Question

I have 3 and 5 year old children, with whom I speak the minority language, while they speak the majority language with their father and at daycare. They understand and speak my language without problems, though they use the majority language predominantly. My eldest has known the names of the letters in both languages for a while, but she is at the stage where she is learning how to actually read by relating letters to sounds to words. I have taken a bit of a step back in this process, leaving it more to her dad and teachers, as I feel it might be confusing for her that letters might have different sounds in my language, and perhaps after she has “gotten it” she can more easily apply her knowledge to the minority language. Am I right in this, or should I be encouraging her in my language too? Are there any techniques or things to keep in mind when bilingual kids learn to read?

Thank you,
Kemie

Answer

Dear Kemie,

Thank you for your question. Finding the right moment to help our children to learn reading in the minority language is not easy. It would help a lot to know which languages are involved, if they are related or not. Usually, teachers don’t encourage to teach children to read in another language before they reach a certain level of proficiency in reading and writing in the language they’re taught at school. The main reason is not to mix the two language systems – mainly letters and sounds. Nonetheless, if a child shows interest in the other language and wants to read or even write it, I don’t think one should stop him or her in doing so.

If the alphabet in the minority language is not too different from the majority language, you can show your daughter the letters in your language and teach her how to pronounce them, with the help of some pictures and words in both languages. Isabelle gives some precious tips about this on her site.

It would also help to know which method they use at school to teach your daughter the majority language. If emphasis is put on phonetics (sounds) or letters. In both cases you would adopt the same method with the minority language. For example, when my children learned English at school with Jollyphonics, I tried to adopt the same method for German. I didn’t do it systematically but every now and then, when they asked how a sound would be written in German. It was only to make them aware that a word can sound exactly the same in two languages but is written in two different ways, like “shoe” (English) and “Schuh” (German).

In general I wouldn’t force her if she doesn’t show interest in learning letters and sounds in the minority language at the moment. But I would recommend to keeping on reading to her. You can follow the words with your finger so that she can see the word you’re pronouncing, and eventually she will show interest in reading herself.

Please let me know what you decide and how it works for you and your children.
With very kind regards,
Ute

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