Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 6

by expert · 6 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.

You may want to start by reading excerpts from the first few chapters:

Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Introduction.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 2.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 3.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 4.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 5.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 6: Adolescence (12 – 18 Years):

Choosing Developmentally Appropriate Reading Materials

Many multilingual children do not read as well in their heritage language as in their school/mainstream language. As a result, parents often choose heritage language reading materials written for younger children to compensate for their adolescents’ low heritage language reading level. However, for adolescents, reading materials written for younger children will be considered insulting. For example, I once asked my teenage sons to read a Chinese text for young children. The text contained words and phrases such as ‘little friends’, ‘little trees’ and ‘little animals’. They felt that I had insulted their intelligence (My older son Léandre commented, ‘You reduced us to this level?’.) They vehemently rejected material for ‘babies’. One way to avoid such a situation is to choose materials that are simple in vocabulary and grammar, but more sophisticated in content. Revisiting the technique on how to simplify texts discussed in Chapter 5 may be helpful.

When choosing heritage language texts for adolescents, you may also want to take into consideration their psychological needs and provide them with a variety of reading materials, such as adventure, science fiction, biographies, mysteries, fantasy, romance, comedy, tragedy and horror, to help them find their place in the world and encourage self-discovery (e.g. identity issues), build self-esteem and a healthy sense of self. For instance, Aaleigha, who lives in Minnesota, read her 17-year-old son the German classics of her own adolescent favourites, such as Tonio Kröger and Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) by Thomas Mann and Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. She said that her son found that the adolescent issues in these German classics transcend time and history. Through reading these classics, Aaleigha’s son became more motivated to read German. Recently, Aaleigha reported that her son has been admitted to college and planned to major in German language and literature.

Thus, trying to find materials in your heritage language that address adolescents issues may keep your children motivated.

Teaching Communication and Writing Styles

The adolescent period is perhaps the best time for parents to discuss stylistic differences between the heritage and mainstream languages because, at this point, children have already developed logical and analytical abilities.

Research has confirmed that there are different ways to communicate in different cultures. For example, there is more indirectness in high-context cultures such as the Confucian heritage cultures: the Chinese, Korean and Japanese cultures (where people rely on a broad array of social clues) than in low-context cultures such as North American and European cultures (where people rely on few social clues to communicate). As a result, people from high-context cultures tend to interpret indirect messages better than people from low-context cultures. You may want to draw your children’s attention to the different communication styles in writing. For example, Chinese older people offer ‘lucky money’ to children during Chinese New Year celebrations. Knowing this custom, 15-year-old Jinjin (Jim) wrote to his Chinese grandparents in a Chinese New Year greeting card, ‘How much money are you going to give me this New Year?’. Mrs Wei pointed out to her son that it was too direct to write to Chinese elders in this way, and he should only drop subtle hints.

In addition, different cultures tend to have different writing styles. For example, research suggests that Greek engineering students and Anglo-American students tend to exhibit different writing styles regarding politeness strategies despite the fact that they are in the same field of engineering. The Anglo-American students tend to avoid imposing their ideas whereas the Greek students tend to be more authoritative and empathetic, controlling readers’ inferences by seeking their agreement.

It is likely that your children will be influenced by mainstream writing styles through attending school in their country of residency. Thus, it is important to discuss with your children the differences between the heritage culture writing styles and the mainstream language writing styles. There is no reason why a child cannot develop two or more writing styles in different languages. Deliberate comparison of cultural differences can help your children become more skillful in code switching (shift writing style from one language to another).

Stay tuned for the next excerpt from chapter 7 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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tracey August 11, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Because my big children went to spanish club when they were around 5 & 6 they already were learning to write and English and had been reading for about 2 or 3 years. So they would note down the words the teacher used and what they thought they meant – vocab and then sentence structures. Later they had workbooks and tutors who spoke to them also only in spanish.
When we came to Bolivia, they were 11 & 12 and within a week they were in the Bolivian school system – we kept up English and Maths from NZ by correspondence and later they completed high school in both systems. If we hadn’t have continued the NZ schooling – as much as it frustrated them at times – they may have still read our teen and adult books but otherwise would have just had us to talk to in English. They are both now studying in Bolivian university but doing extramural studies from NZ for interest. They are very bilingual and bicultural.
I just hope we can do as well with our littlies (3 years old) as they love book in both languages and everything outside the house is spanish. Thanks for your shared knowledge – I definitely agree that books need to be age and interest related and appropriate to hold a childs interest.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:35 am

Thanks for the comment, Tracey! It is great to hear from someone who has experienced the process of raising biliterate children! It is amazing how much focus it can take to introduce something like reading and writing in additional languages. Creating the need can be difficult. It is wonderful to know that you are able to try things out again with your little ones – so exciting! Thank YOU for sharing your knowledge with us!


3 Jefferson August 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm
4 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:36 am

Thanks for the reminder, Jefferson! Great tip!


5 Tracey August 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thanks, have bought it!!


6 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:36 am

Wonderful! I have definitely enjoyed reading it and have learned a lot!


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