The Science of the Bilingual Reading Brain

Alexandra Guilamo explores what science says about transfer and translanguaging

AI (Artificial Intelligence) concept.

“We are plural. The I is an illusion: bilinguals know this, they are hybrid like the words inside them, surprised halfway on the translation path.” (Jurgenson, 2014, p. 115).

Yes, we have always been and will always be plural. That is, until we are taught to divide who we are and what we know. Until we have been diminished to only those words from one language inside us. Yet Jurgenson’s quote highlights not just a theoretical and philosophical stance but a body of evidence that has been confirmed through science. The science of the bilingual reading brain.

What Science Says about Transfer

Transfer is “the ability to directly apply one’s previous learning to a new setting or problem” (Schwartz and Bransford, 1998, p. 68). We see everyday examples of transfer when we learn what a stop sign is and recognize it in another country where we can’t actually read the word stop itself. We see transfer in the way we still know what a chair is regardless of the material used to make it. Yet, for emergent bilinguals and dual language (DL) students developing biliteracy, transfer serves a more important role. In fact, transfer is an indispensable part of the formula for developing biliteracy: oracy x transfer x linguistic comprehension x word recognition = biliteracy (or O x T x C x D = R2)
(Guilamo, 2021).

Why is transfer a biliteracy nonnegotiable? Research has confirmed that when we use cross-linguistic transfer, it not only enhances but accelerates reading ability (Dijksra et al., 1998; Gottardo et al., 2021; Schwartz et al., 2007). And accelerating reading ability is critical for DL programs for two key reasons. First, it balances the strong relationship that exists between bilingual students’ proficiency in a language and the development of phonological awareness in that language. The earlier students are in their language-learning journey, the greater the impact on their phonological awareness development. I have always understood this relationship to underscore the challenge that emergent bilinguals and DL students have in early word recognition. How can a student confirm if they’ve accurately decoded a word if the word is unknown to them? By transferring vocabulary, phonemes, language structures, and so on that students already know, educators can accelerate language development and, by extension, reading ability.

The second reason transfer should be a biliteracy nonnegotiable is that when emergent bilingual and DL students are explicitly taught to transfer what is applicable, they free up the time and cognitive resources to develop an understanding of English phonology, since it has a more complex orthography and morphology system requiring more processing skills than Spanish (Dijksra et al., 1998; Guilamo, 2021). For the many Spanish/English DL programs in the US, this reason is vital. It represents the countless missed opportunities that rob us of limited instructional minutes. For example, too many programs expect DL students to learn the entire alphabet in Spanish and then again in English even though the two are nearly identical. Why do students need to learn the alphabet in English if they have already learned it in Spanish? It is the different letter–sound relationships that students must be able to distinguish, discriminate, produce, and manipulate. And learning how these relationships are different from the ones they already know requires time and cognitive resources (two things that get squandered when we reteach things students have already learned).

We must be purposefully disciplined with our time if DL students are to achieve equity, bilingualism, biliteracy, and academic success in two languages. If all standards were taught in Spanish and then repeated in English, we would need a 14-hour school day. I don’t know too many educators lining up to do that. At worst, emergent bilingual and DL programs need to apply students’ previous learning from one program language to the other as a matter of survival. At best, we must use transfer to affirm identities and empower critical thinkers, pattern finders, and intentional language users.

Scientific Evidence for Using Translanguaging to Facilitate Transfer

A closely related debate involves translanguaging. Translanguaging refers to how bilinguals use their funds of knowledge and full language repertoires to exist, to make meaning, to interact with others, and to be successful in school (García, 2017).
This working definition doesn’t give language proficiency levels or state standards the power to define how language is used to exist, make meaning, interact with others, and master content.

It empowers emergent bilingual and DL students to understand, define, and use their linguistic resources and knowledge as powerful accelerators for their success in school and life. So, what evidence does the science of the bilingual reading brain provide for how translanguaging gives students a biliteracy advantage and facilitate cross-lin guistic transfer in particular?

Remember the formula for developing biliteracy—O x T x C x D = R2 (Guilamo, 2021)? Well, decoding (or, more accurately, word recognition) includes phonological awareness and sight recognition (Scarborough, 2001). Word recognition requires students to match graphemic (visual) and phonemic (sound) information with increasing automaticity.

Especially in the case of Spanish and English, there are a plethora of grapheme and phoneme relationships that are the same or similar across both languages—they are transferrable (Schwartz et al., 2007). However, just because they are transferrable doesn’t mean that they will be transferred.

The bilingual brain is so powerful that when DL students are taught to leverage graphemic–phonemic relationships within and across languages, they are able to make within- and cross-language matches with increasing automaticity (Harm and Seidenberg, 2004; Mechelli et al., 2004; Melby-Lervåg and Lervåg, 2011). But that transfer requires educators to take translanguaging stances, translanguaging spaces, and translanguaging pedagogical approaches that see, hear, and use students’ full linguistic repertoires as worthy of transfer and application (García, 2017). In other words, if educators don’t care that students have learned something already (like the alphabet as mentioned above), students won’t even get the opportunity to apply it in the partner language.

Linguistic comprehension, on the other hand, includes background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge (Scarborough, 2001). The development of linguistic comprehension depends on short-term and long-term memories (Ordóñez et al., 2002; Quinn, 2001).

For emergent bilinguals, these memories will reflect many interactions across languages and many experiences from diverse contexts, communities, and countries. Even before a single lesson is delivered, emergent bilingual and DL students know about many of the concepts they will encounter in class. They have knowledge about geometric shapes, democracy, plants, making meaning, and more. They walk in the door with this knowledge because they’ve lived it. They’ve seen geometric shapes from the places and foods in their communities that exist in those shapes. They’ve developed phonemic principles, vocabulary, and literacy knowledge from saying their own names and the many family stories that have been told over the years. The funds of knowledge acquired throughout students’ lives hold powerful academic currency when they are used as hooks that turn life’s lessons into academic concepts that can be applied, or transferred, to the classroom. These hooks provide a biliteracy advantage when DL students are taught how to use what they know as the context needed for meaning, especially when they are still early in their language-learning journey.

These two defining characteristics of translanguaging (the desire to leverage students’ full linguistic repertoires and their funds of knowledge) serve as the conditions and prerequisites for transfer. The desire and willingness to acknowledge and use what our students know matter. Sometimes we hear educators say that emergent bilinguals come to school “knowing nothing.” However, I have yet to meet an emergent bilingual student raised without words, raised without a single experience, raised in an empty void of nothingness. But this belief that emergent bilinguals bring nothing of value does prevent students from connecting and transferring what they actually know to a new (or academic) setting (Stefanakis, 2000).

When DL students get to use their full linguistic repertoires and funds of knowledge, DL educators can more accurately determine what to teach, what to transfer, and how to allow students to be secure in the powerful learning that is taking place. But when the principles and practices of the monolingual reading brain prevent DL teachers from doing so, we often find that the “developmental patterns… in speech discrimination, speech production, and intra-word segmentation… [still] reflected characteristics of the [emergent bilingual’s] first language. In other words, differences… [in] second language [reading ability and language development actually mirrored] patterns of phonological development that resembled those of children with speech impairment[s]” (Genesee et al., 2006).

Science-Based Recommendations for Transfer and Translanguaging

So, what can educators do to leverage translanguaging and transfer in ways that reflect the science of the bilingual reading brain?

  • Explicitly teach those sounds that are unique to English by contrasting both partner languages. Explicitly transfer those sounds that are similar in both partner languages by explaining and demonstrating the critical feature, rule, or pattern to be transferred side by side.
  • Provide consistent opportunity and scaffolded literacy tasks for students to meaningfully engage that integrate the new feature, rule, or pattern into their daily literacy behaviors.
  • Use the content vocabulary during literacy centers to identify which are cognates and which part is the same or different across the pair.
  • Have students transform genres within and across languages (e.g., changing poems to stories) using diverse text types: primary sources, dialogue, social media posts, interviews, ads, emails, postcards, texts.
  • Leverage bilingual books and bilingual classroom libraries.
  • Create multilingual word walls and multilingual, student-generated picture dictionaries (students can use the bilingual books they’re reading from the bilingual classroom libraries to guide what words they need to include in their dictionaries).
  • Have teachers collaboratively plan and design scaffolds, literacy strategies, and key vocabulary lists so that the applicability, or
  • transfer, is more visual, immediate, and concrete.
  • Have partner language teachers or general education and bilingual teachers intentionally coordinate who will teach new content and skills that must be learned and who will transfer that learning into the partner language (and how).

As a DL educator, I do not dispute a need for structured instruction for word recognition and linguistic comprehension. But I also cannot refute the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that confirms a need for structured oracy and transfer. Without it, the other two components are insufficient in an emergent bilingual and DL context. Have the scientists who’ve researched the monolingual reading brain looked at how bilingual brains excel? I don’t know. But the brain images are there if you’re willing to find them (Olulade et al., 2016).

References are availalbe at https://www.languagemagazine.com/reference-science-bilingual-brain/.

Alexandra Guilamo is a dual language expert, author, keynote speaker, and chief equity and achievement officer at TaJu Educational Solutions (a company dedicated to professional development, coaching, and technical support for DL and bilingual programs). Visit www.tajulearning.com or follow Alexandra @TajuLearning on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.