Bilingual Children Understand Written Languages Sooner Than Monolingual Children, Study Finds

May 12, 1997

Fluency in a Foreign Language Could Help Children Master Reading Faster

WASHINGTON -- When learning to read, many preschool age children recognize letters in alphabets (or characters in nonalphabet languages) long before they are able to read. Knowing a second language, according to the latest research on reading, can really help a child comprehend written languages faster and possibly learn to read more easily. This finding is examined in the May issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) journal Developmental Psychology.

"Preschoolers who speak one language can usually recite the alphabet and spell their names but cannot read without the help of pictures. But bilingual preschoolers can read sooner because they are able to recognize symbolic relations between letters/characters and sounds without having visual objects," said psychologist Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., of York University and author of the new study.

The study examined 137 bilingual (French & English and Chinese & English) and monolingual (English) four and five year olds, all of whom came from literacy-rich environments including the bilingual children in both languages. The children were given two word tests that assessed their "understanding of the symbolic function of the letters." Furthermore, "children who go beyond treating letters as visual objects and recognize the symbolic relation between letters and sounds are on their way to learning how to read," said Dr. Bialystok.

The first test involved showing the children a card with a word printed on it which was placed under a picture of the named object. The children were asked what the word was after the card was moved to another picture. The bilingual children scored twice as high on this test as the monolingual children.

"The bilingual children knew that the written form carried the meaning and that the picture was irrelevant. They understood this principle equally in both languages too. And, even though all the children's scores improved with age, the four-year-old bilinguals were better at this than the five-year-old monolinguals," said Dr. Bialystok.

The second test involved asking the children to judge a word's length when the object size was the same and when it conflicted with the word size. When the word was long and the picture was big, no difference was found between the monolingual and the bilingual children. But, "the Chinese-English speaking children scored higher when the length of the word conflicted with the object size. Figuring out the rules for two different kinds of writing systems helped them understand each system better," said Dr. Bialystok.

"There are definite advantages to being bilingual when you are learning to read, providing that children are exposed to stories and literacy in both languages," Dr. Bialystok. "By four, bilingual children have progressed more than monolingual children in understanding general properties of the symbolic function of written language. By five, they are more advanced than monolinguals and bilinguals who have learned only one writing system in understanding specific representation properties, even in English."

"Learning a foreign language at a very young age can clearly benefit children's reading abilities and hopefully parents and educators can help to provide the resources for this to happen," said Dr. Bialystok.


Article: "Effects of Bilingualism and Biliteracy on Children's Emerging concepts of Print" by Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., York University, in Developmental Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 3.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D., can be reached at 416-736-5119 or

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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