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Charmain Kenner

Charmian Kenner works in the Education Dept at Goldsmiths University and specialises in the education of children with different backgrounds and came to talk to us on 15th March 2006. She also has an adult bilingual biliterate son (who now has a job that requires his English/Spanish).

Charmian explained her view that biliteracy is very important – it opens up opportunities in the two languages, but also helps children learn in general.

Her research is based on a one year long study of 6 children aged 5-6. All the children were already bilingual in either Arabic, Chinese or Spanish. All attended a community language school (i.e. all were learning the two writing systems simultaneously – although they had much more input in English being all week at school than they had in the other language -3 hours a week). All were children born here of first generation immigrants. She visited the children at primary school, the community language school and at home. She watched them and interviewed them and their parents and teachers. At school she also got the children to try to teach monolingual children how to write in their non-English language. The three languages were chosen because of their very different writing systems. Chinese does not have an alphabet but each word has its own character so that children need to learn literally thousands of characters. Arabic has an alphabet but is written right to left. Spanish is more similar to English in that it uses a similar alphabet.

Many of the parents attending the talk had delayed teaching their children to read or write in their non-English language for fear of confusing the child or holding them back at school. This could mean doing the alphabet with 2-3 year olds in English instead of the other language, or not encouraging children who were commenting on or reading words in the other language, and not actively giving them texts to read in that language. Charmian confirmed that children who learnt reading and writing one language first and then later added another could often do so very easily with very little help – particularly if the languages use the same alphabet.

However, there was no evidence that this was the best way to do it. When they start out learning they are completely open minded, they do not have any idea that there is a right way or wrong way to read text for example (left to right or right to left) and Charmian’s work shows that they can absorb the two systems at the same time and will sort them out in the way that bilingual children absorb and sort out the two languages.

As with speech they may be a period of mixing up the two systems, interference or code switching but that is soon sorted out. And as with speech, it is possible that for some children it will take them longer to learn to write two languages than one, but then they have the huge advantage of biliteracy (for ever if you can maintain it). If you wait long to introduce the second language the child may miss out in the mean time (on reinforcement of that language, may read below the age of their peers in that language etc). Some parents were worried that if they taught the alphabet in their other language, the child would be/get behind at school. Charmian acknowledged that it can be a problem if children may be pigeon holed but said anyway she is suggesting teaching both alphabets at the same time.

We discussed how teachers react to a period of confusion – which is really just the child learning – and Charmian recommended that parents forewarn teachers that they are learning in the two languages and ask the teachers to talk to the family if they have any concerns.

Charmian pointed out that most European languages have most letters of the alphabet in common, so children only need to learn them once. Where letters are used to represent different sounds, it can help to give the letter a name e.g. e in English and i in Spanish and French sound the same. But you can say “the i with the stick and the dot to make it clearer which one you are referring to. With Arabic and Spanish there is much less cross over so everything has to be learnt, but there is also less possibility for confusion because the systems are so different.

Charmian reminded that us that in India many children learn to read and write in three different languages and three different scripts before they are 7 without any problems. Children in nurseries i.e. 3-4 are aware of different scripts used at home and are interested in them. They were even more interested when examples of those scripts were brought into nursery and talked about there. Children are particularly interested in real life writing e.g. shopping lists, letters, crosswords, subtitles rather than exercises in books.

From the study, Charmian's findings were that:

  • Children can compare different writing systems and compare how they work
  • Learning two systems developed childrens' skills – visual skills i.e. noticing differences but also the different pencil control abilities need to write different scripts
  • Biliterate children live in simultaneous worlds.

She gave practical examples of each of these

The Chinese speaking children could produce pages of extremely accurate and extremely detailed characters using six or more strokes at precise angles and precise curves (very surprising compared to the standard of writing produced by most monolingual children of this age).

Any form of writing includes learning shared skills e.g. decoding, noticing differences and children benefit from the additional input on this.

Arabic speaking 5 year old children not only knew that Arabic books start at what would be the end of an English book, but knew that their English classmates would not know and would need to have this explained.

When she gave a Spanish speaking child wooden letters and asked her to sort them, the child asked if she wanted them “a, b, c, d, e ..” (English system) or “a, e, i, o, u” (Spanish system).

The Arabic speaking children insisted that the monolingual children wrote in the right direction – even if the writing they produced looked ok otherwise.

The children could explain in English to their classmates, things that they had been told in e.g. Spanish at the Spanish language school, showing that they had understood it.

Children would write in both languages e.g. a comment in Chinese and English on a picture – not necessarily a direct translation.

Children would use both systems if they did not know how to write what they wanted to in one system.

We have bought Charmian's book Becoming Biliterate and members can borrow it

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