Cubling has reached the point where her interest in all things letters and words is well established. I blame the pre-school personally, as I find it terribly early. Nevermind, my approach has always been to look at signs of interest and then support it.
But how do you do it if the language you use exclusively, in spoken and in writing, is one other than the community language, i.e. the language that she will learn to read and write in?
I don't want to confuse my child, but I also don't want to give her more reason to think that it's a nuisance to talk German when everything around her is English. Being a linguist, I also know that the written word gives a lot of power to any language, in fact, often makes a language in the mind of speakers of that language. A language without a written form is often dismissed as a dialect, as not a real language because it lacks the authority of the written word.
Therefore, considering that Cubling's is an at-risk bilingual (that's a bilingual child who grows up in a bilingual home but in whose community only one of the two languages is spoken. This may lead to refusal to speak the non-community language or even a total loss of the minority language, see Neuman/Dickinson, p.161), it's crucial that we support her early literacy without forgetting about German.
There is some information on the lovely internet, but often, the information relates to different settings to ours. Usually the setting relates to migrants who have one language at home and are now entering the UK/English language community. The typical child is one who speaks one language and now enters pre-school not speaking English. Of course our situation is far from this - English is the stronger language and one that is used at home and in the community. My interest is not how to support Cubling's developing literacy in English (because I know roughly how to go about this) but how and when to support it in, and using, German. My aim in this endeavour is not for her to write perfect German, but to be able to read German and use some writing in German, both of which should ideally support her English literacy as well.
More than her actual proficiency in writing and reading German, the reason to support her literacy in German is to give German some equality of relevance and usefulness, which in turn will help her maintain it, but also open up the world of the German written word to her.
We have already had interesting situations where she tried to decipher words on a wall chart. The words were in English, but she spoke to me, so "read" Katze instead of cat. Now this behaviour, while understandable, is bound to cause confusion - c-a-t does not read Katze after all. The nursery suggested to add the German word, which is probably a quick solution but won't help with all the signs we come across during the day.
There seems to be very little research evidence as to how achieve biliteracy. It appears that for children who have a home language and subsequently learn a second language (migrant children speaking one language at home who then enter pre-school and are only there exposed to, say, English) it is better if they learn literacy in their home language first because, in order to learn reading and writing, they need to have a decent range of vocabulary to work with and be able to distinguish phonemes.
For a child like Cubling, who is an at risk bilingual, it is on the one hand important to support the at risk, minority, language by introducing literacy in that language, as otherwise the weaker language may be at even greater risk of being lost. However, it's not clear if her German is proficient enough for her to acquire literacy in German just yet as her productive abilities in German are rather weak. She may be a borderline case and early literacy development is considered to be a mostly transferrable skill so that it may be best to introduce literacy in both languages at the same time.
Interestingly, what started being a question of curiosity appears to point towards a question that hasn't been appropriately answered in research, and one where the level of language in the weaker language may carry the answer. Cubling is definitely a borderline case - her German is beyond the formulaic stage but not yet at the productive stage. It's not clear if passive knowledge of vocabulary is sufficient to lead to fluent literacy or if productive use of a complex range of vocabulary and syntax is a prerequisite for literacy development.
The available research does point towards the importance of supporting literacy development at home, ideally in both languages. The emphasis is on the quality of language interaction and literacy activities in either language to be more important than what language this occurs in. It's just not clear as to whether it's better to introduce literacy in both langauges simultaneously or subsequently.
Bilingual children, regardless of how their proficiency in each language is distributed, benefit from additional support in literacy development. This is because their vocabulary in each language is smaller than that of a monolingual (though the accumulative vocabulary is greater than that of a monolingual) and size of vocabulary has been shown to be directly related to success in acquiring literacy. This means that bilingual children may find it more difficult to acquire literacy.
This means for us that maybe we should change our approach of letting things flow and become a bit more proactive with pre-literacy activities, while keeping in touch with Cubling's educators to spot any possible difficulties she may experience. I'm still none the wiser if it'll be best to focus on English literacy first and introducing German literacy later, or if it may be too late by then and it would in fact be better to introduce both simultaneously.
Susan B. Neuman, David K. Dickinson: Handbook of Early Literacy Research vol. 1.
Ellen Bialystok: Acquisition of Early Literacy in Bilingual Children: A Framework for Research. Language Learning 52:1, p. 159-199.