Bilingualism and dyslexia [Transcript]

October 29, 2023

00:00:15 – 00:02:28
Sharon: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. We’re almost at the end of this third season of Kletsheads and as I announced last time, this season will also be the last as I’ve decided to stop making the podcast at the end of the year. More on that next time in the grand finale. But for now, back to this episode where we’ll be talking about bilingualism and dyslexia. What is dyslexia and how does it affect bilingual children? Researcher Ioulia Kovelman tells us more. And in let’s let’s I talk to teacher Miriam about the language friendly school and how you can make multilingual children feel at home in your classroom. Keep listening to find out more. Learning to read doesn’t come easily to all children. Some children experience serious problems with reading and spelling. They have difficulty recognizing and learning letters. They mix up sounds or letters or read very slowly with proper help. This often passes, but in some children, these issues remain persistent problems with reading and spelling, or sometimes due to dyslexia. What exactly is dyslexia? If a bilingual child has dyslexia, will they succeed in learning to read in both languages? Does dyslexia work the same in all languages, for example? Also in languages with different scripts? What can you do as a parent, teacher or speech language therapist to support bilingual children with dyslexia? In this episode of Kletsheads, we’ll answer these questions with the help of Ioulia Kovelman, Professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in the US. I started by asking Yulia to tell us what it means when we say that someone has dyslexia.

00:02:28 – 00:02:49
Ioulia: Dyslexia is a lifelong difficulty in reading. It usually is found in children. As they begin to learn to read, they’ll find themselves disproportionately at a disadvantage or having difficulties in learning to read words. And then they’ll go on to have difficulties reading texts and sentences. And that tends to be a lifelong problem.

00:02:49 – 00:02:58
Sharon: Right? So it starts early on. We find it early on and it doesn’t go away, right? Right. Yeah. And how often does it occur?

00:02:59 – 00:03:12
Ioulia: Folks will debate and depends on statistics, but we think around 5 to 10% of the population, which means if you have two elementary school classrooms, you’re going to get a couple of kids who are struggling readers.

00:03:12 – 00:03:17
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. And how do you know then if a child has dyslexia?

00:03:18 – 00:04:30
Ioulia: This is a very good question. So by and large, by the wisdom of about third to fourth grade, folks will realize that, oh, this child is not the same as other children, because when children start kindergarten or first grade, they come from different homes and they’ve had different levels of literacy exposure prior to coming to school. So teachers accept that as natural variation and the differences that kids have. And then after about 2 or 3 years of instruction at around grades 3 to 4, the teachers will say, okay, well, this child’s not the same as the other children. That’s not to say that children with dyslexia will not manifest signs of reading impairments prior to that. In fact, we know how to find those signs in children who are pre literate before they begin learning how to read. But that requires having specialists around having a lot of interest in it, having a family history of folks know what to look for. But without those specialized training trained teachers or sort of telltale signs from the family, folks usually figure this out around grades 3 to 4.

00:04:31 – 00:04:38
Sharon: Okay. And so for for those who aren’t familiar with the with the US grade system, what age is that?

00:04:38 – 00:05:26
Ioulia: That would be that would be three years of learning that would still count. So whatever age you’re at. So you have to account for starting point, right? So whatever you’re starting point, no matter the age, you’re going to have variability. And so the child might be coming in with nothing, right? They don’t know the letters. And then child could be coming from a home where they’re already reading right at an advanced level. And so after you have had a couple of years of instruction, you can you can then tell the difference. Okay, I have given this child three years of instruction and they’re still performing like a first grader. So I wouldn’t say the age is the biggest determiner here as much as years of instruction where you’ve given the child a chance to come off of a zero and still see little progress.

00:05:26 – 00:05:29
Sharon: Yeah, right. So that’s going to vary depending on.

00:05:30 – 00:05:30
Ioulia: The.

00:05:30 – 00:05:52
Sharon: Age at which children start to learn to read and write wherever you are. Right? So for example, in the Netherlands, that’s age six. You mentioned then that we do know from research that there are certain signs that can be an indicator that children who aren’t yet reading may go on to develop dyslexia. Can you say maybe a bit about those?

00:05:53 – 00:07:14
Ioulia: Right. So when people think about dyslexia, they usually think of it as a reading difficulty. So something about connecting visual information to spoken language because by and large, kids dyslexia talk just fine. They can carry on a conversation with you and I as children are adults and we wouldn’t be the wiser by talking to that person. It’s when they read, that’s when the difficulty arises. However, most children with dyslexia do not have a visual problem. It is a language problem that’s the irony of it, is that the difficulties will manifest themselves in spoken language and those of us learning, um, alphabetic scripts where we have a sound to letter mapping like that, right? You would be mapping them one by one for those languages before the children begin learning how to read. We can tell that they will have difficulties with the sounds of the words. So something as simple as a rhyme judgment task. This cat hat rhyme. Yes. This table chair rhyme No. So gathering four year old children who are not literate yet and giving them a rhyme judgment task can help you determine whether a child is at risk for a reading disability before they learn how to read.

00:07:15 – 00:07:38
Sharon: Right? So if if a parent is, you know, playing with a child, playing with language, for example. Whilst reading with them or something like this and notices the child is having a difficult time realizing that cat hat rides rhymes and I don’t know. I can’t think of something else that rhymes right now. Um. They should be thinking, oh, maybe a problem. Yeah. And what would they do then?

00:07:38 – 00:08:51
Ioulia: Well, there, there are specialists you can bring a child, um, to, um, to, to inquire with a specialist. Um, in the United States, there are tests that are available for children as young as 3 to 4 years of age that will tap into those sound language sound processes in detail. They are available in many other languages as well today that folks can. It’s a matter of navigating your country’s education and language systems and support systems to know, to ask. Sometimes you will be lucky and you might have a daycare provider who is aware about dyslexia and knows how to how to do this and can help you. But sometimes, you know, oftentimes not. And so folks just need to be may want to be on the lookout. Thankfully, our cultures are pervasive with with rhymes and sing songs. And so this is something we naturally do with our kids across the globe. Um, so noticing that your kid’s not following along or is unable to remember the rhymes, lots of kids will memorize these rhymes and songs and if they’re having difficulty, that might be one of the telltale signs.

00:08:51 – 00:09:23
Sharon: Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, obviously, you know, the research on in this area I don’t but I think I’ll be right in saying that this difficulties with rhyming will increase the likelihood of your child developing dyslexia later or is it. Well if they’ve got that then it’s really almost certain they’re going to get they’ll develop dyslexia later. I just wanted to I’m thinking from the perspective of a parent, you know, should they be thinking, Oh, my kid’s going to have dyslexia then? Or do we need to temper it a little bit?

00:09:24 – 00:11:03
Ioulia: We are so different. We’re so different from each other for everything. Some people, some children draw right and some children do not. And some of us can dance and some of us can for one, is tone deaf. So don’t invite me to a waltz dance. That’s I’m just going to step on your feet. So we’re so varied and we accept this variation. That’s why we tend to think there’s only that edge of our distribution. Us as a human species that will be right. So not all kids are born Shakespeare’s to to produce beautiful rhymes. So we expect a lot of variation, just like we expect a lot of variation, children’s drawing and dancing and singing. So it’s a good thing to ask a professional before you panic. And it’s not just rhyme. It really is playing on on the word sounds. There’s lovely in English. We have poems. Bye by Dr. Seuss. There’s a wasit in my closet. Right? So it was it is not a word, but we’re playing on the sounds. And so kids attunement and being able to play on these sounds is seems to be a big deal because because when you’re going to go to school in an alphabetic language, you’re going to have to map sounds to letters. That’s your first stepping stone. So if you say dog, you have to go duh or go. And so to get to that point, you have to be able to play on the sounds of the words in ways that maybe is unusual, but you got to get the knack of it. Otherwise you’re not going to literally that’s your first step. You are not moving past that first step.

00:11:03 – 00:12:16
Sharon: Julia talked just now about alphabetic languages. These are languages that use a specific set of letters. And these letters or combinations of the letters correspond to different sounds. The letters can come from the Latin alphabet, like in English or Dutch or from a different alphabet. Like, for example, the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Russian. The alphabets might look different, but what’s key to all alphabetic languages is that they have a set of letters, and these correspond to sound. And this is different from languages like Chinese, which uses what’s called a logger graphic writing system where characters correspond to a word or a part of a word, what linguists call a morpheme. If you’re wondering about how dyslexia works in languages like Chinese or languages with other scripts than the Latin alphabet, don’t worry, because we’ll come back to that question a bit later in the episode. Okay, so that’s what dyslexia is and some of the precursors of dyslexia. Does it work the same in bilingual children as in monolingual children? And if you have it in one language, will you have it in the other?

00:12:17 – 00:13:03
Ioulia: In all likelihood, it works the same across languages, highly with high similarity. And we can talk about some notable differences, but by and large, we think that reading, aptitude, reading ability. Is universal. We learn to recognize speech in print. That’s the idea. We hear language and we see language, and that’s universal. There are some differences, cultural and orthographic differences, but by and large it works in very similar ways. And there’s good evidence, neuroimaging evidence and standard behavioral cross-cultural evidence to show this. And and so it will work across languages and will work for bilingual children in a very similar way.

00:13:03 – 00:13:15
Sharon: Yeah. And when you say neuroimaging evidence and maybe you can say a little bit more about what that is, because I can imagine a lot of listeners won’t really know what that means.

00:13:15 – 00:13:33
Ioulia: Of course, we got a brain fog, so got a brain on. The brain has two hemispheres, the right and the left. And for most members of our species, the the language happens to be on the left. So where are your helmets when you ride your bicycles? Especially in the Netherlands, everybody seems to be really wedded to their bicycles.

00:13:33 – 00:13:35
Sharon: Nobody wears a helmet here. No.

00:13:35 – 00:15:11
Ioulia: Oh, that’s not good. Your left hemisphere together. You can’t acquire this access, developmental dyslexia that that children who struggle, but there’s acquired one. You can actually knock your head and wake up and not be able to read. That’s acquired dyslexia. So you could. Oh yeah, you can get as an adult. So where are your helmets? Um, so on the left side of the brain we have right behind your eyebrow is what we call is a Broca’s area. And Broca’s area helps us produce and understand grammar with the way words go in a sentence and round, round our ear is what we call Wernicke’s area, where we perceive the sounds of the words, the meanings of the words. And so we think those parts of the brain are essential for reading, because guess what? Reading is about recognizing language on a printed page. And then down below we also have what we term is a fusiform jar’s, a big chunk of a brain that’s dedicated to recognizing visual objects. And as we learn how to read, a part of that, jars becomes specialized. It’s like it gets a special new job of recognizing words also as part of the objects in the universe. And so those things getting together and connecting a formal concert is what gives our brain, that gives us the reading brain the ability to read. And so when we look at patterns of brain activity in folks in China, in the Middle East and in Europe, we can see that very similar patterns of brain activity arise when folks read words.

00:15:11 – 00:15:15
Sharon: Okay? And these patterns are different if you’re dyslexic?

00:15:15 – 00:15:46
Ioulia: These patterns are different If you’re dyslexic, that is correct. Um, big part of dyslexia remediation is helping children learn the necessary skills, and that means really engaging the parts of the brain that we think should be working and are not working as they’re supposed to do for most folks. And and part of is actually finding alternative strategies. So there will be a fair amount of individual variation in how that will happen for children with dyslexia and the way that we can observe behaviorally and also the neuroimaging level.

00:15:46 – 00:15:56
Sharon: Yeah. Okay. Um, you just said before, so if you, if you’re dyslexic in one language, you’ll, you’ll be dyslexic and the other. Um.

00:15:57 – 00:15:58
Ioulia: Yes. Yeah.

00:15:58 – 00:16:16
Sharon: And so we know that we’ve spoken about that earlier on the podcast that if you, um, when you are, when you think a child has got a language impairment or developmental language disorder, it’s important to take both languages into account when making a diagnosis. Is that also the same for a dyslexia?

00:16:17 – 00:18:00
Ioulia: Yes, that is correct, especially for a bilingual child. Remember, we talked that you can identify precursors of dyslexia in children who are not literate yet. So even if the child’s not going to read in one of their two languages because, say, they had immigrated from China or Middle East, they find themselves in the Netherlands and they don’t really have a bilingual program that’s available to them in both languages. And apart from picking up a bit from the home, they’re not getting systematic instruction in that language. Nevertheless, you can find them and you can give them those font, what we call phonological awareness task, those sound awareness tasks in both languages. And we have had children come to our lab where we would test them either be, for instance, Chinese, English, bilingual kids. Again, this is United States. So folks are learning to read in English at school. It’s a small, semi-rural area. We don’t have a Chinatown. So whatever they’re learning at home and through some classes on weekends, they’re not learning much Chinese in terms of orthography, but we’re still able to give them some sound language tasks and other auditory language tasks in Chinese. And then we will. Call these parents, say hi, we’re sending you this course. We’re sending this course in English. We’re sending you what we have in Chinese. And the parents says, Well, that’s okay, because my child has recently started learning English. And once they have more English, they will be better readers. And then we have to go back and say, But look at your child’s Chinese, cause they are also unusually low, even compared to other children that we see who are also not going to school in Chinese the way they would go in Beijing.

00:18:00 – 00:18:42
Sharon: Yeah, okay. So look at both languages and see whether similar issues are at hand in the two. So that’s about the diagnosis of dyslexia. So once you’ve got that diagnosis, so you know, your child has dyslexia and your child is being raised bilingually, I think one of the questions that I certainly get time and time again when I talk to parents is, well, okay, they’re going to learn to read in the school language, whatever that is where you are. They’re likely to have a hard time doing that. Should they then learn to read, read and write in the other language, their heritage, language, home language, whatever you want to call it. Is that a good idea? What would you say about that?

00:18:42 – 00:20:07
Ioulia: It is a good idea in all theories and principles. At the same time, I usually say the family is a family. A family dynamic is a family dynamic. So on the plus side, from a purely scientific perspective, bilingualism is an exercise for the brain. And in that vein, it can serve as a form of remediation because it exercises and and languages are different or orthography is odd, different. So challenge them to see the associations the way we connect print to speech in different ways across languages. Remember, we talked about alternative strategies and different ways in which you learn to read. So from a purely scientific perspective, it’s a good thing. From a practical perspective, it may not be feasible. It may not be feasible because it might be that you’re going to a school where the school and in all likelihood the school only has support in the language that you have and you may not have access. Just like with speech pathology, you may not have access to bilingual speech pathologist. You can only get access to therapy in one language, and then you’re disproportionately spending time in one language, and then you will see gains in that one language. And you will feel so relieved as a parent that you will forget all else. And I am not the person to pass judgment here. A happy family and a happy child is is also important.

00:20:07 – 00:20:28
Sharon: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, like you said, all families are different and and being able to function as well as you can as a family unit is very important. But just to be clear, then, there’s no reason why you can’t learn to read as best as you can and maybe with additional support in the heritage language if you’re dyslexic.

00:20:28 – 00:21:58
Ioulia: Correct. There is absolute no evidence to suggest that learning in multiple to read and multiple language further exacerbates dyslexia or makes it worse. So being a bilingual and learning to read in multiple languages does not make things worse. It doesn’t. It’s just you’re not struggling in in both languages. And if your child is anxious and your teachers are anxious and all of this is raising your anxiety levels, then by all means, as I said, happiness first. But again, from an educational scientific perspective, one can become bilingual and then again be happy because you are part of the culture, you are multiple cultures. You haven’t been denied the opportunity. Career opportunities. Bilingual kids grow up. They may want to have a career where they are traveling and they’re seeing things and they’re collaborating across cultures. So we shouldn’t be denying these children the opportunity to become bilateral. But as I keep saying, sometimes, especially once you just get the diagnosis, the stresses of really high and folks just want to see some progress and it’s easiest practically achieved in one language if you just focus on that. And so maybe put off the fight for the next for literacy in the other language to a later date.

00:21:58 – 00:22:24
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. We’re going to leave our conversation with Ioulia for a moment to talk to our other guest on this episode, Miriam. She’s going to tell us more about the language friendly schools, Network language friendly schools are schools that welcome all languages and where children are not punished for speaking the mother tongue. Miriam will tell us more next class.

00:22:27 – 00:22:39
Miriam: Hello. I am Miriam and I live in Breda, the Netherlands. I am an early years teacher and I work at International School Breda and thank you very much for having me here.

00:22:40 – 00:22:51
Sharon: Well, thanks for joining us. So you’re early years teacher, so can you tell us a bit more about what you do exactly and what your job involves at an international school?

00:22:51 – 00:23:20
Miriam: Yes. So I am a officially a primary teacher. A few years ago I joined the early years team, which is my passion. Yeah, And I fulfill all the roles as a teacher and am also the language friendly school leader here. So I have two big passions, two subjects that really makes my heart beat fast. Yeah.

00:23:20 – 00:23:59
Sharon: Cool. Well, every. Well, any any listeners who have listened to previous episodes will know that anything to do with language, friendliness, bilingualism definitely makes my heart beat faster. Um, we’re going to talk about language friendly school in a minute, because that’s the reason why I asked you to come on the podcast. Um, but maybe a little bit more about yourself. So how long have you been how long have you been teaching? What’s your, what’s your background? I’m guessing I’m guessing from your name though that’s always a dangerous thing to do, isn’t it? To guess from somebody’s name where they’re from. But I think you’re Brazilian, right?

00:23:59 – 00:25:07
Miriam: I am Brazilian, yes. I became a teacher very, very young. So since I am 18, right? I am a teacher. Yes. When I was 23, I had my first university degree in pedagogy with an emphasis on early years. After that, I did a post-graduation degree in inclusion and special needs After I was teaching until I was 25. Then I left my country. I went to China where I taught inside a Brazilian school. Then I had another move inside China and I stopped teaching for a while. Then we decided to have our own family. And 2013 we moved to the Netherlands, to Breda. And then it was time for my son to start school. I just fell in love with the international education and I thought, okay, I want to go back to teaching. And I teach here officially since 2018. Uh huh.

00:25:07 – 00:25:22
Sharon: Okay, great. So that’s good to, to know a bit more about where you come from. And you said at the school that you now at the international school is a language friendly school. Can you maybe tell us a bit about what that is? What does that mean?

00:25:23 – 00:26:00
Miriam: It means that we look into our students and we really try to connect with them. We don’t put them on a place where we see what they don’t know. You don’t know English. That’s fine. We will try to connect with you. You are a child. You come to our school, you are welcome here. And we really try to see beyond a language. All the language are welcome and we try to support as much as we can. Everyone from everywhere.

00:26:00 – 00:26:19
Sharon: And what does that look like in, uh, in, in daily life? Right? Because it’s, it’s not that there is or maybe correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not that there’s, there are classes available in all the different languages spoken by by the pupils. So what does it what does it look like being a language friendly school?

00:26:19 – 00:27:33
Miriam: It sometimes it looks quite chaotic because we try to understand lots of different languages at the same time. So we use lots of translators. We try picture visuals, schedules, daily basis. We have a language support for these children to be confident and become fluent communicators. Yeah, we go like in the early years, I can explain to you a bit more. A bit more. Today I was having fun with a boy that is learning English, and he was. We were just having fun with a translator and his home language. He was playing literally with words and he was teaching me how to say everything. And he was very proud to to tell me, oh, now you know, my country, you know my language. You can say good morning. So this is building a sense of belonging as well. We bring the children here and they build this up. It’s connecting. So they are safe here.

00:27:33 – 00:27:40
Sharon: Yeah. And you say you play with the translator. You mean like Google Translate or something like that? Or a real person?

00:27:40 – 00:27:52
Miriam: No. Google Internet. We go, Yes. Yeah. Google translate where we play with letter sounds and writing and everything else. We normally use those resources too.

00:27:52 – 00:28:04
Sharon: Yes. Yeah. Maybe ask you in a moment about what exactly involves becoming a language friendly school. But before I do that, maybe you can tell us a bit about why your school became a language friendly school.

00:28:04 – 00:28:59
Miriam: We were doing a lot before being a certified language friendly school, so we always like to celebrate with families. We like to bring our families into the school so we know a little bit more about their background as well. So their culture, their celebrations, their party, what’s important to each one of them? And then one day a colleague of ours. So I think on social media, something about the language friendly schools, and she said, well, I think this is something for us, isn’t it? And we just said, Yes, it is. It’s something for us. We are doing this, but what else can we do? Can we connect with other schools? Can we do more? How best can we support everyone, children, families that come here so we connect a lot?

00:29:00 – 00:29:05
Sharon: Yeah. So. So it’s a network, right? So you have contact with other with other schools?

00:29:05 – 00:29:10
Miriam: We are a team, part of a bigger team, and we help each other.

00:29:10 – 00:29:17
Sharon: So what did you need to do then to become a certified language friendly school? Was it easy? Was it difficult?

00:29:17 – 00:30:29
Miriam: No, not difficult at all. It’s it raises lots of questions. Why are we doing that? Are we not the language friendly school? Then it we had some questions. We made the first contact with Ellen Rose. Hilda. They had a talk with our head of the primary school, and they asked and as I said, we were doing loads already. After that they put me in contact with Ellen Rose and from that we had to just explain what we were doing and how we support the children, their education and why do we want to become a language friendly school? It wasn’t difficult at all. I think when you have a motivation, you have a reason behind it. We just wanted to be sure that we were moving forward. That’s not only about celebrations, but are we supporting also academically the children’s social emotional? Are we supporting all the children in the right way?

00:30:30 – 00:31:10
Sharon: Yeah. And so for those I don’t know. Alan Rose Campbell is the director of a language friendly school. I think I’m right in saying that she’s director of the Roots Foundation. So it sounds like your colleagues were on board from the start then with this idea because you were kind of in actually doing quite a lot of what what you need to do to be considered a language friendly school. You were doing that already. I’m wondering if you have advice for any teachers who might be listening who think, oh, actually that might be something for us or, you know, we’re definitely not there yet, but I think it’s something we should do. What advice would you give to them?

00:31:10 – 00:32:00
Miriam: Not really an advice, but if you are already thinking about becoming a language friendly school, it’s because you’re halfway there, because you already know what you want. You already see your children and you want to support them. I would say go for it. It’s a great network. We support each other as teachers, as allocators. We we really want to do the best we can to support everybody because people are not stopping to travel or to move around. So. It’s part of life. But what do we do? What do we do? How. How well can we support? So just go for it?

00:32:00 – 00:32:09
Sharon: Yeah, definitely. Is there anything that you would change, You know, your school maybe, or maybe in the education system more generally?

00:32:10 – 00:32:53
Miriam: Generally thinking about education, like I said before, people won’t stop moving around. Everybody has different reasons for doing that. And as a doctors, we have to be open minded to welcome those children. It’s our role. It’s our job. It’s our responsibility to do that, to welcome them into the school. So empathy, I think sometime sometimes it’s missing. Not here. I’m talking about a roll situation. A whole thing rolled environment. You know.

00:32:53 – 00:33:51
Sharon: You’re at an international school and so you see that there there are children who have come from different places who were, you know, having to learn English or whatever. They’re quite internationally oriented. And I think I’m right in saying quite often at international schools, quite a lot of the staff are also international. I’ve had international experience, which I think in many ways will make you automatically empathetic through to the situation that children find themselves in. If it’s something that you’ve experienced yourself. Have you got any tips for them, for teachers who maybe haven’t had that experience, but see that they have multilingual children or children who may or may not have come from abroad. They may have grown up in the country that you’re situated in. What what can you do to foster the empathy that you said is really needed to best support these children?

00:33:52 – 00:35:31
Miriam: A few months ago, I had a group of teachers coming from a local school to visit us. Exactly. This group was trying to become a language friendly school and they were really passionate about it. And they saw at the beginning they thought they should offer language support, literally language support in their home language, which is not the case. So I was showing them some very simple activities that we do in class to that involves the identity of the child just to support who they are. And they went away. They went back to their school. They were inspired, they inspired their team, and now they are becoming a language friendly school. So ways of supporting those are very simple things. Those are daily life tasks as maybe learning how to say good morning in a different language, maybe learning how the child celebrates their birthdays in their countries. Very simple things. We are not saying that we are teaching the home language or we are doing anything extra. No, we are supporting the child and preserving their identity and there are very simple ways of doing that.

00:35:31 – 00:35:50
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah. So I think that’s often a misconception, right? That you have to be able to speak all those different languages or you have to somehow find teachers who can do that. And I think, you know, it is what it says on the tin, right? It’s language friendly. It’s about being friendly to other languages and to the languages that you find in your class.

00:35:51 – 00:36:03
Miriam: And there are so many things that you can learn from a different culture, from a different language, from a different background. It’s in reaching the educational system. We are not losing anything.

00:36:03 – 00:36:11
Sharon: Yeah, yeah. And it’s about, I think, being open minded as an educator as well to to that very fact as well. So what are you most proud of then?

00:36:11 – 00:36:40
Miriam: I’m really, really proud of being part of a great team here at the international school. It’s just a great team. It’s a great learning community. And I’m talking about children. I’m talking about the families as well. Very, very proud of that, being a language friendly school. I think seeing the growing and the children coming to the school happy for who they are. Yeah, that makes me proud.

00:36:41 – 00:36:50
Sharon: Yeah. Yeah, I can imagine. And so you’re based in the Netherlands. What do you think the future looks like for bilingual children in the Netherlands?

00:36:50 – 00:37:15
Miriam: Promising not just in the Netherlands and I think being bilingual is going to be just part of life. I don’t like to use the word normal, but I think it. It’s just going to be part of it. It’s good. It’s here and it’s not going to stop. So I think it’s promising everywhere, not just here in the Netherlands.

00:37:15 – 00:37:28
Sharon: Yeah. Well, on that positive note, I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much, Miriam, for taking the time to talk to us today and tell us about your experiences at as a teacher at a language friendly school.

00:37:28 – 00:37:30
Miriam: Thank you so much.

00:37:30 – 00:37:37
Sharon: Let’s klets.

00:37:37 – 00:38:36
Sharon: Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of times and, you know, we know that the languages differ when it comes to the scripts. That’s one thing. And they also differ as to how we call it transparently. So whether there’s like a the sound, the letter that you read has one sound that goes with it or multiple sounds that go with it and vice versa. So English, I think, as most people know, is a bit of a nightmare when it comes to, uh, to spelling in that the same string of letters I always like to think of, oh, you can have multiple sounds, cough vowel though through other languages it’s much easier. So for example in Dutch where so the Netherlands where I’m based, Dutch is a lot, a lot easier in that sense. To what extent do these differences between languages in terms of the match or mismatch between sounds and letters and also in terms of script and what to what extent do they matter for children growing up bilingual who are dyslexic?

00:38:37 – 00:41:31
Ioulia: Cross linguistic differences are absolutely fascinating. So if you take a language like Italian or Greek, cross-cultural comparisons have shown that by about one year of literacy instruction, rigorous literacy instruction, children who are speakers of Italian or speakers of Greek will reach near adult like accuracy in reading words. They’ll be slow at reading words and not as fast. And of course, they may not recognize complex words. That’s okay, but just the basic words, they’re going to be just as accurate given enough time in English. English, One of the last languages in which this happens, we think it’s around grade five. And then languages like Dutch and French and German, we think that’s somewhere in between round grades three and four. And again, when I say grade, that means yes. I don’t mean age. I mean years of of systematic instruction. So that makes a difference If you’re a child with dyslexia in a language like what we call trans phonological, transparency, sound and matching is very good. In Spanish, you say, Gato, you’re going to spell gotta write Gato, or that’s what you’re going for. I apologize. I never know the exact I speak to many languages, but I never know the letters of the alphabet. Exactly. But hopefully the audience is following. So. So what you hear is what you spell Again, in languages like Latin and Italian and Greek, you have this really easy way in, apparently. Um, and so as a result, if you have a reading disorder and the reading disorders exist across all languages, no, no language group is immune. You’ll most likely will see difficulties with speed and difficulties with reading long words. In languages like English, you’re going to have massive accuracy, difficulties and speed, difficulty. So basically off to problems that are manifesting very early. Um, so as a result, if you’re going to be a bilingual and you have access to language like Italian and Spanish, it turns out that it helps because there’s been a lovely set of studies done in Canada looking at, um, folks in Italian immigrant communities, children who are poor readers. But the, the families put them in Italian heritage language school. So something like again to two hours a week where they gather and get some instruction learning how to read talent. Those kids do better at reading that kids at risk readers who do not they have better phonological reading skills. Those sound two letter mappings, because sound letter mapping is so predictable in Italian and you learn this by learning Italian is high predictability, and it actually then helps you to read in English, because in English those relations are more difficult and so it’s more difficult to grasp if you’re just dealing with English text.

00:41:31 – 00:41:33
Sharon: Yeah. And you said better, better than.

00:41:33 – 00:41:41
Ioulia: Than At-risk readers who are not getting the same experience, who are not being taught to read in Italian and just learning to read in English.

00:41:41 – 00:42:06
Sharon: That’s that’s very interesting. Especially interesting because our very latest episode was on complementary schools or heritage language education, and this didn’t come up. So it’s another interesting addition to what we discussed there. And what about the different script issue then? Will will dyslexia work the same for children who are learning to read in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Chinese.

00:42:07 – 00:44:37
Ioulia: So Hebrew. Greek, uh, Arabic. They’re alphabetic languages. So you’re still faced with the problem of a challenge, if you will, of doing sound to letter mappings. When you begin learning how to read. The language structures are different. And so there’s reasons why Semitic languages are missing vowels as morphology. But but the important part there is sound to letter mapping. And so if you’re not doing sound letter mapping, you will have problems with that. And dyslexia is often characterized by this across these languages. Now, going over to the other side of the globe where folks are learning to read in Chinese characters, we talked about how four year olds in who speak English and in the European languages, you can ask them to do those sound tasks. And if your four year olds are not good at those sound tasks, you can be on alert for whether or not they will go on to have dyslexia. Um, in the in the Chinese speaking cultures, the research has shown is not those four year olds who don’t read yet or five year olds are usually given what we call a morphological awareness task. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in this case. So the word like star fit right has a star and a fish or snowman. It has a snow and a man, right? So snow is a morpheme man is a morpheme. So in the case of Chinese, if I give you a task where I say hi, um, apple trees grow apples. What kind of trees grow bread? It’s a fun task. And you have to say bread trees. So if a child is unable to say bread trees is an answer, you should be on alert. Your child will have difficulty learning how to read. In Chinese. This is called a morpheme aware morphological awareness tasks. And that’s because in Chinese characters, those Chinese characters, those visual symbols, they’re not abstract, they’re not pictograms or they’re not picture toward mappings. They are morphemes. So the stepping stone to acquiring literacy in Chinese is mapping onto morphemes. At the same time, most researchers do not think that this means that dyslexia in Chinese and dyslexia in a language like Dutch or two completely different forms of dyslexia rather. We think these are language specific for Manchester for stations of the same problem.

00:44:37 – 00:45:04
Sharon: Okay. Are there other cases where it might be better not to start reading in the in the non school language? I mean, you mentioned before. It’s, you know, maybe a good idea. Not a good idea right at the start. You’ve just got the diagnosis and you want to get the reading and the school language going. But are there any other circumstances where you would be wary of of teaching a child to read in the in the home language, heritage language?

00:45:05 – 00:46:56
Ioulia: There is a prevailing wisdom in bilingualism that if you’re going to learn how to read, the best course of action is to start learning to read in a language in which you speak best. That being said, there’s no evidence to show that children could not do it in all sorts of other forms. But the best approach if you have a child who’s at risk. Um, and, and there’s a language in which they can speak, that’s the language in which they should learn how to read first so that it’s easy. Speaking of making things obvious, it’s really hard to make things obvious in a language in which you do not speak to begin with. So if you have an immigrant child and the Dutch doesn’t happen to be the strongest language, being actually able to offer them support in their home language is a very, very good idea. Um, but then we run against practicalities of, well, that may not be possible and that’s all you have to do and that’s all you take. And, and so in the immigrant children often don’t have a choice as a thing, right? So immigrant kids, heritage language, kids, migrant kids oftentimes don’t have a choice. They’re put in a situation, a linguistic situation. They just have to work with it. And we gotta support them the best we can because it’s part of that culture and identity and things that are available to them. But sometimes it is a choice and that’s when it becomes particularly tricky. So say in the Netherlands for your children, maybe you have an opportunity to send your children to a bilingual program and they already speak Dutch, but maybe you want them to learn another language. And now you’re presented with a choice in a conundrum. And oftentimes educators will recommend that if you have an a risk child, maybe you want to start by making sure they have a solid foundation, learning to read in a stronger language such as Dutch, before you send them into a program that teaches them also how to read. And I don’t know Arabic or French as a as a choice language.

00:46:56 – 00:46:58
Sharon: Yeah, yeah. So that’s the standard advice.

00:46:58 – 00:46:59
Ioulia: Yeah.

00:46:59 – 00:47:13
Sharon: Unfortunately, such programs don’t exist in the Netherlands, so some lessons might be surprised to hear, but there’s very little provision, especially primary level for bilingual programs. But anyway, that’s a by the by.

00:47:13 – 00:47:24
Ioulia: I was thinking Canada, right? So Canada has a plethora of bilingual French English programs where folks are trying to gain the proficiency in both languages of the country at an early age.

00:47:24 – 00:47:42
Sharon: Yeah, but I think, you know, I think it’s good to know that actually it’s really if a child is struggling with reading because they’re dyslexic is good to try and help them with those challenges, with that challenge in the language that they’re best at. Is that a yes?

00:47:42 – 00:47:44
Ioulia: Yes, That’s the message of the day. Okay.

00:47:44 – 00:48:28
Sharon: All right. So, um, just sticking with school for one one last question about school. Um, so I know parents of monolingual children with dyslexia worry about their children learning to read in a second, third, fourth language at school. Right? So it’s a language that they often have to learn through written input, right? So they have to read texts or it’s very, uh, usually I think an I suspect this is the case in many places across the world. Uh, foreign language education at school is often based on texts, right? Um, are parents right to be worried? Also, parents of bilingual children learning to who have to learn a foreign language through written input.

00:48:29 – 00:50:05
Ioulia: It is a common practice to excuse. At the University of Michigan, where I am at, uh, foreign languages are required for our undergraduates in arts and sciences. It’s a it’s a very intense foreign language requirement. They, they take two years. So that’s about four semesters of, of a of a foreign language, which I think is terrific. At the same time, if you have a learning disabilities, you can ask to be excused. And I always wondered about the practicality of that. Obviously, you don’t want to stress out the students and if you think they’re not going to want this language, then fine. But a lot of these folks want the language. They they want to be those amazing folks with who can, you know, transverse the citizens of the world who can speak multiple languages. Maybe they want to re-engage the heritage language that they hadn’t been able to acquire due to dyslexia early in life, various reasons. And so at this point, we’re excusing them, but we’re also at the same time denying them rather than making an effort to support the learning of a language for a struggling learner, because we’re putting them at a double disadvantage now. They’re not. They’re struggling learners and now we’re doing nothing else to help them for right now, which is literally denying them a language. So it’s an imperfect world. Yes, It’s it really is sort of a signature of an imperfect world. We we don’t make special classes for kids who have learning difficulties, but really do want to learn a. New language.

00:50:05 – 00:50:22
Sharon: But it’s a you know, some of the you mentioned different strategies that you can use with a child who’s being raised bilingually and is struggling with reading because they’re dyslexic. Presumably they’ll strategies or strategies that could also be used whilst learning to read in a in a foreign language at school.

00:50:23 – 00:51:41
Ioulia: The advantages of foreign languages, of learning a foreign language is because when you speak your own language, it’s like riding a bicycle, you know where things fit. And your instructors oftentimes also teach it like riding a bicycle because there’s a shared body of knowledge and folks don’t always know what needs to be made obvious. But when you go so informal in having worked with folks with with learning disabilities, they had actually remarked that a lot of what they had learned about language is by taking a second language. Because then when you have to stop and breathe, well, this is how you conjugate words in. I don’t know, Finnish, right? It’s different from English. It’s different from, um, it’s not even in a European language, right? It’s a Greek language. And now you, you have to explain everything about your first language to show what’s the same and what’s different than the other language. So it’s a very interesting way in into for a child with language learning impairments or an adult to also be like, Oh, I’d struggled with that. I never knew why I struggled with that because that’s the thing and that’s how it works. And all of a sudden you learn amazing things about your own language by learning the other language.

00:51:41 – 00:51:47
Sharon: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think often that holds in general, whether you have a learning disability or not.

00:51:47 – 00:51:53
Ioulia: Exactly. All of a sudden you become an expert in linguistics by just learning another language. Exactly. Yeah.

00:51:53 – 00:52:14
Sharon: Okay. So, um, let’s wrap up by then talking a bit more concretely about how you can support bilingual children with dyslexia. So maybe for from the perspective of parents, what, what can parents best do to support a child bilingual child with dyslexia? Have you got any do’s and don’ts or tips for them?

00:52:14 – 00:53:57
Ioulia: Um. Don’t get discouraged and undo what you can do without adding stress or pressure to it. Um, a lot of the if the immigrant community is big enough, there’s usually not community are reading and language specialists with expertise in your language. So um the world’s opened up. You can now get a help over Zoom. You can maybe log in and to other parts of the world where this help is available. Some help. Admittedly, it sometimes comes at a price, but it’s worth investigating freely available opportunities, folks willing to volunteer and support kids. So, um, the pandemic has put us all in front of these gizmos that allow us to connect through the globe. And languages are a global phenomena. So we encourage folks to reach out within and outside their home communities to find help. Um, we have here in, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’m at, um, my terrific colleagues run a heritage language school, Nuestra Lingua on the Western lingua. Um, um, Dr. Theresa Satterfield. They run a program for Heritage Language speakers of Spanish, and they try to offer additional support for their At-risk learners for making gains in Spanish, the researchers. And they have this understanding. And so I guess you’re not having this conversation so that folks who are not researchers can also share in that knowledge and that these kids will can they can learn they and they deserve to learn because that’s what they may need. We do not know what they’re going to need as part of their identity, as part of the culture and job opportunities ahead of them.

00:53:58 – 00:54:19
Sharon: Yeah. Okay. So don’t don’t be discouraged and and, and, and and look for help where you can find it and help might be available elsewhere in the world via the means made available to us from from the pandemic. And what about teachers and speech language therapists pathologists. Is there anything that they should bear in mind when working with bilingual children with dyslexia?

00:54:20 – 00:55:23
Ioulia: So there’s been a, um, a lovely gaining awareness among teachers and reading specialists that bilingualism is not a problem for children with learning disabilities. Because another 20 years ago, when I was starting as a graduate student, it was almost pervasive that teachers would tell parents to stop speaking the home language a completely counterproductive advice If the parents are immigrants and don’t have a handle on on the language of the society around them quite yet. Um, so thankfully we’re moving away from that. And so my biggest advice is just keep at it, please encourage the the fam if you are unable to provide support in the child’s other language. Please do not discourage the family. Step one Do not discourage the family. And step two, encourage them to to see if they can gain support, even if you’re not able to necessarily provided. Discouraging. Discouraging them is not good and encouraging them is is a solid practice.

00:55:23 – 00:55:36
Sharon: Yeah. Great. I think that’s an excellent way to end this episode where we’ve learned a lot more about bilingualism and dyslexia. Thank you, Julia, for taking the time to talk to us today.

00:55:37 – 00:55:38
Ioulia: My pleasure. Thank you.

00:55:38 – 00:58:22
Sharon: That’s it for this episode when we learned that being dyslexic means that you have long term problems with reading. More often than not, these become clear when, after several years of schooling, children show persistent difficulties in connecting sounds and letters or sounds and characters. But even before children start to learn to read, there may be some signs that they will go on to develop dyslexia, For example, if they struggle to recognize which words rang with each other. We also learnt that dyslexia works similarly across languages. And so if your bilingual child has dyslexia in one language, they will also have it in the other. The tests used to diagnose dyslexia may, however, differ across languages depending on whether it sounds are matched to letters, as in alphabetic languages such as English or Arabic, or to characters as in Chinese. One thing that Julia made very clear, and I think it’s worth repeating here, is that being bilingual does not make dyslexia any worse. Thanks to Julia and to Miriam for joining us on this episode. Next time it’s the final episode of the season and of the podcast because as I said last time, heads will stop at the end of this year after 35 episodes in English and another 50 plus in Dutch. I’ve decided it’s time to call it a day. I’m going to concentrate on some of my many other projects. In the last episode, I’m going to be looking back on the past three years, and I’ll do this with three parents who have been guests before. They’ve agreed to come back on the podcast to talk about the journey that they’ve made with their bilingual family since. And as icing on the cake, we hear a poem written about bilingual children and dedicated to bilingual children and inspired by the podcast. Until then, if you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favorite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch, tot de volgende keer

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