Biliteracy is the state of being literate in two or more languages. To be biliterate has a stronger and more specified connotation than the claim of being simply bilingual. This is because the term 'literate' indicates the subject is not only able to communicate verbally in a second language, but is also able read and write successfully in this second language.
When discussing bilingualism the extent of a persons fluency in each language is in question. A limited bilingual person may only have the ability to communicate orally in both languages in limited social situations. While a more proficient bilingual person will speak, read and write both languages as if they were equally the person's "mother tongue". With the term biliteracy it is understood that fluency in both reading and writing are present.
Biliteracy in the development of academic success in school for language minority students. Research strongly supports the notion that biliteracy is the prime driver of academic success in school for language minority students in bilingual education programmes. (Cummins,2000; Baker, 2006; may, Hill & Tiakiwai, 2004; McCaffery & Tuafuti, 2003; Tuafuti & McCaffery 2005).
Within the area of biliteracy there is debate as to the best way to help children become biliterate. Should biliteracy be developed simultaneously through and language 1 and language 2 at the same time or first in one language and later the second? One theory, often claimed to answer this question is the Minimum Threshold and Interdependence Hypothesis proposed by Jim Cummins, a well known researcher and writer in the field. A popular misunderstanding of Cummin's theory and writings is that to avoid a negative impact on the cognitive development of the child, the second language should not be introduced until the child has an achieved a mastery of the first language. This misunderstanding of Cummins' position and research findings is widespread and is often used to justify delaying or not introducing regional or world languages until very late in elementary education.
Cummins (2000, p.20-25 and Chap 7) replies to this misunderstanding in "Language Power and Pedagogy" and says language programmes can begin in both literacies from an early age(p.22; rather a first literacy must not be abandoned before before it is fully developed but this does not mean that a second language and literacy cannot be started.)Cummins says, "My personal belief is that there are significant advantages in aiming to have children reading and writing in both languages by at least grade two"(p.25).
The findings that immigrant children to the United States who had two to three years of schooling in their native country before moving had better academic records in the United States support the view that both language 1 and language 2 literacy and development are important determiners of successful literacy development (Cummins. p.23) Such conclusions are now supported by Colin Baker in his recent (2006) 4th edition classic, "Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism."
Carole Edelsky and Nancy Hornberger (2003) are writers who have found that starting with language acquisition in local languages and then adding the English component, does not lead to an interference in English literacy. Instead, they found that cultivating native language literacy supports the acquisition of literacy in the second language.
This does raise the question then of how to best provide for and teach bilingual students. The evidence from research is that most variations of the balance between the two literacies do work successfully. Secondly that the key elements needed are the explicit goal of developing full biliteracy, adequate instructional time to do so over an 8 year programme, and instructional strategies that show students how to use and transfer strategies (CALP) from one literacy to the other.(Baker, 2006; Cummins, 2000; McCaffery & Tuafuti,2003. Much can be learned from Dual Language/Two Way bilingual programmes about these matters. (Lindholm-Leary,2001).
In the book "The Best for Our Children", María de la Luz Reyes, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, discusses the concept of spontaneous biliteracy. She defines it as the acquisition of literacy in two languages (in her case Spanish and English) without having formal instruction in both. She describes the case studies of four different girls who came from different bilingual backgrounds but were all enrolled in the same bilingual program. In this program the girls received literacy instruction in only one language, their native language. For two of the girls this was Spanish, and for the other two it was English. For other subjects, such as math and science, they received instruction in both languages. In addition, in their classroom they were exposed to both Spanish and English, and they were able to interact with each other.
What she found was that at the end of second grade, after following the girls for three years, they had all made huge strides in the reading and writing of their native language in which they were being directly instructed, AND in reading and writing of their second language. All of the girls were above grade level in their native language, and three of the four girls were at or above grade level in their second language - although they were higher in their native language than in their second language. These girls had received formal literacy instruction in only one language, and yet they had been able--on their own--to apply it to their second language to make strides in reading and writing.
María de la Luz Reyes identified two main factors contributing to spontaneous bilingualism.
By being in a classroom where there is exposure to both languages, and respect for both languages, the bicultural identity of the student is legitimized. Instead of being forced to choose between the two the child is free to explore both, and in that way improve language abilities in both.
In social play children put themselves in roles where they see adults, trying to act and be more grown-up. In this play setting the students were able to take risks with their language usage. In this time they were able to push each other to use their second language, as well as help each other feel more confident in that usage. This played a large role in their development of spontaneous bilingualism.
From María de la Luz Reyes findings in the book “The Best for our Children” it is clear that bilingualism in children, when introduced at a young age, can aid cognitive development and so improve level of learning during a child’s schooling years.
The problem facing many parents however is how to best introduce a second language.
Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association, says “It's clear to most of us that speaking multiple languages is a good thing, and learning multiple languages in the early years is a nearly effortless means to fluency. “ Ms Bosemark, herself mother to two bilingual children, knows firsthand the benefits multilingual children have when in early education.
Studies show learning languages as a child allows the brain to absorb them readily, but later it has to actively find space and this becomes much harder work. Learning a second language as a small child is not the difficult process it becomes after about the age of 10 or 12. Research has shown that after this age the brain handles language differently. Learning two or more languages early can also help a child's development in their mother tongue. Multilingual children are proven to have superior reading and writing skills in both languages, as well as better analytical, social, and academic skills.
Ms Bosemark says, “Parents who are themselves involved in high level careers are already well aware that professional prospects abound for those with fluency in multiple languages... And once your child knows two languages, the move to three, or four is much easier“
Vanessa Cook, founder of London based Bilingual Nanny Agency Little Ones, says children benefit greatly from learning two or more languages. “Our clients want to give their children a head start in life, both mentally and culturally. The parents we work with are both multi and monolingual. The monolingual parents understand the difficulty of learning a second language as a teenager or adult and wish to offer their children the gift of a second language from a young age. So the child is actually able be bilingual.
Mrs Cook says, “It is very unlikely that a monolingual adult will ever become perfectly bilingual if choosing to learn at language. I know this first hand. By teaching a child a second language from a very young age the child will speak with a correct accent and communicate in colloquialisms an adult learner would take years to master. “ But to become actively bilingual children need exposure to the different languages about one third of their waking hours. Ms Cook says a bilingual nanny or nursery can offer this. “If you are passionate and indeed serious about raising your children bilingual, but you are not yourself bilingual, a good place to start is a bilingual nanny.
“A Spanish nanny, for example, will associate with other Spanish speaking carers and their children and therefore expose your child to conversation in the language being learned. The child will also find peers to communicate in the language with thereby encouraging use of the language.”
Attending a one hour weekly Spanish class may mean the child understands the language, but they probably won't be able to express themselves proficiently in the language. This however is not a negative point. Understanding is half way to full communication, and if a child can understand a language, later in life they will far more easily learn to speak the language.
Tips for parents & and the bilingual childcare giver to help children learn two languages: • Always talk a lot to the children in your care in your language. Even when the children are too little to understand you should talk to them about what you are doing when you are cooking, writing, shopping etc...
• Teach the children nursery rhymes and songs in your own language.
• Tell the children stories in your language. Encourage the children to join in with the story telling.
• Talk to your children about what they did at playgroup, nursery or school in your language. If they use words in their mother tongue repeat what they have said using your language.
• Don't be frightened to use your language in public. If some people don't like it, it is their problem not yours.
• Make sure that the children know the names of the different languages they speaks.
• Check that the children know which language has which name.
• Take the children to concerts, plays, poetry readings, films etc. where they will hear people using your language.
• Try to make sure the children play with children who speak the same languages as they do.
• Find out if there are playgroups/nurseries in your area where your language is used. The children might benefit from attending classes there.
• Try to find books written in your language for the children. If there aren't any try to make your own or ask someone else to help you.
• Make the children feel proud of speaking your language – having friends who speak the same languages will encourage this greatly.
• Don't laugh or tease the children because of their accent or if they make mistakes – children learning one language make the same mistakes.
Taken from Bilingual Children: a guide for parents and carers, written by Foufou Savitzky, London Language and Literacy Unit, South Bank University, 1994.
Biliteracy Teachers' Self-Reflections of Their Accounts While Student Teaching Abroad: Speaking from "the Other Side"
Jan 01, 2007; Introduction In an article published in the International Education Journal entitled "Beyond Educational Tourism: Lessons Learned...