disabilities

Language therapists agree that psychological conflict and emotional insecurity which a child may experience are secondary reasons for the development of dyslexia. The real reason is the particularities in verbal language development and expressive language disorder in multilingual children.

This leads to an impairment in acquisition of literacy, which is characterised by the following disorders:

  • Speech impediment: unclear pronunciation due to imprecise articulation or lack of fluidity in speech
  • Simplistic language structure and insufficient comprehension skills
  • "Mixing up" vocabulary

Children growing up bilingual can experience difficulties with the generalisation and transfer of linguistic concepts. All languages have different rhythmics, sound systems and grammatical structures. The rules of a target language can contradict the rules of other target languages. This results in multilingual children handling contradictory rules in early stages of language learning before they have fully comprehended the rules of their native language. As a result these children tend to speak in more simple sentences and often use grammar incorrectly. Bothe pronouncation and choice of words in this case can be wrong.

These specific disorders in the earlier stages of verbal language development, as well as delayed learning of language rules lead to dyslexia in multilingual children. Hence, the psychological conflict is a secondary problem.

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Are reading disorders a consequence of language uncertainty or bilingual education?

Reading disorders affect the social-emotional development of the child. Stagnation in the language acquisition process and failure to progress in learning to read can intensify child’s insecurity, shyness and anxiety. It can also lead to anger and aggression. In these cases bilingual and multilingual children get caught in a vicious circle:

  • The emotional reaction increases poor reading ability. In order to avoid further frustration, the child becomes reluctant to read and poorly articulate phonemes. This deepens negative emotional reaction triggered by continued failure in reading.
  • Some bilingual children are irritated on the occasions of verbal communication due to insufficient language understanding and lack of vocabulary required to express themselves.

Common reading problems in multilingual children

  1. Incorrect reading of words and phrases
  2. Children speculate or guess rather than read
  3. Difficulties in reading comprehension of single words and whole sentences

Clearly, children growing up in a multilingual environment experience very specific reading difficulties. The main reason for which is the delay in early speech development. This delayed begin of speech acquisition in the dominant language reinforces the suspicion of a language disorder. However, multilingual education in itself is not the underlying cause of reading disorders.

Which prevention strategies can help alleviate reading impairments in bilingual and multilingual children?

Spend longer amounts of time learning each letter: Let the child paint, flip, cut and colour the letters.

Playfully introduce graphically similar letters bd, pq, ZN, WM, JL: Discuss the graphical differences or similarities, help children develop their own recognition rules and reminders. Practice recognition and read these letters often in different words.

Begin with one language and introduce the second language only after the child has developed strong reading skills in the first one.

The most important rule: Use only one language at a time during your learning and playing sessions!

With multilingualism, you give your child the great opportunity to develop themselves in our modern and international world. For a growing number of children, bilingualism is becoming a natural environment, learning to think, speak and later to read and write in two languages. Preventive strategies can help bilingual and multilingual children to avoid potential language development problems.

The old addage "practice makes perfect" works miracles.


¹Net migration statistics in the United Kingdom, The Guardian

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