Different levels of multilingualism
What is multilingualism? What is fluency? Actually, no clear-cut definition exists, only degrees of proficiency from rudimentary to native skills. Many parents don't have explicit goals, but here are some examples:
- "I want another language for my sons so they will be one step ahead in school."
- "We want to share the culture and heritage of our native country with our kids."
- "We'd like her to be able to play and talk to her cousins and Grandma when they visit."
- "Spanish is necessary if you're going to live in the USA, and the children may as well learn it now."
- "The best job opportunities are always for those who have can both speak and write in both languages."
- "We hope for her to be able to read and write in two of the three languages, but we'll see what happens."
What is fluency?
Most parents are satisfied if their child understands and speaks a foreign language, but fluency isn't something that's engraved in stone. It ranges from rudimentary knowledge to the level of a native speaker. There's also active vs. passive knowledge, and there are levels of partial literacy through to full literacy. To make this clearer, we have divided verbal and literary skills into five groups:
Verbal skills in the second language
- Passive -- understands spoken language, but isn't able to reply.
- Basic -- can speak and play with other children.
- Intermediate -- can speak with adults but is till behind monolingual peers.
- Advanced -- child speaks well enough to go to school in the minority language.
- Native -- Your child's ability to speak the language is indistinguishable from monolingual children of the same age.
Literary skills in the second language
- Passive -- Your child understands written language but is not able to write.
- Basic -- Your child can read but has only basic writing skills.
- Intermediate -- Your child can read and write well, but not as well as peers of the same age.
- Advanced -- Your child can read and write well enough to go to school in the minority language.
- Native -- Your child's ability to write is indistinguishable from monolingual children of the same age.
From verbal skills to literacy
Whether a child is monolingual or multilingual, poor literacy skills tend to make for poor academic results throughout the child's school life. Researchers have found that knowing the names of the letters in the alphabet is the best indicator of good literacy skills. But how do you interest your child in the alphabet? The trick is to make learning fun and wait until the child shows some interest himself.
For pre-school children, go with the flow. Some kids are naturally interested in letters. They treat them like a jigsaw puzzle that fits together and makes 'verbal pictures.' Other kids memorize whole words like pictographs and learn the phonetics in reverse, while some are completely disinterested, yet still become prolific readers as adults. Flashcards, refrigerator magnets, placemats, puzzles books, posters, and building blocks -- the list of alphabet products is endless. Try a few to see which ones your child responds to. Don't throw out the ones that aren't a hit right away though, save them for later, as your child will change during the course of development. Besides, your other children may have completely different preferences.
A good way to foster literacy skills in any language is to read books together. Just make sure the books you choose are age appropriate with the right amount of printed text, ideally with large letters and with engaging illustrations to keep the discussion going.
Factors to consider
For bilinguals and multilinguals, reading and writing is really no different than it is for monolinguals, although additional time is required to become proficient within a dual or triple system. With the same alphabet, such as with Finnish and Swedish, it's actually not even that time-consuming. When the alphabet is the same, many parents leave teaching reading and writing to the school. Then, once the child knows how to read and write in the community language, she can start with the minority language. Related alphabets such as the Roman, Russian, and Greek systems are similar enough for a relatively easy transition. Even languages like Arabic, Urdu, Sanskrit, Thai, and Korean all have only between 25 and 45 symbols. Pictograph systems like Chinese or Japanese require the most effort because there are thousands of symbols.
If you are considering multi-literacy skills, consider some of these elements before setting the goals:
- What is practical?
- Why does my child need it?
- How do I motivate my child?
- Can I help with homework in that language throughout my child's education?
- Are there classes available in the language?
- What are the similarities between the languages and the alphabets used?
Most children are literate in their community language only, and their schools are responsible for teaching those skills. If you limit the literacy skills to the community language, rest assured, there is a strong and positive correlation between foreign language understanding and how well a child will learn to read and write -- even if only in one language.
Tips from The National Institute for Literacy
Although the National Institute for Literacy focuses on monolinguals, they have a very useful checklist on how to track your child's progress. Preschool and kindergarten teachers set the stage for your child to learn to read with some critical early skills. First, second, and third grade teachers then take up the task of building the literacy skills that they will use every day for the rest of their lives. As a parent, you can help by understanding what teachers are teaching and by asking questions about your child's progress and the classroom reading program.
You can also help your children become readers. Learning to read takes practice, more practice than children get during the school day. Here's what a quality reading program should look like at school and how you can support that program through activities with your children.