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Why some bilingual children may do better than others at school

Research shows that the two languages of bilingual children interact. © Shutterstock/ Monkey Business Images
Research shows that the two languages of bilingual children interact. © Shutterstock/ Monkey Business Images

Some bilingual children could find it harder to keep up than others, researchers believe, because one language can affect the other.

The EU-funded BIRD project looked at children growing up speaking Basque and another language – Spanish or French. It found that those learning Basque and Spanish made quicker progress in reading new words in Basque than those who were learning to read Basque and French. These two groups of children were matched for the age of acquisition of their languages, the proficiency at speaking and understanding Basque and the other language, and matched for age and non-verbal IQ.

‘We tested all the kids in Basque and found that the Basque-Spanish speaking kids develop their reading skills faster than the Basque-French speaking kids do,’ said Dr Marie Lallier, who received Marie Curie Action funding to lead the study at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL).

Basque is not linguistically related to either of the other languages and Dr Lallier’s research found the crucial difference that affected reading ability was in the nature of the children’s other language.

Basque has what is called a shallow orthography: it is written largely as it is spoken, so once children learn the correspondence between the sounds and the characters, they are able to read pretty much anything. In Spanish, the correspondence between sounds and letters is also largely unvarying.

But as any student of French quickly finds, this is far from the case in the language of Molière: each letter can represent several different sounds, depending on the surrounding letters, or sometimes simply the word itself.

‘The more similar the two languages are (in terms of their orthography), the faster children will learn to read.’

Dr Marie Lallier, coordinator of the BIRD research project

Children learning to read French take longer, and have to make more effort, to learn the correspondence between the complex written forms and the multiple possible sounds.

While it might be expected that this would make learning to read French itself a slower process, the surprise from Dr Lallier’s research was that it also affected how quickly the children learnt to read in their other language.

The Spanish-Basque speaking children also quickly develop good phonological skills – the ability to play with or manipulate the sounds of their language. They made more rapid progress than the Basque-French speaking children.

‘This project has shown that the two languages of bilingual children interact. This is across the board for all the skills they need to learn to read a language. And the more similar the two languages are (in terms of their orthography), the faster children will learn to read,’ she explained.

Future research plans include looking at the reason for this connection between the two languages, and how the oral language ability of bilingual children acquired before they learn to read affects the way they develop their reading skills. And Dr Lallier also aims to look into how bilingualism affects dyslexia in children at risk from the condition.

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