Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 2

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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.

We started at the beginning with an excerpt from Chapter One of Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. The learning continues below with an excerpt from Chapter 2: Understanding the Multilingual Reading and Writing Process. Enjoy!


Unique Characteristics of Multiliteracy Learners

In a typical language-learning environment, a child is immersed in a larger cultural and linguistic community in which other adults and peers as well as the media provide a rich resource for the language and literacy-learning child. However, multilingual children, in particular those children whose major heritage language and literacy input is from their parents, often lack such constant cultural and community language experience. These children have some unique language and literacy characteristics.

Differences between heritage language learners and other types of language learners

Heritage language learners tend to be confused with other types of language learners. They are sometimes regarded as native speakers because they may be exposed to the heritage language at home as a first language, or their parents speak the language to them at home. Sometimes, they are also regarded as second language learners because they live in a mainstream language environment and are not ‘fluent’ in their heritage language. Occasionally, heritage language learners are even thought of as foreign language learners because they take their heritage language as a foreign language subject in school. Although researchers have long warned us about the problems of confusing these different language learners, the issue is still prevalent.

Heritage language learners certainly share many commonalities with second language learners, foreign language learners and native speakers. However, all these language learners also differ from each other. Even though heritage language learners may be exposed to a heritage language as the first language in their lives, their experience differs from that of native speakers. For example, it is certain that Child A, who acquires Arabic language and literacy skills in an Arabic-speaking dominant environment, differs from Child B, who learns Arabic reading and writing mainly from his/her parents in the home environment, in the speed and quality of their Arabic language and literacy acquisition. All things considered, Child A will have more advantages than Child B.

By the same token, heritage language learners may have different degrees of explicit and implicit knowledge about their heritage languages and cultures than foreign or second language learners. They often have more ‘hidden’ advantages in learning heritage languages than those who learn a second language or foreign language. Research suggests that heritage language learners have proficiencies and lacunae that differ from non-heritage learners such as foreign language and second language learners. For instance, heritage language learners may have an advantage over second language and foreign language learners in that they may have a linguistic instinct for their heritage language.

An example from my older son Léandre may further illustrate the hidden advantages of heritage language learners. Léandre once tried to convince me to buy him a video game in an e-mail (in Chinese). When he realised that his Chinese writing skills would limit him, he decided to write this message in English first and then converted it to Chinese with the Google translator. He went on to modify the Chinese translation and sent it to me. When I got this e-mail, I knew that it was the product of Léandre’s Google modification. Nevertheless, I was quite happy because Léandre did know (by using his Chinese language instinct) how to modify the message and made it sound Chinese (in fact, very good Chinese). However, a friend of mine, who is a Chinese foreign language learner, sent me an e-mail in Chinese with the help of the Google translator. His lack of the Chinese linguistic instinct made his e-mail awkward and strange to a native Chinese speaker.

Challenges of blending heritage culture and heritage language

When children are interacting with more than one orthographic and grammatical system and more than one culture, they are living in simultaneous worlds, and they are trying to acquire membership of different cultural, language and literacy groups in different contexts. The task for these children to negotiate meanings in different languages and cultures is quite challenging.

Many heritage language-learning children are in the process of integrating practices and skills and approaches from their different literacy practices in the home and community to their mainstream culture. They mix and match both oral and texts in novel ways and they appropriate and syncretise98 the blended forms of literacy.

In addition, many heritage language learners have to negotiate between different worlds and languages. They may speak the heritage language, yet their worldviews are often shaped or at least partly shaped by the mainstream culture.

Different pathways to literacy


The pathways for children to become literate in different languages vary among heritage language learners. Some children may develop heritage language literacy for a specific function. For example, children in an Indian heritage community in London use their different languages for different purposes. They write letters to their relatives in Gujarati, do their school homework in English and do their religious study assignments from the Madrasa in Urdu.

Other children may develop heritage language literacy with the help of their mainstream language, that is, they use one language to make sense of another language. For instance, Mary checks her English dictionary to make sense of her Korean reading given to her by her Korean language schoolteachers.

Still other children acquire and develop their heritage language literacy skills through formal schooling. For example, 12-year-old Jonathan goes to an American school in Beijing to study his heritage language, English.

Additionally, some children acquire and develop their heritage language literacy skills at a younger age and some at an older age. Some develop their heritage language literacy skills simultaneously with their mainstream language literacy skills and some develop their mainstream and heritage language literacy skills consecutively.

As we can see, the pathways for heritage language literacy learners are not uninformed and they vary greatly according to their life’s circumstances.

Stay tuned for chapter 3 of Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, by Xiao-lei Wang. We will also be sharing many more posts the next few weeks 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.

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