Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Introduction

by expert · 9 comments

What bilingual or multilingual family is not at least curious about how to raise biliterate and multiliterate children? Yet it can seem like a daunting task. Helping our children speak another language may already be a challenge, how can we even begin to think about teaching our children to read and write in additional languages?

Here are some common questions from parents and caregivers:

  • How do I go about helping my child learn to read and write in our home language?
  • Should I teach my child to read in our home language before she starts school?
  • Is it better for a child to learn how to read and write in one language before introducing this in additional languages?
  • What about a child learning to read and write in languages with different written letters and scripts?

Lucky for bilingual and multilingual families around the world, Dr. Xiao-lei Wang has written a book just for us titled Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family which is even available for the Amazon Kindle Reader! Multilingual Living is excited to have the opportunity to publish excerpts from this informative book for the world to enjoy. It will give families around the world numerous insights into how they can help their children become biliterate and multiliterate.

Let’s start at the beginning with an excerpt from Chapter One of Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family:

Chapter 1 – Introduction

On a recent flight from Seoul to Shanghai, I sat near a 5-year-old Korean girl, Choon-Hee and her mother, Mrs Pak. The mother and daughter were on their way to join the girl’s father in China. They planned to settle there because of Mr Pak’s job relocation. During the nearly 2-hour plane ride, little Choon-Hee was keenly making drawings and experimenting with different ways of forming Korean Hangul letters and Hanja (Chinese characters). From time to time, Mrs Pak modelled the details of how to write Hangul letters and Hanja strokes. The mother and the child seemed to enjoy immensely what they were doing.

Watching the interactions between Mrs Pak and her child, I realised that I was witnessing the little girl’s multilingual literacy development in the making. I imagined that with this level of child engagement and with this level of parental support, Choon-Hee would certainly become multiliterate in the years to come.

However, as much as I was impressed with the mother-child enthusiasm and as much as I wanted to be optimistic about the girl’s future multiliterate development, I could not help but worry if the child would remain so eager down the road and if the child’s multilingual reading and writing skills would be thriving a few years from now. My seemingly pessimistic outlook for this child’s future multilingual literacy development may not be entirely baseless. You will probably understand my concern after you read an e-mail that I received from a mother.

Dear Dr. Wang,

I am delighted to read your book Growing up with Three Languages. I am grateful that you shared with us your experience in raising trilingual children. Like you, I am also raising a trilingual child in Italian, Dutch and English. My native language is Dutch and my husband’s is English. We live in Italy. We have tried to teach our daughter Dutch and English at home because we don’t have support in the community where we live. We didn’t have problems getting her to speak the languages. When she was little, she was eager to learn to read and write in the two home languages. Now she is in elementary school and we have tremendous difficulties to get her read and write Dutch and English. She is just not interested. Tension has grown because we often nag her about reading Dutch and English books. The other day, she told me angrily why I bothered to request her to read English and Dutch. She said that she was reading Italian in school and that was enough! I don’t know what to do. Should I insist that my daughter read and write English and Dutch? This doesn’t look like an option right now. Should I ask her to read one of the languages? I don’t know any good strategies to involve my child. I am on the verge of giving up. But, I think it would be a pity! Dr. Wang, can you offer some advice?


Anna’s frustration is not unusual. Many parents who attended my parents’ workshops or corresponded with me have substantiated Anna’s sentiment based on their experiences of raising multilingual and multiliterate children.

Purpose of the Book


The purpose of this book is to help parents explore various ways to make their children’s multiliteracy development possible. Drawn on interdisciplinary research in multilingual literacy development as well as experiences of parents who have raised their children with multilingual literacy, this book walks parents through the process of multiliteracy development from infancy to adolescence. It identifies the target skills at each developmental stage and proposes effective strategies that facilitate multiliteracy development in the home environment.

This book can be used as a guide for home heritage language literacy teaching or as a supplement for those parents who send their children to heritage language schools. It can also be used as a reference for teachers who teach in community heritage language schools and in school heritage (or foreign) language programmes.

Stay tuned for chapter 2 of Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, by Xiao-lei Wang. We will also be sharing many more posts about how to help your children learn to read and write in more than one language!

Dr. Xiao-lei Wang received her doctoral degree from the University of Chicago. She is a full professor in the School of Education at Pace University in New York. Dr. Wang is an interdisciplinary scholar. Her research covers a wide range of topics such as cultural parenting styles, effects of nonverbal communication in teaching and learning, multilingual development, and moral development. She is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences on child development and parenting issues, and has published extensively in academic journals. Her recent book Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven focuses on the challenges and strategies of raising multilingual children.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Courtney June 22, 2011 at 8:38 am

I just recently ordered Dr. Wang’s new book. I’m hoping it will help me teach my 7 year old son how to read and write in Korean. My difficulty is that I am also learning Korean and I’m not even proficient at the language. So, even though I do have a “head start” on my son, I cannot speak to him fluently and conduct all of our daily conversations in Korean. I hope Dr. Wang’s book will help us even with my limited Korean language skills.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:40 am

Thank you for your comment, Courtney! Prof. Wang’s book does assume that the family speaks a language (or more) at home with relative fluency, so it most likely won’t help with that. However, it will help with ideas, tips and suggestions for what works best in helping children learn to read and write at home. The biggest struggle that I could imagine you will face is finding good reading/writing materials – those for children assume that children are already fluent in the language. Materials for adults assume an adult-level of maturity and can be difficult for a child to enjoy. However, I am sure you will figure it all out! Definitely leave a comment in the Multilingual Living Forum asking about where to find Korean materials and support (if you haven’t already). Good luck!


3 Susan June 22, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Definitely buying this book! We are still in the wonderful stage where reading and speaking with mom and dad are fun, but I have seen what the future holds. Very excited to read more.


4 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:36 am

So glad you are excited about the book. I have really been enjoying reading it. What I like the most is that the author is very good about packing it with research footnotes, so it is possible to get even deeper into all of this if so desired. It also shows where the information came from which adds an additional element of validity to her work. Hope you enjoy the book!


5 Jeanne @soultravelers3 June 25, 2011 at 3:33 am

I’d love to read and review this book for our soultravelers3 website as we are monolinguals raising a very fluent trilingual/triliterate in Mandarin/Spanish/English as we travel the world.

Without the literacy and time in the culture, I think one misses much in raising a multi-lingual child and it’s great that someone has documented what it takes.

Our daughter will turn 11 this fall and we started this process when she was in the womb. It’s worked great, she speaks, reads and writes daily in all 3 languages, but I think few parents realize just how much work it is and how long the commitment.

We’ve written a lot about our experiences and have a new series called how to raise your bilingual and multilingual child, based on what worked best for us.


For those that are monolinguals or weak in the languages one wants to add, travel and immersion help so much. Many Koreans come to Penang to immerse their children in both English and Mandarin. ( much cheaper and easier for them to do than at home).

We’ve found both Europe and Asia, wonderful places to immerse in other languages and be exposed to many, as it is common in some of these places to raise trilingual (or more) kids. Actually experiences the deep advantages of multiligualism is a great motivator for kids!!


6 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:20 am

You are so right about the degree of commitment, Jeanne! It isn’t always that it is so difficult, per se, but the realization that it is going to be a long-term, daily commitment is what many don’t realize. You are so right about how many people around the world grow up learning multiple languages without even trying since they are living in communities where multiple languages are spoken. It is amazing how monolingual the US really is, especially being that it is actually really very diverse.


7 Jo June 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Just ordered this book! I’m very keenly aware that our children won’t pick up reading and writing skills out of thin air as they seem to pick up oral skills in our three languages, and equally aware that their reading and writing skills are going to be almost even more key to what they will be able to do with their languages when they are adults than their speaking abilities i.e. do a job, use services. Really hope I can follow your excellent advice not to be too pushy, because this is something I could get REALLY obsessive about…


8 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:16 am

Thank you for your comment, Jo! And wonderful that you purchased the book! I have really been enjoying reading it – the excerpts don’t do it justice! There is so much more in the book! I totally hear what you say about children not learning how to read and write in their languages without some kind of encouragement. I have found that my children do best when I find things for them that they really like but are only in German. That gives them the “need” to read in German since they want to know what is going on in the story/game,etc. I hope the book gives you some ideas. Let us know how it goes!


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