In the mornings before school and in the evenings following dinner I make sure to speak to my daughter in Spanish, our second language. At the end of the day, I pat myself on the back and tell myself that I am doing a good job at keeping Spanish relevant and constant in my daughter’s daily life. However, when it comes right down to it, our conversations on a daily basis are pretty mundane and repetitive. Eat your breakfast, “come to desayuno,” brush your teeth, “lava los dientes,” brush your hair, “peina tu pelo,” How was school today? “¿Como pasaste tu día hoy en la escuela?”…you see what I mean. It is not that we don’t have more meaningful conversations in Spanish, it is just that the day to day routines lend itself to topics that tend to be repetitive in nature. Of course for those just learning a second language, this repetitive exposure to language is invaluable and necessary. On the other hand, it is clear that to acquire a mastery of a language, routine speech is also insufficient. This is why taking time to read in the second language is so important for being bilingual.
A study by Victoria Rodrigo of Georgia State University published in 2009, Componente léxico y hábito de lectura en hablantes nativos y no nativos de español demonstrates the importance of reading for vocabulary acquisition. Her study compared the vocabulary of native speakers of Spanish with non-native speakers along with their reading habits. She found that good reading habits were responsible for 88% of the difference in vocabulary acquired-a very significant finding! This has huge implications for both non-native learners of a second language as well as natives learners as it highlights the importance of reading in acquiring vocabulary, regardless of your native language.
The extent by which one is immersed and communicates in a language very much depends on how much that person reads. Why? When I sit down and read to my daughter in the evenings, we leave the mundane and enter into the world of imagination outside the daily routines of life. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, we find so many interesting and engaging topics that peak curiosity and raise questions. No matter the language, questions about vocabulary always arise. What does this word mean? Why did they use that word to express that idea? How does this word sound? Are there other words that have the same meaning? Etc. The context in which the new vocabulary is used becomes seeded within the association of the story or material read. Thus, reading in the second language strengthens language skills and provides a stronger foundation for which to build upon and to pull from when writing and engaging in conversations and experiences related to those topics.
So, read to your children in the second language and encourage them to also read to you.
- Begin with a reading level that is comfortable for each of you.
- For example, I often read picture books to my daughter that are written in more complex Spanish than she herself can read; whereas, she reads stories to me in Spanish according to her reading level. On the other hand, some parents may not be good readers in the second language, and that is OK. Just choose books that you can read and engage in the practice of reading with your child.
- Set aside special time each day to read.
- Make it fun and engaging.
- Find stories about a particular character or subject matter that your child really enjoys. For young children, choose books with great illustrations.
- Follow-up the reading with discussions that engage your child’s interest.
- Add more challenging reading texts here and there and see how you and your children respond.
The same reading advice can be applied to older children and adults who are also learning a second language. Speak daily but grow through reading; because through reading, we develop our vocabulary to become better communicators in our languages.