The way bilingual people read is conditioned by the languages they speak, according to researchers at Spain’s Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language (BCBL), who found that the languages spoken by bilingual people (when they learned to read in two languages at the same time) affect their reading strategies and even the cognitive foundations that form the basis for the capacity to read.
“Monolingual speakers of transparent [phonetic] languages—where letters are pronounced the same independently of the word they are included in, such as Basque or Spanish—have a greater tendency to use analytical reading strategies, where they read words in parts,” according to Marie Lallier, one of the authors of the article, “Cross-Linguistic Transfer in Bilinguals Reading in Two Alphabetic Orthographies: The grain size accommodation hypothesis,” published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
On the other hand, speakers of opaque languages, where the sounds of letters differ depending on the word (for example English or French) are more likely to use a global reading strategy. In other words, they tend to read whole words to understand their meaning.
Researchers also observed that bilingual people who learned to read two languages at the same time do not read the same way as monolingual speakers; rather, they follow a different pattern which had not previously been described—a contamination effect takes place between the two reading strategies in speakers of two languages. Therefore, a person learning to read in Spanish and in English will have a greater tendency toward a global strategy, even when reading in Spanish, than a monolingual Spanish speaker.
When reading in English, by contrast, they will tend toward a more analytical strategy (reading by parts) than monolingual English speakers, due to “contagion” from Spanish. “The brains of bilingual people adjust themselves in accordance with what they learn, applying the strategies needed to read in one language to their reading in the other language,” Lallier adds. This discovery could have implications for teachers of Spanish-speaking English language learners.
As well as offering a better understanding of how bilingual populations learn to read and what types of strategies are most advisable to help pupils learn based on the languages they know, the discovery could also help in the diagnosis and assessment of dyslexia and other problems with reading.
The languages a child knows are therefore determinants for identifying potential disorders, as this essential information would explain certain mistakes made when reading. “Our experience with languages modulates our capacity to read. This should be taken into account when teaching bilingual children to read and if any reading problems, such as dyslexia, should appear. We need to establish specific scales for the diagnosis of dyslexia in bilingual people, because their circumstances are different,” the expert concludes.
Lallier, M., Carreiras, M. “Cross-Linguistic Transfer in Bilinguals Reading in Two Alphabetic Orthographies: The grain size accommodation hypothesis.” Psychon Bull Rev 2017 Apr 12. doi: 10.3758/s13423-017-1273-0.