Multilingualism is defined as knowing more than one language. While individuals are typically impressed by someone who speaks multiple languages, the impact of language knowledge on new language learning isn’t something that is often spoken about. A study by Schwartz, et al. analyzed how a child’s knowledge of Russian and Hebrew (first and second language) can impact their English language learning when compared to children who solely speak Hebrew.
The study analyzed bilingual and bi-literate outcomes in English literacy when compared to their monolingual counterparts (Schwartz et al., 2007) . Only basic literacy skills were looked at in this study. Bilingualism is defined as someone who speaks and understands another language fluency, whereas bi-literate identifies someone that can read in another language. Someone can be both bilingual and bi-literate.
The researchers performed various tasks that indicate language literacy — such as phonemic analysis, non-word decoding and spelling tasks in L3 English. The results found that the knowledge of Russian had a positive impact on the children’s acquisition of English literacy. The bi-literate children also had a better understanding of phoneme (letter) differentiation than their monolingual counterparts when learning English, which most likely leads to better results. The data also revealed that 79% of the bi-literate bilinguals did not mix-up English and Russian spelling. It is important to note that Russian and English symbols overlap. Often the symbols make the same sound as English symbols, but other times the same English and Russian symbols have different sounds. For example, the Russian letter “P” represents the /r/ sound. Given the word, “topt” (Russian for cake, pronounced “tort”) there could be a potential for “visual errors” when reading English. For example, pronouncing the English work “top” as “tor” (matching the Russian symbols). Even though it was a minority, the children that did mix-up the letters demonstrate how being bi-literate can have a negative transfer when learning a new language, as it causes confusion. Another important language detail to note is that written Hebrew does not contain vowels. Therefore, the idea of vowels embedded in a word is a new concept for monolingual Hebrew speakers/readers who are learning Hebrew.
A struggle that the bi-literate individuals reported was the inability to practice their first language, as they live in a country that practices the bi-literates’ second language.
This study revealed the benefit that knowing two languages can have on learning a third language, such as performing better on letter differentiation tasks, identifying and reading non-words, and reading overall. As well, the researchers noted that having a third language is not just an additional set of knowledge when compared to a second language, but rather represents a whole new language representation area in the brain. This study shows that information regarding symbols and grammatical rules from prior studied languages can be transferred between not one language — but two. Because of this transfer, the research also demonstrated that bi-literate individuals (rather than bilinguals) performed better on the reading literacy tasks.
The research analyzed personal questionnaires and interviews and revealed that some of the downsides of learning an additional language is not having enough opportunity to practice languages. To gain the benefits of transferring linguistic knowledge from one language to another, one must be sufficiency proficient in a language to understand the letter sounds and rules.
Often, our society preaches the idea of learning additional languages to add to your resume but understanding the way languages work and influence each other isn’t regularly discussed. This study sheds light on how a first language can influence the third language.
Schwartz, M., Geva, E., Share, D. L., & Leikin, M. (2007). Learning to read in English as third language: The cross-linguistic transfer of phonological processing skills. Written Language & Literacy, 10(1), 25–52.