Why your child should learn to read in their 2nd language before their 1st

"Reading can help develop and safeguard 2nd language skills over a lifetime." -Dr. Naomi Steiner, M.D., author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child 
“Language acquisition is a product of active, repetitive and complex learning. The child’s brain is learning and changing more during language acquisition in the first six years of life than during any other cognitive ability he is working to acquire.”-Dr. Bruce Perry, professor of Child Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital
 

The lesson we learned: start  learning to read as early as age 3

Why bother teaching your child to read the 2nd language at a young age? We are talking about starting as early as when they are 3!
 
Dr. Naomi Steiner and Susan Hayes , authors of “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child” summarized the immense value of reading for a bilingual child:
  • Reading is powerful. Written material is the cornerstone of learning any language. Some linguists believe that reading alone can lead to the acquisition of a language.
  • Reading offers an additional and complementary kind of language exposure.
  • Reading leads to increased vocabulary and better understanding, which in turn leads to greater facility and enjoyment when using the language.
  • Reading leads to higher level language skills.
  • Reading leads to increased cognitive benefits.
  • Reading can help develop and safeguard language skills over a lifetime.
I read Steiner and Hayes's book when I was pregnant with my first child Kai Kai. I had two takeaways: first, I should speak with my children in Chinese exclusively all the time or exclusively following a set schedule; second, they should learn to read and write in Chinese at some point.
 

What I didn’t take away from this book was: Is speaking to my children in their early years enough for them to become bilingual? When should they be taught to read in Chinese? …And how? 

Help! My child is losing his Chinese!  

Following Dr. Steiner’s One-Parent-One-Language rule to raise a bilingual child(one parent/caregiver always speaks one language to the child and the other parent/caregiver always speaks another), the moment when Kai Kai was born, I started speaking Mandarin Chinese with him. My parents spoke Chinese with him when they came from China to visit (although Sichuan Dialect is their native tone, I asked them to speak Mandarin 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) with Kai Kai). Kai Kai’s dad and his paternal relatives spoke English with him. Kai Kai started at a full-time English monolingual daycare when he was 10 months.

As soon as Kai Kai began to mutter his first words, both Chinese and English flew out of him. When he was a toddler, he conversed in Mandarin with me and English with his dad. We were celebrating: Yes, we got it! Piece of cake! Kai Kai was bilingual! 

Despite my continuing to speak Chinese and read Chinese books to him, Kai Kai gradually stopped responding in Chinese at around age 5. As if a switch was turned off, when his English reading skills exploded in kindergarten, his Chinese withered. I started to worry that his Chinese vocabulary was inadequate to express his sophisticated mind and fulfill his growing curiosity. I found myself relying more and more on English to communicate with him. The more English I spoke, the less Chinese he spoke. Kai Kai was getting busier with afterschool activities and sports. We read fewer Chinese books in the evenings...

The downward spiral of his Chinese language fluency continued. I can’t tell you how many times I made a mental note to myself: from this moment on, I must speak Chinese with Kai Kai and read Chinese books with him exclusively! Then how many times I broke that promise in frustration when facing a child looking distant and responding in English! 

We sent 6-year-old Kai Kai to a 2-hour community Chinese class on the weekend. I liked that he started to have classmates, weekly Chinese homework and a curriculum for us to cling on to. But the pace of the curriculum was slow, and the curriculum lacked a vigorous reading program. Our limited Chinese book reading at home dawdled over the same simple story books he read when much younger.

Kai Kai’s major Chinese engagement became mom’s speaking simple, everyday conversations (eating, going-to-bed, time-to-do-your-homework…) and the weekend Chinese class routine. I occasionally found some Chinese movies and animations to play. But as a traveling, working mom, I struggled to find the time to constantly look for resources. There is so much stuff on the Internet, it's confusing and time consuming to find suitable materials. Instead of finding the energy and time to tackle the root cause—motivation, interest and lack of stimulating reading and multimedia materials—I walked the familiar route, nagging him to respond to me in Chinese and keep up with his Chinese class homework. 

As I pushed forward, Kai Kai pushed back: “Chinese is boring! I hate Chinese! Chinese is ruining my life! I would rather be put in a time out than studying Chinese!” 

If you have a school age child who is learning Chinese, this story may sound familiar. If you have a younger child who is speaking Chinese now, it might help to think about what you can do to sustain his or her Chinese learning vigor after elementary school starts. I ask myself what could I have done differently to help Kai Kai? How can we close the gap between his English and Chinese proficiency (while he is reading Harry Potter in English, how could I get him to love reading a Chinese story as elementary as the Wolf and the Three Pigs)? 

After a lot of searching and researching, I am convinced: it is important to build children’s second language reading proficiency before he becomes a prominent reader in his dominant language. In other words, before age 6, help your child become an intermediate reader in Chinese. 

This is exactly what we didn’t do with Kai Kai. I had no idea we missed the critical period for learning to read Chinese for Kai Kai when he was in preschool. Without an early foundation of vocabulary, eagerness and confidence in Chinese, it became harder and harder to kindle his motivation and love for Chinese. In his fascinating English world, Kai Kai was reading to learn. In his Chinese world, he was learning to read: repetition, memorization, homework, and disapproval from mom! The interest and proficiency gap between his English and Chinese kept widening. 

The benefit of developing second-language reading proficiency early on has been recognized by many experts including Dr. Oliver Tu and Dr. Betty Chou. Both are parents-turned-educators successfully raising amazing Chinese and English bilingual children. And you don’t have to be a native Chinese speaker for your children to achieve that! 

In further posts, I will share how we helped Kai Kai, now 8 years old, rekindle his interest and skills in Chinese, and what we are doing to help Ming Ming, who turned 4 two weeks ago, embark on a journey to become an independent Chinese reader before kindergarten. Ming Ming already knows about 150 characters and is reading multiple books independently. With the lesson learned from his older brother's experience, I have made it a goal for Ming Ming to know 1000 Chinese characters and read chapter books before age 5. With his current progress, I am confident that the goal is realistic, and I would not be surprised if Ming Ming overachieves in a year’s time. 

Start teaching your 3- or 4-year-old to read in Chinese if he or she shows an interest in recognizing words. Help them discover this fascinating ability early on. 

Thanks for reading!

Happy learning,

Christine

 Reading can help develop and safeguard language skills over a lifetime. -Dr. Naomi Steiner, M.D. Author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child

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