Introducing children to a second alphabet at an early age can help them to understand the fundamentals of language. Researchers from Goldsmith's College and the Institute of Education in London believe that the experiences of bilingual pupils prove that children are capable of internalising two languages at the same time.
They studied bilingual pupils aged five and six alongside their primary classmates. While all the pupils were learning to write in English, those in the study were also learning to write in Chinese, Arabic or Spanish.
Recent reports have revealed that as many as half the children in many inner city schools do not speak English as a first language. And bilingual children are often described as moving, confused, between two parallel worlds. But the London researchers believe that children are able to make sense of two linguistic worlds simultaneously, identifying similarities and differences. They state: "Simultaneity of experience should not be equated with confusion."
Tala, an Arabic speaker, wrote the Arabic alphabet above the English alphabet, highlighting similarities. Attempting to spell the English word girl, Spanish speaking Sadhana mentioned the Spanish equivalent, nina.
And Selina, a Chinese pupil, drew a picture incorporating the pop star Sporty Spice's Chinese-language tattoo, along with the English words "I love my sister", to illustrate a drawing of her sibling.
The children also showed they were aware of the particular principles underlying different writing systems. For example, the Chinese children understood their writing was formed from symbols, rather than an alphabet. And children learning Arabic recognised that their language was written from right to left. Pointing to the cover of his Arabic textbook, Yazan announced: "Not the end". He later emphasised to classmates that Arabic writing should begin at the top, right-hand corner of the page. And he highlighted the importance of dots, used to distinguish similar letters in Arabic.
The researchers comment: "The children's concern with these issues demonstrates that the act of writing is not simply a mechanical skill, but involves bodily and cognitive engagement."
Which has significant implications, they argue. Teachers should attempt to understand bilingual children's experience, encouraging them to dwell on similarities and differences between writing systems, the researchers suggest. This would be more productive than ignoring or suppressing non-English language use.
Monolingual pupils could also benefit from seeing different writing systems at an early age: Wellington College in Brighton offers Mandarin lessons for seven-year-olds.
"Rather than seeing multilingual experience as causing confusion," the researchers say, "teachers need to recognise the richness of these children's learning, and the flexibility of thinking to which it leads".
At North primary school in Southall, west London, where 96 per cent of pupils are from non-English-speaking backgrounds, Teresa Gleeson found they were keen to read out the sounds when she pinned up the Arabic alphabet.
Ms Gleeson, the ethnic-minority achievement co-ordinator, said "They seem to take it as read that different shapes make different sounds in other languages, just as they do in English," she said.
And she believes that these pupils will find learning a new language much easier in future. "The awareness of different languages and the way they work can only be a benefit," she said. "Children enjoy working out different codes, and can switch quickly from one language to another. I'd love to be bilingual."