Dyslexia, Bilingualism, and Learning a Second Language
Dyslexia in bilinguals and second language learners.
Posted March 1, 2019
Interview conducted by François Grosjean
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) defines dyslexia as a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read (see here). The British National Health Service (NHS) gives a fuller definition: it is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing, and spelling. The NHS also lists a number of problems that people with dyslexia have: they read and write very slowly, confuse the letters of words, put letters the wrong way round, have poor or inconsistent spelling, have difficulty with information that is written down, etc. (see here).
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability and has been the object of much research published in books, chapters, and articles. Psychology Today has also reported on this work through its bloggers such as Dr. J. Richard Gentry (see here for an example). Unfortunately, we know much less about dyslexia in bilinguals, in second language learners, or in students schooled in a second language. The latter can be in immersion or bilingual school programs or can come from minority language groups being educated in the majority language. Dr. Fred Genesee, Professor Emeritus at McGill University, is one of the leading experts on this topic and he has very kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions. We thank him wholeheartedly.
Are there more dyslexics among bilinguals than among monolinguals?
There is no evidence that dyslexia is more common among bilinguals than among monolinguals.
Does being bilingual cause dyslexia or increase the probability of becoming dyslexic?
Again, there is no evidence that bilingualism causes dyslexia. Dyslexia is linked to neurocognitive factors that are inherited. It is thought that children with dyslexia have an inherited impairment processing the sounds of language. This means that children born with the genetic profile that is linked to dyslexia will have difficulty learning to read whether they are bilingual or monolingual.
When talking about dyslexia in children, shouldn't one insist on something that you have put forward in your writings—the distinction between reading impairment and difficulty learning to read?
Yes, this crucial. Reading impairment is due to underlying neurocognitive factors mentioned in my previous answer whereas difficulty learning to read is linked to other factors, such as the child’s learning environment, motivation, quality of instruction, or general health. For example, some children have difficulty learning to read in school because the quality of instruction they receive is not always optimal; because they have an undetected visual impairment which makes it difficult to see and process written language; or because they are uninterested in learning to read because they find the reading materials in school boring. These children’s difficulties are not genetic in nature and are not true dyslexia.
Concerning children who are in the process of learning a second language, can they be at greater risk for difficulty learning to read than children learning through their first language?
Yes, this may be the case because they are still learning the language which is being used to teach reading in school and some teachers may not have modified instruction to take this into account. Second language learners might also have greater difficulty than monolingual students learning to read because the cultural content of the reading material is unfamiliar, or because the teacher’s cultural expectations of how they should behave in class is foreign or even difficult for them.
Unfortunately, tests that assess progress in learning to read can make it appear that bilingual children have an impairment because they do not consider the linguistic level of the children. But, none of these factors are symptomatic of reading impairment or dyslexia per se.
Going back to actual dyslexia, what are the difficulties faced by second language learners who are dyslexic?
The core difficulties faced by second language learners who are dyslexic are the same as those of monolingual children with dyslexia. The core problem for these children is difficulty learning to decode written words accurately and fluently so that they can make sense of them and understand written text. If children’s word reading skills are impaired, then their comprehension of written text will also be impaired because they cannot read the individual words accurately and fluently enough to create meaningful text.
In addition, second language learners with dyslexia face the challenges encountered by all second language learners—limited vocabulary and grammatical competence and lack of familiarity with the cultural or social context of the text. In this respect, their challenges are different from monolingual children.
Can the effects of dyslexia in bilinguals be stronger in one language than in the other?
Dyslexia in bilinguals is evident in both languages. This is the case because the impairment that underlies dyslexia is part of the learner’s genetic profile and, thus, its effects will influence the child’s ability to learn to read in any language. Of course, since many bilinguals are more proficient in one language than the other, the magnitude of their impairment will be more evident in their weaker language.
Cognition Essential Reads
A bilingual child who has a reading problem in only one of his/her languages does not have dyslexia. This child has difficulty learning to read in one of his/her languages that is due to other factors, as we discussed earlier.
It is often recommended that the parents of children who are thought to be dyslexic stop using the home language on the assumption that this will make it easier for their child to overcome their dyslexia. What is your opinion on this?
There is no evidence to support this assumption. If the child is from a minority language community where the language is important for communication with parents, extended family members, or others in the community, parents should continue to use the home language. There are many reasons for this. First, proficiency in the home language is important if the child is to become an engaged and well-adjusted member of his family and community. In addition, parents of minority language children are often more proficient in the home language and, thus, they are better able to assume their full parental responsibilities if they interact with their child in that language.
What are the other reasons?
Encouraging parents who speak a minority language to use it in the home also allows them to enrich their child’s home language experiences and competence. We know that strong skills in the home language prepares children to learn a second language and to do well in school because there are significant positive effects of the home language on second language learning.
This means that parents who continue to use the minority/home language can facilitate their child’s chances of becoming proficient second language learners. This is particularly true if they use the home language in literacy-related activities where the cross-linguistic correlations are strongest.
What about parents who wish to put their dyslexic child in a bilingual program? Should they avoid doing so?
There is no evidence that children with reading impairment or even difficulty learning to read cannot benefit from participation in a bilingual program. This is true for both children from minority language homes and children from majority of language homes. To the contrary, there is considerable research now that shows that educating minority language children in school programs that use both the home language and the majority language results in higher levels of achievement than programs that use only the majority language.
If parents are concerned that their child has a reading or other learning disability, they should pay special attention to whether the school has the know-how and resources to provide their child with the additional support they need in both languages.
When children being schooled in a second language start showing reading difficulties, should one have a wait-and-see attitude whilst they are making progress in their new language, or should one intervene immediately?
If children who are being educated entirely or partially through a second language appear to have difficulty learning to read, then it is best to start giving them additional support as soon as possible. This is recommended whether the child simply has difficulty learning to read or has clinically-identified dyslexia. Research shows that additional support that is early and individualized to meet each student’s needs is the most effective way to alleviating long term problems.
More generally, how does one know if a child's problems are due to dyslexia or simply to the fact that she is in the process of learning a second language?
It is not always easy to tell if a second language learner who is struggling to learn how to read has an underlying reading impairment or simply needs more time to learn to read like other students of the same age. To make a more definitive decision that a child is struggling to read because he/she has a reading impairment, it is necessary to rule out other possible contributing factors that are not indicative of dyslexia. For example, does the student have health-related problems; has he/she experienced recent trauma or emotional upset related to family or immigration issues; does he/she have normal intellectual and sensory-motor abilities; and so on. If an individual child’s difficulties can be linked to these other kinds of factors, then his/her difficulties are probably not due to reading impairment.
What kind of help and support can be given to dyslexic children being schooled in a second language?
Students being educated in a second language who are struggling readers can benefit from the same kinds of support that are used to help struggling monolingual students. At the same time, it is important to provide support that incorporates adaptations that are suitable for students who are still learning the language and who may be from a different cultural group; for example, provide lots of scaffolding, support vocabulary development, and use culturally familiar and appropriate materials at an appropriate linguistic level.
Should the intervention take place in both languages or just in one? What should professionals be aware of?
Support should be provided in whichever language is the primary language of instruction or in both languages if the instruction is bilingual. Professionals providing support for struggling readers should understand the nature of bilingual development and they should consider similarities and differences in the written and oral conventions of the two languages when they provide support.
Knowledge of these aspects of second language learning can ensure that they will make appropriate adjustments when they provide additional support. Professionals also need to know their student’s individual capabilities and challenges so you can individualize support and build on each child’s strengths.
Do you have any final words?
Scientific studies have shown that the fears about raising or educating children are largely unfounded. To the contrary, we now know that children have the capacity to learn two languages as naturally and as easily as one in the home or in school. Meeting the learning challenges of struggling second language learners calls for educators, professionals, and parents who can create learning environments that allow them to achieve their full capacity.
Genesee, F. (2015). Myths about early childhood bilingualism. Canadian Psychology, 56(1), 6-15.
Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning (2nd Edit.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.