On 8 September we celebrated UNESCO’s International Literacy Day, dedicated to spreading awareness about literacy as a fundamental human right and its significance for individuals and communities alike. In addition, this day aims to showcase that, despite the improvement in literacy rates we have made in the last decades, there are still striking regional differences. Statistics show that there currently are over 770 million illiterate adults[1] – absolutely inconceivable in our day and age!

On an individual level, the foundation for literacy is laid at home. But the increasing global mobility of people, frequent lack of specific knowledge and home-language materials as well as the growing diversity in schools complicate the situation. Schools vary immensely in the way they work with children from diverse linguistic backgrounds and often struggle to provide the necessary help, leaving parents confused, not knowing how to support their children’s language and literacy development. In addition, prompts to stop reading in the home language and drop it altogether in favour of the school language are rather common, often carrying detrimental consequences. How come, you might wonder? Isn’t focusing on only one language less distracting and more productive, providing for more ‘mental space’? As a matter of fact, no, it is not!

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Indeed, mastering literacy in the school language is fundamental for academic success. I have met many families who have decided to only focus on it, often guided by their environment, with the intention to speed up the process of acquiring that language and developing literacy in it. Perhaps some would deem it a logical decision, because why should a family waste resources to continue building the home language rather than exclusively focusing on the new language?! After all, it is crucial for succeeding academically and fitting in socially. Perhaps a valid consideration, but what nobody is telling families is that languages and language systems in the brain actually support each other rather than interfere with each other. Studies show that building a mature foundation in the home language, including reading and writing, is a sure-fire way to support a child in acquiring and perfecting the school language and literacy it in. In fact, languages in the brain do depend on each other for support in pursuit of their most important goal – communication. So, focusing on the home language and home-language literacy, will not take precious time away from mastering the school language. Just the opposite! It will create an awareness about the general rules, introduce and teach your child the fundamental skills needed to learn to read and write, which they will then be able to transfer to the new language. The principle is simple – they learn how to read the words and eventually make out the meaning of what they are reading. Once they figure out how to do that, they are able to do the same in another language because they are already familiar with the mechanism.

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Reading with them at home every day from an early age is one of the best gifts you can give your bilingual child. It is an incredible opportunity for parent-child bonding through books and stories, for creating memories that would last a lifetime. Imagine that – you are sitting on your comfy couch with your toddler, open book with lots of words and beautiful illustrations in your hands, and they are trying to wiggle their way onto your lap, so they can have the best view possible while enjoying the story. You read to them, talk about the story and, just like that, you are introducing your child to new words, concepts and ideas, to different ways to use language and play with it. By having this foundation, learning the next language is so much easier. Indeed, a great chance to create and nurture the habit and love for reading and to plant the seed of curiosity for books, because once they learn to love them in your language, they will do the same in their next language.

Developing of home language literacy skills boosts the development of literacy skills in the school language, because these skills are transferrable. Once we have learned to read and write in one language, it is much easier to learn to do it in another. It is crucial to keep developing these skills in both languages. This would help your child gain an insight in both languages and the ways they are used, enabling them to figure out how the languages shape their own life and identity. And keep in mind that great readers make great writers – the more they read, the more their writing improves.

Interested in how to increase your child’s motivation to keep developing their literacy skills in the home language? Watch this space!


  • Baker, C. (2014) A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. 4th edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  • Cummins, J. (2001) ‘Bilingual children’s mother tongue: why is it important for education’, Sprogforum, 19, pp.15-20.
  • Cummins, J. (1979) ‘Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children’, Review of Educational Research, 49(2, Spring 1979), pp.222-251.


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