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Linguistic diversity and multilingualism

February 27, 2020 by l.marth

On International Mother Language Day we invite you to think about the importance of your first or mother language. With this day UNESCO sets out to celebrate linguistic diversity and multlingualism, noting that 'linguistic diversity is 'increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear'. Although we might imagine what it would be like living in a world where everyone speaks a single language, this idea quickly turns into a somewhat dystopian view. Just think about the fun we have in comparing various ideas and the beauty we find in listening to different sounds in different langauges.

Multilingualism is a fascinating field of study also from a pedagogical perspective.  Think about your own experience with various languages and how you relate them to your first langauge or languages. How much has your first language (L1) influenced your second language (L2) development? How about your students? How many first languages are spoken in your school? How do your L1 and literacy skills influence your L2 achievements? How does your increased knowledge of L2 (or L3) change your awareness of L1?

Can I Play? Mother Language Day
​ Illustration by Valentina Mai from the Helbling young reader 'Can I Play?' written by Rick Sampedro. © Helbling Languages ​

Main concepts and hypothesis

Since the 1970s there has been a growing interest in understanding the relationship between L1 and L2 (and even more languages), and various hypotheses have been offered to explain how we negotiate it: the developmental interdependence hypothesis, the threshold hypothesis (Cummins, 1979), the linguistic coding differences hypothesis (Ganschow and Sparks, 2001) or the environmental opportunity hypothesis. The phenomena of code-switching (the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation), bilingualisation (the process of becoming competent in the use of two languages; the action or process of making bilingual or bilingualizing) and translanguaging have become the foci of research studies, theoretical investigations and methodoligical discussions.

Research on L1 and L2 reading skills

Our main question here is the relationship between reading abilities in L1 and L2, and how L1 reading skills predict and influence L2 development. The answer is very simple - your students' L1 development and reading skills are strong predictors of their L2 language development. Research papers from the most diverse backgrounds (Sparks (2012) in the United States, Perry (2013) in Spain, Csapó and Nikolov (2010) in Hungary, and Mihaljevic Djigunovic (2008) in Croatia all came to similar conclusions.

Sparks (2012) reports on previous research which found that 'preschool L1 skills, elementary school L1 literacy and verbal skills, cognitive ability, and L2 aptitude play a role in the development of L2 productive skills. They also suggest that continued growth in reading after elementary school may play an important role in second language learning. Sparks (2012) also highlights that differences in L1 literacy skills are not only related to but are also 'predictive of differences in L2 proficiency, especially in L2 learners who encounter an L2 in high school and college'. Similar findings have been shown by Csapó and Nikolov (2010) and Mihaljevic Djigunovic (2008) in Hungarian and Croatian contexts.

Not only are L1 reading skills good predictors of success in L2 reading development, but studies have also shown that L1 reading comprehension skills make a large contribution to L2 reading comprehension as well (Sparks, 2012).  What's even more interesting, L1 reading is related to the development of a wide variety of language skills including vocabulary, verbal short-term memory, phonological awareness, grammar, verbal fluency, and semantic memory (Sparks, 2012; Stanovich, 2000). For example, Perry (2013), conducting research with Spanish readers found that readers used largely the same strategies when carrying out the reading tasks in Spanish (L1) and in English (L2) and are able to control their use.

It is interesting to note that the the findings of Sparks' (2012) study and others suggest that the foundations for L2 learning may begin well before a high school student encounters L2.

In the classroom

Having seen the strong relationship between L1 and L2 reading, what can we do as teachers in the classroom? We believe that the first and most important step is the encouragement of reading in both L1 and L2 out of the classroom. If you have connections with teachers of young learners, encourage the parents and teachers of children to start reading in L1 as much as possible with lots of labelling (pointing to the pictures and words) during reading.

It seems that it does not matter in what language you read, the more you read, the better you become at languages in general.

In our next post about L1 and L2, we will look at the classroom practices you can use during reading and vocabulary exercises to tap into your students' L1 and build on their first language skills. We will consider both bottom-up and top-down approaches ranging from word-decoding to background knowledge activation and see the benefits and best practices of using L1 in the L2 classroom.


  • Nikolov, M. & Csapó, B. (2010). The relationship between reading skills in early English as a foreign language and Hungarian as a first language. International Journal of Bilingualism, 14(3). 315-329.
  • Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J. (2006). Interaction between L1 and L2 communicative language competences. SRAZ, LI, 261–277.
  • Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J., Nikolov, M., & Ottó, I. (2008). A comparative study of Croatian and Hungarian EFL students. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 433–452.
  • Sparks, R., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., & Humbach, N. (2012). Do L1 reading achievement and L1 print exposure contribute to the prediction of L2 proficiency? Language Learning, 62(2).
  • Sparks, R., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., Humbach, N., & Javorsky, J. (2008). Early first-language reading and spelling skills predict later second-language reading and spelling skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(1).