What are the circumstances which determine whether or not a language will develop fully in bilingual children? A look into the chances and opportunities available to kids who master reading and writing in their second mother tongue.

In my workshops, I ask the participants how the languages that are important in their lives developed. Mitraa, whose parents immigrated to Austria from Iran, told us that at home as a child, she spoke Persian with her family.  However, learning German always took precedence. In this regard, she developed very well. When Mitraa started school, she had no problems at all getting ahead. But time and chances for speaking Persian shrank gradually.

“It was enough for my parents that I could express myself clearly and I could understand them” said Mitraa. “In hindsight, I find it quite a shame that they did not push me more to learn our family’s language. For example, I never learned how to read and write properly.” Mitraa touches on an important point: Linguistic heritage is passed on through writing.

In our Central European society, language skills are not considered complete without reading and writing.  Children can only achieve multilingual proficiency when then have mastered these basic skills. Only then are doors opened for them; only then can they write “native proficiency” on their CV.

Important Access to Written Culture

Besides, it’s enriching in many ways, having access to written culture through reading and writing. It means that you may access your own cultural and linguistic heritage on a whole new level.  You can discover something new about yourself, your family and your origins, without relying too much on outside help.  Building a better understanding of cultural traditions, social norms and customs becomes possible. Ultimately, it’s  another opportunity to better understand and internalize cultural elements that are – consciously or unconsciously – a part of one’s identity.

A Versatile Offer

A little later in the workshop, I ask what the participants wish for their multilingual children.  Mitraa surprised me with her answer: “I don’t want to overwhelm my daughter. If she can make herself understood by my Persian family, it’s enough.” When I reminded her of her admission earlier in the workshop, she smiled. “You see? I’m following the same old pattern. I would very much like to pass more of my linguistic heritage to my daughter, but how?”

Many parents of bilingual children aren’t well informed when it comes to the amazing opportunities that the Austrian school system offers, despite receiving a lot of criticism in recent weeks.

Regarding native languages on offer,  Austrian schools are set up wonderfully compared to other European countries. In Vienna alone, free language instruction is offered in 25 different languages. Children can learn how to read and write in their native tongues, gaining insight into their own culture, literature and history.

The various cultural communities also offer quite a bit: Associations, cultural institutes or embassies have extra-curricular options to teach children alongside their school instruction in German.  Anyone willing to do a little research will be surprised at the multitude of options in Vienna: after school activities, bilingual courses, language and cultural lessons and much more. (Editors note: To find out more about cultural programs available in Vienna, read METROPOLE’s How to Keep your Culture.)

A Worthwhile Effort

I want to motivate parents to raise their children bilingually.  Not just speaking and comprehending, but also ensuring that their children learn to read and write. The more advanced their ability, the more the child can develop on many different levels, from congnition, self-esteem, personality development, to opening new opportunities. Yes, it is a lot of effort to teach a child to read and write in another language in addition German, but it’s absolutely worth the trouble.

I wish to appeal to all pedagogues out there: inform parents about the options available in Vienna! Far too often, I have had to advise parents that had absolutely no information on the opportunities their multilingual children can enjoy in the Austrian school system.

A Whole New World

To conclude with a positive example, a mother told me recently that she registered her son in a school where native-language courses for bilingual children are offered in the afternoon. “I am so relieved that someone is taking this duty off my shoulders.” she said, “I am looking forward to the first children’s book that I will no longer have to read aloud,  that we can read together instead.”

Bilingual children enter a whole new world with writing. Not just the literary traditions, it also makes contact with their peers easier – just think of whatsapp or other social media platforms.


This was first published on standard.at in German on 16 September, 2016.


Zwetelina Ortega offers workshops in English and German for parents of multilingual children. Her next English language workshop  is:


Workshop in English: I am educating my child in a multilingual way 

Saturday, October 22, 2016, 10.00 – 14.00