Learning to read, two languages at a time

This was meant to be a part of the Multicultural Kids Blogs Blogging Carnival, hosted this month by Adriana at Homeschool Ways, but I was painfully late and didn’t get my submission in on time. At any rate, click on the link to check out Adriana’s blog, and the links to the other posts should be up by the beginning of next week.

My mother is a reading specialist, with her doctorate in the subject. I grew up seeing both parents curled up with books on a daily basis. I adore reading, and I’m always in the middle of one, if not two or three, books. It can be hard to tear my husband away from whatever book or article he’s reading. So teaching our kids to read should be no big deal, right?

For me, true bilingualism means complete fluency in all aspects of language: understanding, speaking, reading, and writing (I’ve listed those in order of what I consider to be easiest to hardest). This is what I want for my kids, and for me, and while I’ve learned a lot on this bilingual journey, I’m still spending a lot of time winging it.

Luckily, both of my kids love books. I often find them sitting at the foot of the bookshelves, surrounded by the books they’ve tugged down. This alone is one of the most important things we’ve given them yet – a love for books, and a few hundred to peruse through whenever they want. We read to them daily, from French books and English books.

My daughter is showing great interest in letters, in trying to sound out words, and “reading” to herself and to her brother (in French and English! My heart sings with joy!). She has favorite books in both languages, and while she is sometimes reluctant to speak in French, if she likes a book, she wants us to read to her, regardless of the language the book is written in. I consider this our golden opportunity. Teaching her to read in English, to recognize sight words, to sound things out, comes quite naturally. The French – less so. I’m applying the same approach as I do in English and it seems to be working so far. The challenge: while English and French use the same alphabets, the pronunciation, especially of the vowels, is completely different. One of the most fascinating things to me about the bilingual brain is how early it separates different languages. I almost feel like I can see her mind sorting and categorizing as we read together in our two languages.
It never crossed my mind to not teach them to read in two languages at once, though I know this is a question in many multilingual households. We’re approaching this like we’ve approached everything: a little research (here’s an article from one of my favorite sources, Multilingual Living, on teaching bilingual children to read) mixed with following our kids’ leads (They are interested in books, we read to them. They show interest in words, we help them to decipher them. etc.) and trying, always, to find that delicate balance between encouraging, sometimes strongly, and avoiding pushing so hard they end up resenting having to learn the language. I often say I’d rather them be mad at me now because I make them use their French than be mad at me when they are grown because I didn’t. In the back of my mind I wonder if I may want to hire a French tutor to fill in the gaps left by my husband and I. And to give myself a break from the pressure of teaching two languages.
The key for me, always, is to make it fun. Find great books. Follow their lead, follow their interests. Laugh together, be goofy together. With a lot of effort and a little luck, I hope that one day my kids will have the gift of complete bilingualism.

4 thoughts on “Learning to read, two languages at a time

  1. Bilingualism is the gift that keeps on giving. I like what you said, that you would rather they be upset now for being pushed than later as adults. I know many adults who regret not being taught another language by their bilingual parents.

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