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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Contemplating the potential influence of typological relatedness on bilingual learners’ L2 preliteracy acquisition

Fajer M. Bin Rashed, PhD candidate at United Arab Emirates University Najwa M. Alhosani, Vice dean at the College of Education at United Arab Emirates University

A survey of research on the acquisition of preliteracy skills in children’s first language (L1) has provided an important starting point from which the unique circumstances of bilingual children can be examined. While there remains a lack of consensus around the exact definition of bilingualism, including that in children, this blog post adopts the term ‘bilingual learner’, deemed as the closest to celebrating learners for their bilingual capacities rather than mainly focusing on their need to learn a second language (see García & Kleifgen, 2018). This post sheds light on a yet-to-be-investigated aspect of bilingualism: the role that cross-linguistic influence, or typological relatedness, might have in supporting second language (L2) preliteracy acquisition within bilingual learners.

Rather than highlighting our research findings (which we will do in our presentation at BERA’s annual conference in 2023), we want to briefly address an aspect of bilingualism that our study could not investigate because of its nature. We deem typological relatedness a significant aspect to investigate, especially when a thorough comparative analysis between regional Arabic home languages can be conducted as part of a study’s research methodology. While the nature of our study did not require a comparative analysis, we hope this blog post inspires future relevant studies to examine this aspect, especially regionally.

The Arabic language is characterised as diglossic, encompassing Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) as ‘formal’ and Spoken Arabic Vernacular (SAV) as ‘informal’ (Ferguson, 1959; Saiegh-Haddad, 2011). The population in our study is comprised of bilingual Kuwaiti children, whose Kuwaiti-Arabic (SAV) an L1 and English an L2. Researchers like Bhatia and Ritchie (1999) present an inclusive picture of bilingualism – one that acknowledges transfer and interference between languages, among other factors. Inspired by this, we could not ignore contemplating the influence that cross-linguistic similarity might potentially have on learners’ L2 preliteracy acquisition while conducting our study, which examines the influence of home book reading on developing Kuwaiti children’s preliteracy skills in English. This is especially because relevant research has explored typological relatedness as a factor in contributing to acquiring a target language (TL) (see Bialystok et al., 2005; Comrie, 1989; Ellis, 2008; Gottardo & Chen, 2021; Saiegh-Haddad, 2019).

Like English, Kuwaiti-Arabic is phonemically based. More importantly, Kuwaiti-Arabic was historically influenced by English, reducing the typological distance (especially lexicality) between the two varieties. Examples include appropriated words like /leɪt/ meaning light and /kɪndeɪʃɪn/ meaning air-conditioner (Mohammad, 2009). We also postulate that the phonological relatedness between Kuwaiti-Arabic and English is manifested in the existence of letter sounds such as /ch/ /چ/ and /g/ /ڨ/ that they have in common. This, however, does not suggest that such phonological relatedness is, too, a result of the aforementioned historical English-language influence on Kuwaiti-Arabic. Yet, this phonological relatedness is postulated to contribute to the acquisition of English as a TL within Kuwaiti bilingual learners, especially when the same sounds are not used in MSA.

‘Kuwaiti-Arabic was historically influenced by English, reducing the typological distance (especially lexicality) between the two varieties.’

However, limited in its scope to assess the prospect of the above-hypothesised typological relatedness between the two varieties, our study did not examine theoretical and pedagogical implications of the influence of Kuwaiti-Arabic acquisition on bilingual learners’ preliteracy development in English. Examining the complexity of preliteracy development in L2 among bilingual learners, in relation to typological relatedness per se, requires a thorough comparative analysis between regional Arabic home languages. In this way, it could be deduced if a certain home language could better support the acquisition of English as an L2 because of its unique history with the language and their typological relatedness. Thus, we see our research as a starting point for future regional research to become observational, descriptive and potentially explanatory in examining the influence of typological relatedness on acquiring preliteracy English as a second language.


Bhatia, T. K., & Ritchie, W. C. (1999). The bilingual child: Some issues and perspectives. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of child language acquisition (pp. 569–643). Academic Press.

Bialystok, E., Luk, G., & Kwan, E. (2005). Bilingualism, biliteracy, and learning to read: Interactions among languages and writing systems. Scientific Studies of Reading9(1), 43–43. 

Comrie, B. (1989). Language universals and linguistic typology (2nd ed.). Basil Blackwell.

Ellis, R. (2008). The study of second language acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Ferguson, C. (1959). Diglossia. Word, 15(2), 325–340. 

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2018). Educating emergent bilinguals: Policies, programs, and practices for English language learners. Teachers College Press.

Gottardo, A., & Chen, X. (2021). Understanding within- and cross-language relations among language, preliteracy skills, and word reading in bilingual learners: evidence from the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), 390. 

Mohammad, K. S. (2009). Dictionary of foreign words in the Kuwaiti dialect: Past and present (1st ed.). Alfaisal Press.

Saiegh-Haddad, E. (2011). Literacy reflexes of Arabic diglossia. In M. Leikin, M. Schwartz, & Y. Tobin (Eds.), Current issues in bilingualism: Cognitive and sociolinguistic perspectives (pp. 43–56). Springer.

Saiegh-Haddad, E. (2019). What is phonological awareness in l2? Journal of Neurolinguistics, 50, 17–27.