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Bilinguals take ‘hybrid’ approach to reading

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By Claudia Civinini

The way your brain works when you read varies depending on the languages you speak, a review of research suggests – and bilinguals adopt a ‘hybrid’ approach to reading in both tongues.
Being bilingual could even help you learn to read if you have dyslexia, the research adds.

The researchers explain that learning to read in some languages – where the sounds correspond directly to individual letters on the page – makes the brain decode written texts in very small chunks (such as single letters).

These ‘transparent’ languages include Italian and Spanish, for example.


But in languages such as English – known as ‘opaque’ languages – the same sounds can be spelled in many different ways. The brain works differently to decode the words, taking larger chunks at a time.


These different reading strategies have been linked to functional variations in the underlying brain circuits.

Bilinguals who speak both kinds of languages develop a ‘hybrid’ way of reading, the researchers say, employing a more analytical approach in their opaque language and a more global strategy in their transparent language.

‘Bilingualism affects cognitive processes underlying literacy acquisition,’ said Dr Marie Lallier from the Basque Centre of Cognition, Brain and Language, one of the authors of the review. ‘The way bilinguals read is different’.


‘We could almost say that the global and analytical reading strategies complement one another’, she added.


This could give bilinguals an advantage over monolinguals.


One as yet unpublished research study said people with dyslexia speaking a transparent language could have an advantage when reading in an opaque language.


‘Dyslexia is a complex disorder’, said Dr Lallier, ‘however, one of the most common occurrences is a phonological deficit, the difficulty identifying correspondences between sounds and letters. By speaking one transparent language in addition to an opaque language, you can compensate for this deficit to some extent.’


Some studies on monolinguals showed learning to read in an opaque language such as English takes more time and effort than in a transparent one. The authors argue that ‘it exacerbates potential reading difficulties’, such as making developmental dyslexia more visible.


Learning to read a transparent language, instead, would promote the development of phonemic processing, for example the ability to perform spelling tasks.

  • Lallier, M. & Carreiras, M. (2017) Cross-linguistic transfer in bilinguals reading in two alphabetic orthographies: the grain size accommodation hypothesis. Psychonomic Bullettin & Review