FLUENCY IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
COULD HELP CHILDREN MASTER READING FASTER
by Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D.
The American Psychological Association
When learning to read, many preschool age
children recognize letters in alphabets (or characters in
non alphabet languages) long before they are able to read. Knowing
a second language, according to the latest research on reading, can
really help a child comprehend written languages faster and
possibly learn to read more easily. This finding is examined in the
May issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) journal
"Preschoolers who speak one language can usually recite the
alphabet and spell their names but cannot read without the help of
pictures. But bilingual preschoolers can read sooner because they
are able to recognize symbolic relations between letters/characters
and sounds without having visual objects," said psychologist Ellen
Bialystok, Ph.D., of York University and author of the new study.
The study examined 137 bilingual (French & English and Chinese
& English) and monolingual (English) four and five year olds, all
of whom came from literacy-rich environments including the
bilingual children in both languages. The children were given two
word tests that assessed their "understanding of the symbolic
function of the letters." Furthermore, "children who go beyond
treating letters as visual objects and recognize the symbolic
relation between letters and sounds are on their way to learning
how to read," said Dr. Bialystok.
The first test involved showing the children a card with a
word printed on it which was placed under a picture of the named
object. The children were asked what the word was after the card
was moved to another picture. The bilingual children scored twice
as high on this test as the monolingual children.
"The bilingual children knew that the written form carried the
meaning and that the picture was irrelevant. They understood this
principle equally in both languages too. And, even though all the
children's scores improved with age, the four-year-old bilinguals
were better at this than the five-year-old monolinguals," said Dr.
The second test involved asking the children to judge a word's
length when the object size was the same and when it conflicted
with the word size. When the word was long and the picture was big,
no difference was found between the monolingual and the bilingual
children. But, "the Chinese-English speaking children scored higher
when the length of the word conflicted with the object size.
Figuring out the rules for two different kinds of writing systems
helped them understand each system better," said Dr. Bialystok.
"There are definite advantages to being bilingual when you are
learning to read, providing that children are exposed to stories
and literacy in both languages," Dr. Bialystok. "By four, bilingual
children have progressed more than monolingual children in
understanding general properties of the symbolic function of
written language. By five, they are more advanced than monolinguals
and bilinguals who have learned only one writing system in
understanding specific representation properties, even in English."
"Learning a foreign language at a very young age can clearly
benefit children's reading abilities and hopefully parents and
educators can help to provide the resources for this to happen,"
said Dr. Bialystok.
Reference: "Effects of Bilingualism and Biliteracy on
Children's Emerging concepts of Print" by Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D.,
Developmental Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 3.
Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., can be reached at (416) 736-5119
The American Psychological Association (APA), in
Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing
psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists.
APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians,
consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology
and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations,
APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means
of promoting human welfare.