Sun, X., Zhang, K., Marks, R. A., Nickerson, N., Eggleston, R. L., Yu, C.-L., Chou, T.-L., Tardif, T., & Kovelman, I. (2022). What’s in a word? Cross-linguistic influences on Spanish–English and Chinese–English bilingual children’s word reading development. Child Development, 93(1), 84–100. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13666
The nature of reading has focused for the most part on monolingual readers of English. Much less work has focused on bilingual readers, and even less work has taken a cross-linguistic approach. Whereas the majority of children who learn English as a second language come from Spanish-speaking homes, there is a growing number of learners of English who speak other languages at home. Sun and colleagues chose to compare and contrast Spanish-English and Chinese-English bilingual children. Comparison of these two groups is of particular interest because each language maps sound to print in different ways. Spanish is very transparent, meaning that each letter can only be pronounced one way. Chinese is very opaque, in that writing does not map directly onto sounds. In fact, Chinese does not use an alphabet the way that Spanish and English do. This adds another interesting aspect in that Chinese-English bilinguals use two different ways to map meaning to sound. English is in-between Spanish and Chinese: not as transparent as Spanish, while at the same time more transparent than Chinese. Because Spanish is transparent, the authors hypothesized that bilinguals would use more information about the sounds of words to read. Chinese-English bilinguals, on the other hand, would use more word-level information because of their inability to sound out words in their native language. The authors’ main hypothesis was that each group would differ in their strategies for reading English words depending on the way they read in their native language.
A total of 283 children were tested. Of that number, 101 were English monolinguals, 96 were Spanish-English bilinguals, and 86 were Chinese-English bilinguals. All participants could read at grade-level in English. Ninety percent of the bilingual participants were also taught to read in their native language. Participants were given a set of language history questionnaires to confirm that they were placed in the appropriate language group. They were also given a number of measures that included phonological awareness, word reading proficiency, working memory, and morphological awareness tasks. Phonological awareness tasks focused on children hearing a word (e.g., “spider”) and omitting a sound (e.g., say “spider” without “der”). Morphological awareness tasks involved either modifying a word and inserting the new word into a sentence (e.g., modify “friendly” and complete this sentence: “She is my best ______.”) or taking two words to make a compound word (e.g. can “wheel” and “chair” be put together into a word?).
The results revealed differences between all three groups in terms of word reading, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and morphological awareness in English. English vocabulary was highest in monolinguals compared to the two bilingual groups. English word reading was highest in bilinguals compared to the monolingual group. English morphological awareness was highest in the monolingual group. However, phonological awareness was greatest in the bilingual groups.
The authors followed up this study by looking at the extent to which phonological awareness, vocabulary, and morphological awareness affected word reading in English. In monolinguals, scores on morphological and phonological awareness tasks predicted accuracy in word reading. However, the two bilingual groups differed from each other and from the monolingual group. In Chinese-English bilinguals, English vocabulary significantly predicted English word reading accuracy. In Spanish-English bilinguals, English phonological awareness predicted English word reading. Taken together, these results show that the way a native language is read leads to differences in reading in the second language.
The results also revealed the influence of phonological awareness in the home language on phonological awareness in English. However, there was no effect of morphological awareness in the home language on morphological awareness in English.
One of the limitations of this study was that both bilingual groups had lower vocabulary in English compared to monolinguals. Thus, some of the differences in the way in which phonological awareness, morphological awareness, and vocabulary predict reading in the bilingual groups may be due to differences in the level of vocabulary in English. The study used a cross-sectional approach and thus it is difficult to conclude that better ability on the awareness tasks or vocabulary will predict better reading in the future.
The authors found that the way in which a native language biases individuals to read may play a role in the strategies used to read in English. Of particular interest is that Chinese, which requires reading at the whole word level, leads to a greater influence of vocabulary on reading in English for that group. For Spanish-English bilinguals, the fact that the native language has a more direct mapping between print and sound results in this word-reading strategy carrying over to reading of English.
This study carries implications for reading in non-native populations. With the growing number of bilinguals who are entering the classroom, it is important to understand how reading in these populations differ from reading in monolinguals. By understanding these differences, it may help educators to adapt their methods to the needs of children from linguistically diverse backgrounds.