Knowing what we now know about children learning two or more languages, I find it quite puzzling that schools and homes don’t stack their libraries’ shelves with bilingual books.
Why are bilingual books important? Because…
Bilingual books and materials serve as a scaffold for our children’s skills in the second or weaker language by mobilizing the assets of their first or stronger language.
And the beauty of it all is that they work in reverse as well:
The more our children learn in their weaker language, the stronger their dominant language gets.
Why? Because our brain is constantly making connections, and because language skills transfer.
Bilingual books facilitate this connective process by visually contrasting the two languages – Boom! You open the book and there they are, right in front of you. The child doesn’t have to spend hours trying to decipher the language in order to understand the content. Instead, with a little bit of preparation in the stronger language, she can focus her attention on building up the weaker or newer language. And if the books or materials include audio, that is another wonderful scaffolding tool for the brain.
Our children’s time is best spent on developing strategies to advance further in the new language, not on figuring out what’s going on every step of the way – the latter can be tremendously frustrating!
Keep in mind, however, that:
- Not all bilingual books are created equal (there are different types of bilingual books).
- Not all usage of even great bilingual books is equally effective.
- Not all bilingual books are equally useful to different audiences.
This article focuses on the third point, the audience, and specifically on three important factors to consider about the audience: the cultural background of the child, the age of the child, and the adult teachers of the child.
So, why does the audience matter?
1. The cultural background of the child
A western child new to Chinese has different needs than a child of Chinese-American heritage. A book that is too culture-centered may overwhelm the western child. Moreover, chances are that she will rarely use the language included in the book because it has little application to her everyday life. However, the same book may be perfect for the Chinese-American child if she is an active participant of that culture.
In my opinion, many world language programs rush too quickly into remote cultural topics of little relevance to young children; consequently these students don’t learn language for the here and now.
A better approach would be to introduce cultural topics in stages: focus on building a solid language foundation around the child’s everyday life first so that the student can operate at a more advanced level as she encounters more of the culture. Otherwise, language study ends up feeling like a social studies class.
Please note that this does not mean that culture should not be introduced from the beginning. What I am saying is that it makes sense to focus on elements of the culture that ‘flow’ with the children’s developmental stage and everyday environment as opposed to taking them too far too quickly.
2. The age of the child
The younger the child the more child-centric the books should be. Don’t expect a four year old to understand things that are outside her life experience. As an author specializing in writing for young children, I try to create bilingual books that engage toddlers and preschoolers, but that are aimed at parents as well. The idea is to help the parents learn a new language or improve their language skills so that they can use them with their children in an interactive manner.
3. The adult teachers of the child
In my years of writing bilingual books and curriculum, I have come to realize that it is critical to consider not only the children as audience, but their parents or caregivers as well.
When I started writing bilingual books, I noticed a few things:
- The large majority of adults teaching languages to young children (that is, ages 0 to 8) are educated and have varying degrees of command of the target language, but often lack formal training in language education.
- Many parents trying to raise their children bilingually at home do not do so systematically or with a plan in mind, even if they are themselves bilingual.
- To complicate matters, there are quite a few deeply entrenched misconceptions about language learning in the general public.
I concluded that as an author, I had to focus more on the needs of these adults, and to model effective interactions to help them advance their own language skills. If you use the book Play and Learn Spanish, for example (a bilingual book geared to parents), you will see that it depicts parents and children interacting in typical everyday situations. Parents using this book can incorporate these interactions in their daily routines little by little.
My stories also enhance literacy acquisition while developing oral skills (they are very dialogue rich), and include games that help with building vocabulary.
As I go along, I am discovering other audiences for my books that I didn’t anticipate. For example, many grandparents use the books to learn or to pass on their native language to their grandchildren. This is not surprising. In my culture (I’m from Spain), grandparents play a very important role in their grand children’s upbringing, so it is only natural that they are interested in learning new things with their grandchildren. Similarly, there are many stay-at-home moms (and dads) who want to boost their children’s education while developing new professional skills for themselves.
In sum, bilingual books are fantastic tools to conserve our children’s energy and redirect it to where it will have the most impact (growth). It is important to be strategic in relation to the audience. As an author with a specific audience in mind, I integrate that consideration into the planning and design of my products.
Teachers, administrators, parents, and grandparents can also have greater success if they understand not only the needs of the children in their care but also their own needs as active participants in their children’s education.
With best wishes,
Ana Lomba is changing the way people think about and interact with young children learning languages. Her Parents’ Choice award-winning books, lively songs, games, stories, and mobile applications are quickly becoming favorites with teachers and parents who want to nurture young children’ inborn language abilities. Key to the success of Ana’s break-through method is a focus on the family as the ideal environment for early language learning – even her signature curriculum for language programs is built with parents in mind. Ana has taught toddler, preschool, elementary school, and college-level Spanish courses, and held leadership positions with some of the most influential language organizations in the US, including ACTFL, NNELL and FLENJ. After graduating with a law degree from Spain, her native country, Ana pursued graduate studies at Binghamton University, Princeton University, and NYU.
Leave a Reply