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I had a debate with a friend, she thought that starting teaching reading and writing the second language that is spoken at home at the same age as they learn it at Kindergarten might be confusing. My feeling is that it might even help, but won’t harm.
What do you think?
Is there any research to back this up?


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Hi, Gil. I don’t know exactly what you mean by wondering about the timing of teaching reading and writing in a minority language simultaneously as it is being taught in a majority language at school.  It would seem to me, the earlier the better. Therefore, I would certainly not intentionally wait until it is being focused on in your child’s school, nor would I wait until he/she has cemented their understanding in a majority language before then deciding to teach them. I’ve heard the saying, “Don’t put off today, what you can feasibly do tomorrow.” Having said this, I was raised bilingually and am now raising my four-year-old bilingually.  Although I do not remember learning to read or to write, specifically, I know that there wasn’t a magic hour or age that was suddenly the right time to teach.  I think, firstly, there has to be some understanding of the temperament and maturity of the child.  If they aren’t paying attention… I began teaching my child around three, and now that she is four, she is surprising me with her reading ability, although she does not sit down to read books by herself, I can “test” her with games and questions.  Our minority language is Latvian and the majority language, and spoken by her father, is English. She doesn’t thus far seem to have any problem reading words in either, though sometimes their is a slight mispronunciation due to uncertainty of the which language she is reading.  Writing for her in both languages, is normal/advanced for her age, as I have had pleasure recently to observe a group of other bilingual children her age, and her understanding and writing of letters is definitely where it should be. However, although each language has some letters the other doesn’t and different pronunciation, both alphabets are comprised of Latin-based characters.  My daughter is, though, starting her second year of Chinese immersion preschool, and she has no problem readily “reading” those Chinese characters and writing them.  While I do not unfortunately have specific research to mention to you, if you live near a university you could check out their library and search under second language acquisition and reading, language acquisition, bilingual studies and children, etc.  Also, perhaps there is a university near you which has a department of bilingual studies. I’ve found that people are generally very willing to help within their field of knowledge. They could maybe speak with you and provide some answers for you, or just point you in the right direction.  Hope this was somewhat helpful for you and good luck! 

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I have a similar quandry. We live in Finland and our son is 5 y.o. I speak to him in English, his father speaks to him in Russian, and he attends Finnish speaking daycare. he also attends a Russian Saturday school and English montessori classes. I have been teaching him the English alphabet and beginning reading skills. There is an opportunity for him to start learning cyrillic alphabet and reading in his Russian Saturday school, but I am not sure if it is a good idea before he has mastered the English alphabet, since some of the letters look the same but have different phonic sounds in English than in Russian. Could this cause confusion while he is learning them? Or would waiting to learn the Russian alphabet be even more confusing as he would perhaps assume that Russian is written in Latin letters? He speaks and understands, English, Finnish and Russian all equally well. Does anyone have any experience with this?


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hi Gil,

Excellent question, and I have been wondering the same thing, as have other parents I know.

The research I have read indicates that mother-tongue literacy positively affects second-language literacy, which would seem to say that you should teach your kids to read in their first language first. However in the real world, with bilingual preschools and other dynamics, that is not always possible. My children learned their alphabet and basic pre-reading skills in English (my mother tongue), but since I’m not one to sit down and actually teach lessons to a 3-year-old, I suspect they will learn to read in French (their school language) a little sooner than English.

I have also read that any cognitive skills the child has in one language will transfer easily to the second language, including literacy skills, reasoning skills, and problem-solving skills.

Having watched my siblings and friends go through a French immersion system from kindergarten, when most of them learned to read in French before English, there was absolutely no difference between them and English-only readers by the time they were in grade 3. But during those early years, the parents were always quite worried because their children could only read French–worried for nothing it turned out. On the other hand, those children with learning disabilities did seem to have more problems and probably would have benefited from early literacy in their mother-tongue.

One mother I know was worried about her kids acquiring second language literacy before first language literacy and so she deliberatey taught her kids to read the year before entering grade one in French, using a commercially available home reading program. She did that with all five of her kids.


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Greetings, Johanna.
I do not specifically have any experience with the Cyrillic alphabet teaching (although I myself once learned it during two semesters of college).  My daughter, age four, is in the throes of learning to read: Latvian (mother), English (American-father and our current country of residence) and Chinese (immersion preschool, 2nd year for her). While she is able to read words when prompted, she isn’t say sitting down to read by herself.  Thusly, it has not been confusing to her, but with the Chinese characters they are learning words not letters nor the alphabet. There are a few “shared” letter representations, that I sometimes have had to prompt by saying, “Write the Latvian ee (“I”) not the English (e). She did attend a typical American preschool (2 days/week) last year, along with the immersion, and then I was more concerned because the teacher kept track of letters my child “did not know”.  I had more than one personal conference with the teacher trying to help her to understand that it wasn’t that my child didn’t know or was wrong, but that she was saying them/recognizing them in Latvian.  I don’t think the teacher ever got it, but having someone tell your child they are “wrong” when they are clearly doing something else, was worrisome to me, and I didn’t want my child to feel she was “wrong”. Personally, I don’t think waiting is ever a good idea.  It may at first seem a little confusing, but as our children are already bilingual, they are (I’m assuming) already comfortable with the idea of two or more separate languages and so it is natural that there would be more than one way to codify the different sounds they are producing. Bye, good luck. Daira


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I am ‘poking’ this discussion thread, as it is very interesting and I would love to hear more comments from parents on when they started to teach their children to read and write in the native language(s). Many teachers say that waiting to teach the second` language literacy until the local language literacy is mastered is the best option but I intuitively think that this learning can happen simultaneously. However, I have also heard that some children respond well to that and others do not. There apparently, is in the first grade or two some lag between a multiple language literacy child and his single language peers in school and some parents (and kids) become concerned about their child being labeled as a special needs or with delayed learning. How is this addressed? My idea is to have tutoring in the local language while me continuing to teach him the second language but it can be financially difficult is not an option for everyone. Please share ideas about this topic, it is very interesting!

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