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The Problem And Peculiarities Of Bilingual Writing

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“Handwriting is a complex human activity that entails an intricate blend of cognitive, kinesthetic, and perceptual-motor components” (Hanover Research, 2012, p.5). For this reason it requires instructions and practice in order to write neatly and fluently. However, when a pupil has firstly learned to write in a different writing system, the development of his handwriting in a second system can be influenced. Through this paper, Tom, a Chinese-English bilingual will be taken into analysis. He is from the United Kingdom, he moved several times and he is currently studying in an International school in Denmark, in year 4.

After having explored several theoretical perspectives related to bilingualism and handwriting, the methodologies used and the case will be presented. Then, the analysis will be divided into the categorization of the bilingualism of the pupil, a discussion about the interview conducted and an interlanguage analysis of Tom’s texts.

Problem formulation and research question

Bialystok (2001) analysed how different types of bilingualism affects literacy development. One of the observations was“the phonological awareness skills developed in one language transferred to reading ability in another language” (p.172). However, in the same analysis they noticed that for pupils with two different writing systems, such as for Chinese-English bilinguals, in the early ages the two alphabets/characters may cause confusion. This is because the Chinese system uses characters, whereas the Roman system, used in English, is alphabetical. Therefore, the correspondence between sounds and letters/characters is not direct, as it would be for a English-Spanish bilingual (Bialystok, 2001). However, this issue has not been noticed in older ages, and the development of literacy in biluangals has been proved to be facilitated with any first language learned.

According to the Cambridge curriculum, followed by the International School attended by Tom, one of the ongoing learning objectives is the development of handwriting. This means that throughout the whole year the teacher should remind learners of the different styles and purposes of handwriting. These are divided into three groups: personal (for notes and letters), fast and fluent (the most commonly used, it should be legible and quick) and presentation writing (used for specific situations, it should be slow and neat). Furthermore, students should be able to use joined-up handwriting. One of the reasons for this learning objective is teaching to spell “kinaesthetically as well as orally and visually” (Cambridge University International Examination, n.d., p.6). The curriculum states that these ongoing objectives should be taught, improved and developed throughout the school year, and in case of students with difficulties in letter formation, additional support should be offered.

Therefore, by taking into consideration the handwriting difficulties, due to the fact that Tom has learned to write in Mandarin before English, and the requirements of the Cambridge curriculum, this paper aims to answer the following research question: How can learning a second writing system affect handwriting compositions and how can teachers improve this language skill?

Bilingualism - Definition and terminology

Bilingualism is a concept difficult to define, in particular because a person can be bilingual in different ways. One general definition can be that “bilinguals know more than one language to different degrees and use these languages for a variety of purposes” (Brisk & Harrington, 2010, p.4). The knowledge of these languages can vary according to the context, but also throughout the life of a bilingual. Moreover, a bilingual is also biliterate, which includes not only the ability to read and write, but also being able to encode and decode different linguistic systems. This ability can have different degrees according to the language used and the genre. On the other hand, the knowledge of a language supports the literacy of others, in particular the awareness of genre rules. For instance, the structure of a letter usually does not change in different languages, therefore knowing the structure of the text in one language helps the composition in a second one. Another important aspect included by Brisk and Harrington (2010) in the definition of bilingualism, is being bicultural, which concerns having knowledge of more cultural contexts, rules and characteristics related to the cultural origins of the languages spoken.

As mentioned before, bilingualism includes different dimensions. One that is relevant to consider, is the distinction between circumstantial and elective bilingualism (Valdés & Figueroa, 1994, as cited in Baker,‌ ‌2001). Circumstantial is when “bilinguals learn another language to survive”, whereas elective bilinguals “choose to learn a language” (p.3). In other words, the first group has to learn a new language in order to communicate and integrate in a new society. Differently, elective bilinguals have the opportunity to learn a new language without the risk of losing the first one, this situation happens usually in school.

Another relevant distinction to mention is between simultaneous and sequential bilingualism (Baker, 2001, p.91). These terms refer to the development of it, which can happen through an exposure to two or more languages from birth, or in a sequential way, thus a second language is learned later. Simultaneous bilinguals usually are pupils with parents with different nationalities, who speak to them in more languages. Instead, sequential bilingualism is when a second language is learned in a context outside the family, such as at school or in another community (Baker, 2001).

A last important term to mention is functional bilingualism, which concerns “when, where, and with whom people use their two languages” (Fishman, 1965, as cited in Baker, 2001, p.12). Usually bilinguals use the two languages with different people (family, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and so on) and in different domains (work, hobbies, visual and printed media, etc.). Therefore, when defining bilingualism it is important to consider all these aspects, since every bilingual pupil is different and he can have different degrees of language proficiency according to the context that surrounds him.

Language use and fluency

As mentioned before, “bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, to accomplish different things. Their level of fluency in a language depends on their need for that language” (Grosjean, 2012, p.7). Moreover, fluency can vary in their four different skills, some bilinguals may be better in speaking and listening a language but not in writing or reading. This depends on several variables, for instance in which domains a bilingual uses the languages and how much they use them. Therefore, if a pupil uses a language in an extensive number of domains this can bring to a higher fluency. On the other hand, if a language is not used frequently, language loss or language attrition is a phenomenon that can happen (Grosjean, 2012). The use and fluency of languages changes throughout the lifespan of the bilingual, and this may include forgetting or improving a language, as well as the two or more languages can influence each other. All these processes depend on the importance of a given language in that particular life period of the bilingual, and this is why it is fundamental for the teacher to know the language history of the bilingual students.


“Research has shown that improved handwriting skills have benefits for cognitive development and motor skills” (Hanover Research, 2012, p.2). Furthermore, it can also support writing and reading skills. However, in a world always more digital, the opponents to handwriting teaching are various, for several reasons. First, communications nowadays are mainly digital, rarely pen writing is being used to interact. Another reason is that teaching handwriting may waste time during lectures, which could be used for other topics. On the other hand, the high variety of the benefits of teaching handwriting have been confirmed by several authors (Hanover Research, 2012). Planning, spelling, grammar, text production, self-monitoring are some of those benefits. At the same time, handwriting proficiency is also beneficial across all the subjects, because when students spend less time thinking about letter formation and writing composition, they can focus more on the content. Therefore, handwriting difficulties can lead to reduce the quality and quantity of the pupils’ compositions.

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In order to further support this point of view, other authors (Medwell, Wray, Moore, & Griffiths, 2017) have claimed that “handwriting is an important factor in composition, and that a proportion of children suffer from low levels of handwriting automaticity, which may be interfering with their composition” (p.69). This is why teaching handwriting is not just important to improve the presentation of the pupil’s writing, but also to improve his composition skills. Having difficulties in handwriting may cause other problems, for instance in recognizing phonemes, and also slowness in typing (Medwell et al., 2017). It is common to give less importance to handwriting nowadays, since the computer starts to be used increasingly during the lectures and to study in general. However, there is evidence that if a pupil has difficulties in handwriting, he tends to have them in typing too.


In order to answer the research question, an interview with Tom (Appendix 1), a questionnaire answered by his mother and qualitative observations from the teaching practice period will be used. The interviewee has been asked different questions about his language knowledge and the contexts he uses them. The interview has been introduced with a brief explanation of the subject, the purpose and the permission to use a sound recorder. The questions asked were structured to be brief and simple, in particular because of the age of the student, to fit his background knowledge and vocabulary. This is also a reason why the questions asked were mainly direct or specifying questions, since these types help to formulate precise descriptions (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009).

The qualitative observations have been conducted during five weeks of teaching practice in the year 4 classroom, by recording the engagement of Tom during writing activities and by collecting pictures of his writings. The observations aimed to produce descriptive and narrative recordings, since these systems are flexible and simple to reanalyse in conjunction with the data collected (Simpson & Tuson, 2003).

The student analysed for this paper is called Tom, from the UK, currently attending the fourth grade in an International School in Denmark. He is eight years old, but he has already attended five different schools, in three different countries. He started by attending a kindergarten in Singapore where the main language spoken was Mandarin. Then, after the first year of primary school in China, he moved with his family to the UK, and finally, at the age of 7, in Denmark. English has been the main language used at home and now also at School, where he is also learning Danish. However, in China he learned to write in Mandarin before English and this may have influenced the acquisition of the second language writing system, Roman. Tom has some difficulties in writing compositions and in letters formation. Most of his writings are difficult to read, and this can be a problem for the teacher when assessing his works.


The following grids will be used in order to define the bilingualism of Tom, in terms of language use and language fluency in two different periods of time (Grosjean, 2012). These datas are approximations, created according to the information given from the interview to Tom and a questionnaire filled by Tom's mother.

The first grid shows that at 5 year old, the pupil was speaking Chinese and English daily, and the language fluency was high for both of them. At 8 years old, instead, Tom is not required anymore to use the Chinese language, thus the level of fluency is also diminishing. Moreover, at 7 years old he started to learn another language, Danish, which he uses a few days a week, and the fluency is still quite low. Therefore, Tom`s bilingualism can be classified as circumstantial, and sequential. Circumstantial because he learned the second language (Chinese) in order to integrate in the community he found himself. Sequential, due to the fact that his whole family is British and he started to speak Mandarin only in the school domain.

Interview ‘s analysis

From the interview conducted two observations regarding the language use of Tom can be drawn: the predominance of the domains in which he uses English and the absence of contexts where he can use the Chinese language. As he said, in Denmark he has no opportunities to speak Mandarin and therefore he mainly speaks English, because in family, school and leisure contexts he is not required to use other languages. He also mentioned being able to speak French and Spanish, however in the questionnaire these languages have not been written, and the use of this language has not been observed during the teaching practice. An hypothesis about it can be that he learned a few words by being in contact with other international pupils in school.

Another relevant observation is the fact that he is aware about the differences between the languages. “I am good at Chinese and Spanish. Those languages are easy to learn. You don't need like a tongue twister, like in Danish” (Appendix 1). He is able to recognize the different pronunciations required, and he has noticed some difficulties in learning Danish, due to the sounds of the language. Baker (2017) claimed that “bilingualism permits increased linguistic awareness, more flexibility in thought, more internal inspection of language” (p.234). These metalanguage abilities can be noticed in his answers, beside he did not know the meaning of bilingualism.

Finally, an important point to notice is that he does not mention having handwriting difficulties. This can be due to the formulation of the question, the focus is more about writing in general. Indeed, he is usually highly engaged during writing activities, he is a creative student and he enjoys writing about imaginative characters. These characteristics have been noticed during the English lectures, since they explore the Fantasy topic for five weeks. Anyhow, the interviewee shows that his handwriting is not perceived from him as a limitation.

Interlanguage analysis

For this analysis two short handwritten texts by Tom are taken into consideration. The first text has been written as a task after the Christmas holidays, where the learners were required to write about an object, a person and a moment they were grateful for. The second text was given as homework and it refers to the book The firework-maker's daughter by Philip Pullman, read in class by the teacher.

In the first text the students did not answer successfully to the task, since he wrote a fantasy story about Christmas, whereas the second text has been understood correctly and he gave good reasons for his statements. The general cohesion of the texts is quite good, in the first we can observe a good command of paragraph division, for example. He is also able to correctly use cohesive devices, as the pronouns him or myself, and co-ordinating conjunctions, as and and but. Overall the student shows a good knowledge of past tense, both for regular (e.g. called, worked) and irregular (e.g. was, tought) verbs. He is aware of the use of capital letters at the start of the paragraph and for names (Razvani). However, he often uses capital letters in the middle of the sentence, sometimes to emphasize the concept (e.g. YES BOMBS!; STOP ME), but mostly without a particular purpose. This is a common mistake in early years, since lowercase letters can be considered difficult to write (Medwel et al., 2010). A, e and f are the letters that he mostly writes in capital letters, however throughout the text the same letters are also written lowercase. Therefore, he knows how to write in cursive both of the forms.

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