The effect of first written language on the acquisition of English literacy

Cognition 59 (2):119-147 (1996)
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The relationship between first and second language literacy was examined by identifying the skills and processes developed in the first language that were transferred to the second language. The performance of 40 university students from The People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Australia were compared on a series of tasks that assessed phonological awareness and reading and spelling skills in English. The results indicated that the Hong Kong students (with non-alphabetic first language literacy) had limited phonological awareness compared to those students with alphabetic first language literacy. The reading and spelling tasks showed no differences between the groups on real word processing. However, the students from Hong Kong had difficulty processing nonwords because of their poor phonological awareness. The results supported the hypothesis that people learning English as a second language (ESL) transfer their literacy processing skills from their first language to English. When the phonological awareness required in English had not been developed in the first language, ESL students were limited to a whole-word, visual strategy. The findings indicate that students from non-alphabetic written language backgrounds might have difficulties with new, or unfamiliar words when attending universities where English is the medium of instruction.



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