Multilingual Learning - Reading in 3 Languages

November 07, 2012

reading books in 3 languages- multilingual literacy advantages

One of the hardest things about raising a multilingual child is teaching literacy and many parents of bilingual or trilingual kids, just give up when it comes to second language literacy because it is hard work for many years and there is only so much time in a day. This is true even for parents who speak the second language as their native tongue and even more so in a difficult written languages like Mandarin ( despite tutoring or going to Chinese school in USA).

Speaking another language is one thing ( and fluency levels really vary when someone says they speak a language), but reading and writing well in that language, is a whole other thing. Multilingual and multiliterate are two very different things and the latter is much harder to achieve. Raising a reader helps greatly in so many areas.

Since it is hard to raise a fluent bilingual or multilingual child even when the parent is a native speaker ( and many give up along the way), you can imagine how much harder this is for monolingual parents.

"One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood." Pinker ( MIT Linguist)


So why bother?

First, because gaining language as a child is the best and easiest time to do it and gives all kinds of advanages that have nothing to even do with the language.

Also to know a language is truly the only way to know and understand another culture. We feel like it is great training in peace for our world, because it expands one's world view and understanding.

Can you image what it would be like to have a very limited vocabularly in English ( or your first language)  and not be able to really read or write, learn from books or even a newspaper?

How much better can one know a culture if you can read their great literature?

"When children continue to develop their abilities in two or more languages throughout their primary school years, they gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. They have more practice in processing language, especially when they develop literacy in both, and they are able to compare and contrast the ways in which their two languages organize reality. More than 150 research studies conducted during the past 35 years strongly support what Goethe, the German philospoher, once said: The person who knows only one language does not truly know that language. " Dr. Jim Cummins


We ran into fluency challenges when our daughter was just two. DaVinci's Spanish sounded great to me when we visited Mexico and he could get what ever we needed, but to his father who spoke only Spanish the first 6 years of his life ( but never in DaVinci's home growing up), he thought it was very funny that anyone would consider him a Spanish speaker.

I got straght A's in Spanish in school ( along with my A's in French and Latin) but compared to my Spanish he looked like a genius. So fluency level is often in the eye of the beholder and can be deceiving.

By the time our child was two her Spanish was already much, much better than her fathers because we exposed her to native speakers ( yet his role was extremely important up to that point and still is). He also was reading Spanish baby books to her in the womb and from birth, which enriched her greatly, but his fluency and literacy challenges in Spanish, meant we had to find other ways around this problem.


Davinci is a good example of someone who has the basics of a language down, but because of those many constraints, is very limited in his reading and writing ability with his Spanish. Speaking a language and literacy are very connected, so the stronger one's language is, the easier it is to learn reading and writing in any language.

Most experts agree that with bilingual or multilingual kids, it is important to start reading in the strongest language, as one continues to build the second or third languages. Since Mozart taught herself to read in English at two, this worked out well for us. Her English reading and writing was very well established before we started with Spanish reading and writing when she was 5 ( and entered a Spanish school at just turned 6). We didn't really start Mandarin reading and writing until she was 9.

DaVinci ( and other native speakers) continued to read to her in Spanish, and we did even less with the Mandarin, but we focused just on improving the oral communication levels and building vocabulary through just using them both daily.

"The truth of the matter is that about 99% of teaching is about making the student interested in the material. Then the other 1% has to do with your methods." Noam Chomsky


Our child would never be such an advanced reader and writer in Spanish and Mandarin, without the help we have gotten by dipping into foreign schools which has allowed her to learn literacy in them just as the natives do ( as well as being immersed).  As monolingual parents, we just didn't have the skills for this and it takes years of daily hard work to build this kind of literacy fluency ( which can be a downside to unschooling or homeschooling alone if the parents are not fully literate in the 2nd or 3rd languages ,thus why we combine it with worldschooling. )

You can tell by the books that she is reading, that she is at three different levels of literacy with her three dominant languages. She has always been off-the-charts in English reading ability ( was reading Harry Potter on her own at 4, tested at a 10th grade level at 6 etc) and that is her preferred language to read and write in.

She is also excellent in Spanish reading and writing, having gone to a school in Spain from first through fourth grade. Since she can read at a Harry Potter level in it, I think that is good enough and she can add what ever else she wants to later in life if she feels a need. She is proficient enough that she could easily do college work in Spanish if she wanted to and most people mistake her for a native speaker.

"Learning to speak another language means taking one's place in the human community. It means reaching out to others across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Language is far more than a system to be explained. It is our most important link to the world around us. Language is culture in motion. It is people interacting with people" Sandra Savignon


On a scale from 1 to 5, Mandarin is considered a level 5 language, one of the most difficult and this is primarily because of the reading and writing. Speaking basic Mandarin is not really hard, but even for the Chinese, teaching literacy is a challenge and they take longer and work harder to master it in school.

Thus, Mandarin remains Mozart's weakest languge, but she is making great progress ( and some would even consider her fluent now). The primary reason we are going to China this week is to increase her language ability in Mandarin.

For this month we will keep her away from all English ( unless she is translating something for us) and will be reporting on how this works out. I will also be writing more soon  on teaching/building literacy in three languages and what has worked best for us.


What questons do you have about teaching multilingual literacy to your children? What keys have you found that works best for your family? Where do you find the challenges?

One of the things we admire about the Chinese school system here in Penang, is they teach the kids to be fluent and totally literate in three languages ( Mandarin, Malay and English). ( I am also  impressed with the Scandinavian countries and Holland in Europe that promote deep multilingual literacy in several languages in school). That certainly gives them advantages to life and I wish all schools would teach more multilingual  language literacy from a young age. Adding literacy to second ( or more) language fluency adds so much.

"Language acquisition proceeds best when the input is not just comprehensible, but really interesting, even compelling; so interesting that you forget you are listening to or reading another language." Steven Krashen

This post was part of the April 2014 Raising Multilingual Children Carnival.

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As a parent with similar goals for my children, I agree with you, and I have learned a great deal from your writing in this post!

It is definitely not an easy task to keep your students engaged in a foreign language with just textbook materials. And I applaud you for your efforts and Mozart's accomplishments. Please keep us posted with her progress in her Mandarin study.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Aw, thanks so much Connie! Only a parent who is doing this understands fully, eh?

It's been a challenge, but worth the effort and she is doing really good with the Mandarin.

It's been great to hear so many great compliments on her Mandarin here in China and how she sounds like a local.

Adriana Zoder

So, so impressed with you lifestyle and your trilingual daughter. Just astonishing.

Adriana Zoder

This was quite a post. I learned so much. Thank you. I loved the quotes.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Adriana for your kind words! So happy you learned from our experience and enjoyed the quotes!!

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