ISB Educator Paulina Bemporad Answers Parents’ Questions About Bilingualism and Biliteracy

News · February 24, 2017

By Paulina Bemporad, 2nd Grade English Head Teacher

On Wednesday, February 8th, I joined my colleagues Itzel Mendoza and Alejandra Alvarez as we shared our own stories of growing up bilingual during our parent workshop, "Strategies for Supporting Reading in Multiple Languages at Home". I am always delighted to hear and learn from parents, as we all have important contributions to make in managing multilingual households. Many parents shared their stories, concerns, and comments, but a few questions kept me thinking...

 “We speak three languages at home, and I’m wondering: is my son’s quiet nature is frustration or is he just too shy to speak?”

 “We also speak Italian and German at home and my son has recently started speaking more English, but he seems to be self-conscious about his accent. Does this affect his learning?”

 “I don’t speak French, but what can I do at home to encourage my daughter to read more in French?”

Encouraging Emotional Connections to Language

I found in my own experience as a parent that the social-emotional connection to learning another language was important for my child. If I am wandering around NYC or traveling abroad and I hear Spanish spoken or music, I have an immediate familiar, comfortable feeling, and I welcome conversation. Similarly, my daughter will often say to me, “They are speaking Spanish!” She will tune in to the environment so she knows what is going on. By offering Spanish as one of our home languages, my goal was to give my daughter a strong sense of identity, an emotional connection to my family and me. I feel that the stronger the connection to a language, the greater our the ability to learn it, which in turn enhances our attachment to it. My and my daughter's ability to connect with the richness found in Spanish cultures is without doubt possible because we understand the language. Our love for world music, including Colombian cumbia, salsa, bolero, Cuban son, Mexican ranchera, Argentinean Tangos, flamenco, Brazilian beats, Portuguese fado, etc., is enhanced because we love the languages. This does not limit our love for many other types of music, such as Bollywood, Bhangra, Middle Eastern rhythms, or the variety of music from Africa. Music is universal and in many ways can be a fun and engaging way to support language learning. Cultural connections to a language - music, food celebrations, and playtime - are essential, and if you value language learning, your child will too!

Language Exposure Beyond the School Day

For many parents who speak their native language at home - Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian, German etc. - their efforts to share their language reflect a desire to raising a multilingual child. They want their children to become citizens of the world who will be confident communicating with people who speak more than one language; who will be familiar with other cultures and use this to connect with people; and who will be tolerant and open to understanding multiple points of view. This opportunity is not exclusive to the children of multilingual parents - you do not have to be a native non-English speaker to pass on another language to your child. As long as you are committed your child’s learning another language and consistently support them in a variety of ways, they will learn to speak a second language. Day-to-day exposure to a native speaker is key to building vocabulary and oral language skills. It is important to be consistent and to make a clear distinction between the native and secondary languages. Have feasible goals, a clear plan to provide language exposure, and consistency so children can manage their expectations.

Building Literacy in Another Language

ISB parent Gretchen Drobnyk recently shared with me some research released by Stanford University. This Stanford study on brain waves shows how different teaching methods affect reading development. This confirms the importance of learning phonics (letter-sound relationships) instead of trying to learn whole words. This approach helps to increase activity in the areas of the brain that respond to reading. When teaching how to read, or how to support struggling readers, it is vital that the child has the educational support in his or her native language initially. By building on the strength of the child’s oral language skills to support their understanding of phonemic awareness, individual segments of sounds that can be combined to form words. Once a child has successfully cracked the “code” - that is, internalized how to apply the sound according to the letter combined to form words with beginning, middle, and end sounds - they will be able to apply these skills to reading. Learning how to read in English can be challenging, since there are 26 letters, or graphemes. There are approximately 40 sounds, or phonemes, in English. Those 40 sounds are represented in 250 different spellings (e.g., /k/ as in c, k, ck, ch, and que). Building strong phonemic awareness in a child’s native language will transfer to the child’s ability to read and read in secondary language. The amount of phonics instruction required may vary depending upon each child’s needs and abilities, but is beneficial to develop reading skills in your child’s native language. What can you do at home to support your child’s ability to read in their native and secondary languages? Support the native language learning first, as building oral skills provides foundational skills to support phonemic awareness and phonics. Understanding the structure of the spoken language will transfer to developing the ability to read. Once your child is reading in their native language, they will be able to apply all of their reading skills (decoding, fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension) to another language. Exposure and practicing reading in another language is crucial to developing reading skills. Look for thematic books that your child loves in the target language, such as comics, character series, anime, and graphic novels to support biliteracy. In any language, reading takes practice.  

The Gift of Bilingualism

Research and the media have confirmed that being multilingual has many benefits, especially in our increasingly globalized world. An article published in The New York Times, Why Bilinguals are Smarter, cites many benefits of speaking more than one language including: strengthening cognitive skills, improving the brain’s executive function, and heightening an individual’s ability to monitor the environment and can influence the brain’s activity from infancy as we age. Many people who speak more than one language already experience these benefits as part of their work, family, or social environments. They can easily participate, monitor, and maneuver in many social settings. Think about how much this will benefit your child! There are so many benefits to adopting the mindset of being a lifelong learner and supporting language learning for yourself and your child. It’s a journey, a commitment, it takes perseverance and work, but in the end you will never regret what a true gift you are giving yourself and your child.

You can access Paulina, Itzel, and Alejandra’s presentation on "Strategies for Supporting Reading in Multiple Languages" here.


Paulina Bemporad is a New York State certified Early Childhood and Bilingual Educator, a Bank Street graduate of the Dual Language/Bilingual Early Childhood Special and General Education program. She has been at teaching at ISB for five years, most recently as the 2nd Grade English Head Teacher and the English Language Learning Specialist and most proud of being a parent to Paloma, an ISB 5th Grader.