When you start on the bilingual journey, you tend to focus exclusively on language acquisition. The reason being that you are either parent to a newborn -in which case the issue of literacy seems rather distant, or to an older child that you fear confusing with academic aspects of the minority language (ml).
Biliteracy (i.e: literacy in more than one language) is often left aside, yet from my own experience it is often a topic that lurks in the bilingual parent’s mind. Doubts assail you as to whether you should or should not teach the ml literacy skills. In our case, it was always always a goal I was clear about, though I always had doubts as to the approach to take. My eldest being now 7, I have acquired a little bit more of hindsight on the question of raising a bilerate bilingual child. As challenging as it still may be on a daily basis, it is nevertheless a positive experience. I am no language expert or professional, but today as a simple bilingual mum, I would like to raise my case for raising a biliterate bilingual kid*.
Literacy helps language acquisition
As you will see from the following list of benefits, literacy in general helps language acquisition. Hence, literacy in the ml is ever so valuable when raising a bilingual child:
- Phonics enable a more accurate pronunciation – By learning the coding behind your ml’s characters, your child learns the accurate sounds.
- Correct pronunciation – The child visualises the correlation between what s/he utters and what s/he sees. How many times have you caught your child mispronouncing a word, replacing one letter for another, and you thought that had s/he known how to read s/he would have been able to visualise and pronounce it right?
- Actually studying the language contributes to better sentence construction and communication – Sitting down to take the time to study a simple grammar rule can help more than a verbal explanation that will go in one ear and right through the other.
- Being able to read and write will contribute to develop the child’s vocabulary – the more one comes across a word in books and the more one writes it, the better s/he memorises it.
- It helps make the child conscious that what s/he says is tangible – What the child utters will suddenly seem less abstract once the child can see it lying on a sheet of paper. This can help the child understand why s/he is sometimes corrected by his/her parent and maybe unconsciously pay more attention to these corrections.
- It helps make the child more conscious of the art of translating– Working on literacy creates translation opportunities when the child does not know or understand a word in one language. It is the opportunity to bridge both languages. Children switch spontaneously from one language to another without much thought. Literacy is the occasion to stop and think about it. And this is a great learning experience.
- The child can transpose to the ml some of his/her Majority Language (ML) knowledge – for instance the existence of the infinitive and various tenses.
- Biliteracy gives rise to an independent ml reader – which means your child can willingly expose him/herself to quality ml at his/her own request, without depending on you. In other words: it generates extra exposure! And that’s probably the best reason just to raise a biliterate kid. 😉
What your child wants
Parents often assume their kids will not want to learn to read, let alone write, in the ml. A child’s willingness to learn is often enticed through appealing, fun and appropriate resources, but also bear in mind 2 factors about kids:
- They are usually curious – once they grasped reading in the ML, your child might experience curiosity and want to learn to read in their ml.
- They sometimes are proud of being bilingual – after all, how many times have your kids been praised for speaking another language? So it is only legitimate that once they start reading in the ML they might feel eager to read in their ml.
These 2 factors definitely caught us unaware with our eldest. And she was so resolute about it, she would not hear about waiting to learn to read in Spanish because we thought reading in English and French was already a lot!
It is a recurring fear in bilingual parents. I for my share experienced it too. Yes, my eldest sometimes confuses 2 letters or sounds from different languages; but just like she would with any false friend words. Over time, she has learned to overcome these minor confusions.
Think of the future
Being bilingual is a wonderful skill in the working world. However, in most professions, it will not come to much if it is not accompanied by written ml literacy skills. To secure this bilingual asset, biliteracy skills are highly recommendable.
You might not be an ml teacher, but whatever you can teach your child will always be better than nothing. It will potentially act as a springboard, and once older your child might just want to continue working on their written ml skills without necessarily your help.
So there, I raised my case for biliteracy! 🙂 If you still have not made your final decision as regards your own child, you will have these elements to bear in mind.
As to not raising a biliterate bilingual child, I can only think of one positive argument: it is so much easier! Lol But easier is not always the best option…
*Please note this opinion is based on raising a child with no language learning disability, as I cannot possibly express an opinion on a topic on which I have no experience whatsoever.