When it comes to reading, bilingual children learn faster

A new study by York University researchers suggests that children who are bilingual learn to read more rapidly than their monolingual peers. The study of more than 100 grade one students revealed that there are distinct advantages for children who learn two languages simultaneously.

The study also found that there are added benefits for children acquiring literacy across languages which  share a writing system, such as English and Spanish.

“Our research has shown that reading progress amongst all bilingual children is improved,” says the study’s author Ellen Bialystok (right), a professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts.

“However, there are larger advantages for children whose two languages share a writing system,” she says. “Really, it’s all about decoding ability. These children can more quickly grasp the concept that letters make sounds. They realize that this same concept can be applied to both languages, and suddenly a light goes on. It’s a transferable set of strategies and expertise.”

Researchers found that it’s more difficult for children to acquire literacy in both alphabet and character-based systems, such as English and Chinese, but that these children are not disadvantaged.

Bialystok encourages parents who speak English as a second language to immerse kids in their native tongue at home. “I think there’s a lot of worry out there about other languages conflicting with a child’s ability to learn to read in English, but that’s absolutely not the case. Parents should not hesitate to share their native tongue with their children – it’s a gift,” she says.

A common trait of bilingual learners – especially in the early stages – is to mix words from both languages, which Bialystok says is not cause for worry. “It’s perfectly normal and there’s no long-term damage for children who do this.”

The study, co-authored by York researchers Gigi Luk and Ernest Kwan, compared early literacy tasks among four groups of students. Three were fluent in English and one other language (Spanish, Hebrew or Chinese) and one consisted of monolingual English speakers. All bilingual children used both languages daily and were learning to read in both languages. They showed significant improvement in their capacity for “non-word decoding” – their ability to apply the techniques of reading to a new set of materials.

The only potential drawback uncovered by researchers is that bilingual children start out with a smaller vocabulary in each language.

“Of course, we’ve measured them at an age where they’re just beginning the process of language acquisition. There’s nothing to suggest that as they grow older, their vocabulary in each language will not expand or that bilingualism will at all hinder this process,” Bialystok says.

The study titled, “Bilingualism, Biliteracy and Learning to Read: Interactions among Languages and Writing Systems”, was published in the journal Scientific Studies of Reading, Volume 9, No. 1.