Using Literacy to Build Multilingual Identity

At the start of our journey raising multilingual children, it is often clear that we want our children to understand and speak our language(s) to connect with us and our family. When we live abroad, we also often want to pass on our culture and repeat the traditions we grew up with…because they are part of our multilingual IDENTITY.

But how important is it that your child also reads and writes in your language? In this post, I think I will convince you that these skills are also incredibly valuable.

How reading and writing help our children build their multilingual identity | Multicultural Kid Blogs

Reading and writing are often viewed as secondary to speaking and understanding. However, these skills are crucial for helping our children become multi-literate. And, they are essential to building their multilingual IDENTITY. When appropriately presented, reading and writing can also complement speaking skills, so I will include a few tips that I’ve found useful when facilitating reading and writing in minority languages with my own kids.

Reading and writing help build a multilingual identity

two boys in the middle of a Korean city. We see many buildings with Korean writing.

When our children can read and write, they can be completely independent. They do not need to rely on anyone to read them the menu at the restaurant or to orient themselves in the city. They can access any information they want, in all their languages.

In other words, they can do the same as the people living in the country. They are equal and can feel part of the group.

When the same script is used across our children’s languages, reading is somewhat less difficult and can be worked out more easily. But, when the scripts are different, such as in Korean and English, decoding the words is the first challenge…the first barrier to accessing the information and therefore the first barrier to being part of the group.

If, on the other hand, they can read in all their languages, their multi-literate ability becomes empowering.

This is why being able to read and write can play a role in how kids identify themselves. It can give a sense of belonging to a culture or group. It becomes part of their multilingual identity.

Reading and writing help develop speaking

Boy reading a book in Korean. Books in French, English, and Korean are next to him.

Reading and writing are often seen as “additional skills,” a “step up” from speaking and understanding. However, these skills actually complement each other.

When kids grow up in a country where their home language is a minority language, they are often restricted to a handful of situations where they hear and use a set number of words. The vocabulary they need in the minority language is therefore less varied than the one for the majority language.

Books allow them to encounter new words and expressions. Books also enable them to immerse themselves in new situations. Would cartoons and films provide the same benefits? It is true that they also expose our children to new situations. However, when reading books, it is easier to stop and clarify words and expressions that are unclear. Pausing a film is a lot less likely.

Words of caution

Hopefully, you can now see how important it is to help our children be multi-LITERATE in addition to being multiLINGUAL. But here are some words of caution

Keeping it relevant

As adults, we know and see the benefits of reading and writing. However, it might not be as obvious (or seem worth it) from our children’s point of view. So, let’s make sure we make the learning experience relevant for our children.

In The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children, I explain how playing games can make the learning experience both more enjoyable and more relevant to them. Learning to read and write is then simply the consequence of all that fun. Click here to read the first chapter for free.

Opening Doors

We also want to be sure to present our languages as a way of opening doors. Of course, we all want our languages to open doors, but we might end up doing the opposite if we are not careful.

For example, if we do bedtime stories, do we read to our children in any language we can read? Or, do we say it has to be in the home language? By allowing our children to pick a book they enjoy, rather than a book they enjoy IN THE HOME LANGUAGE, we show them that the more languages they can read, the more choices they have.

How reading and writing help our children build their multilingual identity | Multicultural Kid Blogs

Tips for ensuring minority-language books are read (too)

If we feel like our children always pick books in the majority language, there are some ways to change that. For example:

  • Point out that we might want to read a certain book because it has been a long time since we’ve read it.
  • Allow each person to pick a book (including you). If the books are long, you can only read part of them. At least some reading time will be spent in your language. Hopefully, once children are more adept at reading, they will want to continue this practice on their own.
  • Have one person each day in charge of picking the bedtime story.

Unless you are preparing your child for an exam or have another pressing reason to go at a certain pace, always follow your child’s pace. My eldest became an independent reader in French in just 8 months. (By independent, I mean that he can read. But, he also wants to read and will pick a book spontaneously.) However, for Korean, it took an additional 2.5 years. Now, he reads independently in three languages.

Two boys in a big bed, reading books in Korean, French, and English.
REMEMBER: In ten years’ time, it won’t matter if your child took a few months to read independently or a few years. The most important thing is to help them enjoy it, so they will continue on their own. If you want to follow my son’s journey, check out this video.

But What About Writing?

It is generally a lot easier to motivate a child to read than to write. Indeed, by finding books our children enjoy, they are motivated enough to read. It is a lot more difficult to find a genuine reason for our children to write in the minority language.

This observation led me to create a new book that invites the reader to contribute to the story by writing in their home language. A sample is shown below. One page from the book In Search of the Lost Words. There are empty speech bubbles to complete.

How does this book motivate your child to write in their minority language? There are mainly two reasons:

  • The story features a bilingual hero who understands very little about her home language. Your child therefore needs to work out from the context and various other clues what the characters speaking that language (also your child’s minority language) need. Using the minority language is therefore meaningful and justified.
  • When your child writes in the book, they will be writing in a published book. This makes it more likely that they will want to write everything correctly and neatly. It is, therefore, the perfect time to explain a few grammar or spelling rules. The importance of getting it right will motivate your child to listen carefully to your explanations.

If you want to learn more about this book, go to

Book front cover of In Search of the Lost Words.

Final Thoughts

Being able to read and write in the home language:

  • is as important as speaking and understanding it
  • helps our children feel part of the culture of the minority language
  • plays an important role in the development of their multilingual identity
  • helps them expand their vocabulary

But, the main thing to focus on is enabling our children to become multilingual, multicultural, AND multi-literate. And, we want to make sure they see the benefits of developing all these skills. In other words, we need to make reading and writing in the home/minority language RELEVANT and ENJOYABLE.

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How reading and writing help children build their multilingual identity | Multicultural Kid Blogs


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Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori

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