Not everyone who has dyslexia is particularly impaired in reading and writing in an additional language. This may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, but it is the conclusion I reached after having conducted several research studies and talked with parents and teachers in different countries.
One implication for schools worldwide may be that screening for reading difficulties should be available to all, not only in the mother tongue, but also in the language children use for school learning if it is not their native tongue, most immediately, English.
Can a second language be easier to read than one’s native language?
I started to wonder about literacy skills in a foreign language when I met with teachers and parents in Hong Kong. As a developmental psychologist, I embrace the idea that learning in one’s mother tongue is ideal. Thus, it came as quite a surprise when several parents told me they were switching their child from an excellent Hong Kong public school to an international school, i.e., from a school in which Chinese was used for teaching to one in which English was the medium of instruction. When I asked why, the reply was consistent: “Because Chinese is too hard.”
Those who have struggled to learn English might find this unbelievable. Yet Chinese is arguably the most difficult orthography to learn. Yes, German, Finnish, Icelandic, or other languages may have particularly challenging grammatical structures. But Chinese takes longer to learn to read and to write than any other script.
These complaints came particularly from families whose children had dyslexia. Some of the children with dyslexia in Chinese ended up performing better in English, their second, or even third, language.
Reading in two different languages may require different strategies
In a series of studies, our research group tested the extent to which Chinese children with reading difficulties in Chinese would also have reading difficulties in English. We found that the rate of overlap between reading difficulty in Chinese and in English in the same children was 32% in Hong Kong and 40% in Beijing, in representative samples of the two cities.
Furthermore, reading difficulties in Chinese and in English tend to be associated with different cognitive deficits. For example, Chinese children with dyslexia (in Chinese) tend to have particular difficulties with copying but relatively few problems with phonological awareness. In contrast, Chinese children with reading difficulties only in English tend to have pronounced difficulties with phonological awareness but no problems with copying. Such differences in cognitive profiles in children with reading difficulties in different scripts suggest that somewhat different skills and strategies might be required to read in different languages.
“Learning to read English requires that one make use of a variety of strategies, and learning multiple strategies may facilitate better reading.”
I have shared my observations with researchers, clinicians, and parents in Europe and found that some have had similar experiences with children they have worked with. Some children who had reading difficulties in their first languages of German, Finnish, or Icelandic seemed to do relatively well in reading of English.
In a 2016 book on multilingualism and dyslexia, Professor Linda Siegel, reflecting on her research on children from various linguistic backgrounds learning to read English in Canada, went so far as to argue that having to learn to read in another language could be of benefit to those with dyslexia.
Learning to read English requires that one make use of a variety of strategies, and learning multiple strategies may facilitate better reading. This idea is in conflict with some who argue that those with dyslexia should not be required to learn additional languages.
Different tips for different scripts?
Certainly, for some with dyslexia, learning to read and to write in multiple languages is a struggle, but not for all. When language-learning is motivating and useful, all children, including those with dyslexia, can optimize their strategies for doing so. At the same time, there are other children either with or without dyslexia for whom learning an additional language may be a particular burden. When additional language facility is required for learning of other subjects such as science or history, this is particularly problematic.
“When language-learning is motivating and useful, all children, including those with dyslexia, can optimize their strategies for doing so.”
Thus, I recommend screening separately for reading difficulties in the native language and in the additional language, most often English, when it is used as a medium of instruction for other subjects. English is a formal instructional language in much of the world, including large sections of Asia, Africa, and Europe. In many places, English is learned not just as a school course but as the medium of instruction for additional subjects, particularly in more advanced grades.
For children with dyslexia, multilingualism can sometimes be a blessing. The key is to consider language learning skills and motivation for each language separately and not simply to assume that reading and writing in one language will either negatively or positively impact reading and writing in another.