Saturday 19 September 2009


I have previously mentioned that I tend to read all books to Lilia in French, whatever the original language of the book. Lilia prefers it that way, and I do too, as I posted some time ago on the subject of reading connection.

I now wonder if that has not slowed her acquisition of reading. She totally grasps the concept of phonics, she can also write words using simple phonics. However, I now realise that the next stage in reading acquisition, that is pattern recognition, is eluding her. The majority of children books we own, and borrow from the library, are in English. Because I read those books in French, she has not learned to match spoken words with written words. That became obvious while reading "We are going on a Bear Hunt". The text is repetitive with simple words such as "and", "it". I would have expected Lilia to recognise those words after a while. But actually, she has not go into the habit of following the text in stories...

I am confident that she will be able to make up for this "delay". However, I can see now that multilingual reading and writing is not as straightforward and natural as multilingual speaking. I suppose the OPOL principle still applies, only it becomes OBOL in the context of reading (One Book One Language).

From today, I will read each book in the language it is written in. I probably should have done this long before. The obvious solution is to get more books in different languages.


  1. Very interesting post! I did not read to my children in this way because we had lots of minority books available. However, I would have never thought of this "peril" on my own. I too am sure she will move beyond this quickly, but a very interesting observation. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. There's a reason that it's easier to handle several spoken languages at a time, but that reading is a special difficulty. Our brains have evolved to facilitate language acquisition and use (we've been doing it for hundred of thousands of years). However, reading is a very recent skill (only a few thousand years), and requires effort to learn, like maths, chess, piano, or whatever. I'm not sure that it will be easier for Lilia to learn to read in several languages at once: she might get confused. You should perhaps make sure that your reading sessions stay as fun, and let her pick up ideas if they come. She'll manage with the skill like all kids (probably better, given her genes!)...

  3. Thanks for your comment bloggingonbilingualism. Glad you found the subject of interest.

  4. Tim, thank you so much for this insightful comment. I am so deep in the subject, that I have difficulty taking some distance. Lilia starting school has somehow tainted my views... Thanks for reminding me that children learn because they like learning things, at their own pace, in their own time.
    I think I will still read books in their original languages. However, I will remember that the most important thing is for her to have fun and be happy. Whatever the language.

  5. This is really an interesting thought!

    Personally I always read each book in its language, or rather, I read only english books and I insist others read only italian books to my child. It disturbed me when I saw for instance my parents translating an english book in italian for him, but quite frankly i thought this was a bit peculiar of me. I didn't think much about the impact on his language development, I rather thought that it would have been bad for his relationship with books themselves. I am a bit of a bookworm obviously.

    I also never quite liked the idea of bilingual books but couldn't explain why. Now things are clearer...

    I think this is really a very important post, Thanks!

  6. Whoa, food for thought :)

    I am in the habit of translating English books into German - and have always done so because I'm the only person who speaks German to the kids on a regular basis. For me, it's always been about increasing the amount of German they hear.

    In the past, however, I have actually wondered how this would affect their ability to pick up written language, but always put the importance on more exposure to German.

    My 4 year old, however, has begun requesting (demanding, more like it) that I read English books in English and German books in German. I usually accommodate that, though try to get her to pick a German book if at all possible.

    Let's hope their little brains can sort all this out, whichever way we go :)

  7. This is very interesting. I have more books in English, and French and Mandarin which are the minority languages are the languages that I am less comfortable in, so I would never translate into them on the fly, reading an English book, as might a native French or Mandarin speaker... so I suppose I have bypassed this problem. I do sometimes translate a book into English, but it is obvious that I am EXPLAINING the written French or Mandarin, and not reading English... I am usually reading a book in French or Mandarin as I want to expose my son to that language, and frankly, I speak French but the French in books is so different that I would never ever think to say those things. I read in French and Mandarin to expose BOTH of us to proper French and Mandarin usage.

    As a result, very early on my son could distinguish written French, English or Mandarin just by looking at the text, despite not being able to read it (and perhaps not being able to understand it read out loud)... he recognized that the languages LOOK different... the length of words are different, the French has accents, the mandarin obviously has those characters which are visually different from romanized languages. He will point to the correct text in a bilingual book and say "no read Chinese mommy, read English", starting at 2.5 yrs old.

    And yes, I do point to words as I read them in simple texts like Dr. Seuss books and early readers. He will point to the word "NO!" in "Seven chinese sisters" and shout NO! so he recognizes the relationship.. I am now glad that I am not shouting "bu yao!" when it is printed "NO!" on the page!!

    As for Tim's comment: "I'm not sure that it will be easier for Lilia to learn to read in several languages at once: she might get confused." I am pretty sure that is totally untrue. I have already experienced that my preliterate son can differentiate between different languages on the page. And now he is learning to read English at 4 yrs old using online together with their printed materials, AND learning Chinese characters using both simple book, flashcards and the Kingka memory/bingo game... he started recognizing them with "The Pet Dragon" book. I certainly don't see any confusion, and in fact I find that seeing them written makes them less confusing for him, ie he pronounces his English (his dominant language) better now that he sees that "spoon" has P as the second letter when written etc.

    Thanks for a fascinating post and food for thought!
    ps, I can see I am signed it as "Google", but I go by wenjonggal, and my blog about raising my son multilingually is

  8. Thanks Leanne for your very interesting comment. It is great to see you started reading books in their original languages from early on. As a matter of fact, I was also doing some kind of explanation of the story, a rough translation on the fly. So that when BK1 started pattern recognition, I was quite surprised by this finding.
    Anyway, she is doing really well, reading English quite well for a child her age. She even can read/guess certain French words.
    I trust it will all come in its own time. After all, I learned to read and write 3 different languages, 2 of whom native and in 2 different scriptures. I am convinced I am no smarter than my own daughter :)


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