If bilingualism is the ability to be able to use two or more languages, is literacy a necessary part of this? Do you need to be able to read and write a language to qualify as “bilingual”? And if you would like your children to be literate in two or more languages, how do you get there?
The answer to the first question – Is literacy necessary for bilingualism – is “not really”. People all over the world speak two or more languages, and are literate in only one, or even none. It is not necessary to be literate to be bilingual. However, literacy does make it easier to maintain a language, especially if you live outside a community of practice. Literacy brings you access to a host of ways to gather passive input (reading) and use a language (writing) that may not be available to you if you are not surrounded by speakers of this language. Reading is also one of the best ways to grow vocabulary in a language, so if a child has little daily exposure (in form of oral input) to a language, being able to read will help them acquire a better vocabulary, and therefore be able to use the language better.
So for parents raising bilingual children, literacy is always a good goal for at least two of their languages. That said, is there a “best practice” way to get there? The answer to this question is “not really”. There are many routes to biliteracy, and which one is right for your child depends on the languages in question, your situation, and of course, your child. One important point to remember is that there is no evidence that *simultaneous* biliteracy (learning to read in two or more languages at the same time) is better than sequential biliteracy. Children can and do learn to read in the second (or subsequent) language any time from months to years after learning to read and write in the first language. So, there is no need to pressure or overload a child to achieve literacy in both languages early on in schooling. In my opinion, if there are no clear benefits to simultaneous biliteracy, then it is (generally) better to wait until the child is comfortably literate in the school language before formally beginning literacy training in the second language.
Why? Simply because if they don’t need to work that hard, why make them? Once a child has gained literacy skills in one language, presuming the alphabets are the same, literacy in the other language comes quite easily. Even if alphabets are different, a lot of the basics of literacy are the same, so the second will still come more easily. My kids are in a school where they are learning to read in the class language (English) in the same year, and at the same time as they are learning to read in their registered “mother tongue” (French). I watch them go through this process, and compare it to my older daughter, who learned to read in the school language first (French) and then one day picked up a book and read it in English. The whole process was so much easier for my older daughter. Despite the fact that my twins *are* doing it – learning to read in two languages at the same time – I think it is harder than it needs to be.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Cummins about this (notice the linguistic-geek name-dropping… 🙂 ) and his opinion (which I respect greatly) is that it is fine for kids to learn to read in the school language and mother tongue at the same time. But as hard as I try, I can’t equate “fine”, with “the right thing”. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean they should have to – it makes that critical first year of schooling so much harder. For parents with children in an early-literacy school system (literacy before the age of six) this is an even more important point. Children work very hard to learn to read and write, even when it is taught at the “right” age (6-7 years old). Why make our kids work so much harder than necessary, and in the meantime impact their enjoyment of school and learning, for no good reason? Because if we go back to the bottom line, learning to read in the second language later leads to the same academic outcomes – not better, not worse!
So my top points for parents who want to achieve biliteracy for their children are these:
1. Prioritize actual literacy in the school language first.
2. Do lots of literacy-type activities in the other language(s) – reading out loud, alphabet/writing system play, writing play.
3. Have a plan for how you will help your child become literate in the other language.
4. Remember that reading and writing should be fun for kids – they need to learn in a positive way, when they are cognitively ready.
5. Don’t tell Jim Cummins I disagree with him…