If you have consumed any baby-related books, websites, reports, blogs, or other media, you’ll already know that reading to your child as early, as often, and as many books as possible is highly recommended and a key to language development, amongst other benefits. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
It’s exactly the same principle to develop the minority language. But how many of us really do it?
I have to confess, I’ve not been reading as much in the minority language to my children as I know I should, there is still a bias towards English. I’m trying to change that. However, the one thing I have always done consistently from birth is to read to my little ones in the minority language every day (well, nearly), even if it’s just one book.
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Nurturing a love for books
Reading books with my children, regardless of the language, is one of my favourite things in the whole world and I have told them so many, many times. My partner and I always wanted to foster a love of books in our children. Luckily, this is a pleasure to do. There are wonderful books out there to share with our children and story time gives us special quiet moments to bond over interesting educational, intriguing and funny stories. We pick a funny book when we need lightening up. And we have many wonderful books to thank for reinforcing or helping introduce messages that may be fundamental but harder to communicate. My children love books. They browse, pile them up, ‘read’ them on their own or to their ‘babies’.
The one thing I really want to impress on other parents, or aspiring parents, of bilingual children, is this: read, read, and read. Read relentlessly to your child from the moment they are born. It is a gesture (or effort, if you see it that way), that will not be wasted. At the beginning, it may appear that they don’t understand or listen, especially at those stages when they are just babbling loudly or when they want to shuffle away. Of course, we should never impose story time as it could have an opposite effect on their relationship with books and the language. Instead, we must adapt and be responsive. Persistence is the key here. Keep trying, introduce reading books gently, and let them see you read and enjoy books. Eventually, it will just become a part of your routine the children enjoy.
How much do you read to your child?
Take a moment and answer this question: Are you reading to your child in the minority language? If not, why not? If your answer was yes, do you do it daily? When was the last time you did it? Can you commit to just 5 -10 minutes to do it daily, perhaps at bedtime?
If you haven’t started reading regularly to your baby or toddler, please, commit to starting today. If you’re not a good reader in the minority language, just make up a story from the images you see in front of you.
Sourcing reading material
It can be a challenge to gather enough relevant and age-appropriate books in the minority language. It does require some effort! It is so worth it, though, on many levels. Selfishly, I find that reading something in the minority language forces me to use that language, as I too need encouragement (if you’re new to my blog, see my story here to understand why). If I just try to translate on the spot, it doesn’t work as well. I still forget words in the minority language, and the whole story just doesn’t flow as well. It’s also good for them as the different books will naturally introduce them to a more diverse vocabulary.
I’ve prepared a list of 9 sources of minority language reading resources. If you can’t get hold of books in the minority language at all, you can still read to your child in the minority language – try these 4 tips to work with what you’ve got.
Minority v Majority books tug of war
It’s hard to compete with so many wonderful books where I live in the UK. I just can’t resist them, and we get offered books as presents too, so we have built a decent children’s library in English. As a result, we have far more books in the majority than we have in the minority language. Being in this country also makes it easier to pick exciting books that are age appropriate.
When I visit my country, I don’t have as much time as I’d like to spend in bookshops. After hours of browsing and shortlisting I just short circuit, unable to select which of the gigantic pile of books we can take back with us. The mental gymnastics of having to consider which books we already have back home, which will be most appropriate for the current age and needs, plus cost, weight and volume of the books for the journey back, sometime proves too taxing and I end up seeking refuge in one of the many Lisbon pastelarias having a cake and strong coffee.
The point is, we are in a position where majority language books tend to be so fun and engaging, and easily accessible to us, that the girls seem to prefer them by default. Given my recent regained focus on the minority language, I have started to attempt to redress that balance.
Balancing the bookshelf
I asked Adam Beck, author of “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and inspiration for even greater success and joy raising bilingual kids”* whether one should separate books into different languages. He responded yes and, if possible, to have more books in the minority language as the children will have plenty of opportunities to be exposed to English, in our case, the community language.
My children usually ask to be read specific books. As the 4 year old can tell which books are in the minority and majority language, we started organising them by language which she enthusiastically helps with. Portuguese on one side of the shelf, English on the other side.
We already knew we had far more English books than Portuguese. However, this exercise quickly highlighted the disproportionate amount of English, the majority language, in relation to Portuguese books. Here is what we’ve done to balance the bookshelf space:
- an extra effort to get more minority language books. On her following visit their Portuguese Granny brought a few new awesome books. More recently my friend Susana kindly passed on her some of her own children’s old books
- took some English books out to even the balance. Our aim is to have at least the same amount of bookshelf space dedicated to both languages
- store and rotate books every few weeks so that both the Portuguese and English stock on display is refreshed every so often. This helps keep it interesting for them and still maintain an even quantity of books in each language
Prioritising Portuguese story time
I usually offer, speaking in the minority language, to read a story in Portuguese. If they ask for a story in English, I don’t refuse but ask to also pick a story in Portuguese or I say I will read it first in English and then in Portuguese, if I’m not as familiar with the story. If I am already familiar with it, I start with Portuguese and then English, in case they get bored and I miss the chance. I hope to eventually only do story time in Portuguese.
A matter of heritage
The great thing about stories and books in the minority language is the natural cultural connection. They likely will have a cultural link (or a connection can be made by the reader), even if they are translated from an original foreign language. It provides opportunities to expose to the language, different imagery and vocabulary related to their own heritage.
If they are good books, they will help impress that memory through design, well-written stories, layout and even other sensorial input such as nice paper stock, hardcovers, pull up flaps, touch and feel elements, sound and sometimes even smell.
It’s all about having a positive experience
Snuggling up and reading a story with great meaning to us as family leaves a lasting impact and emotional connection regardless of how much the kids learn from it language-wise. One of my girls’ favourite books at the moment is called “Baltasar!” by Yasmeen Ismail. It’s a translation and there is a limited amount of works words to learn from it. However, the book is about a cheeky dog, just like our very own Houdini. It’s a very good book, funny and engaging. I’m convinced that it will stay in my little one’s hearts forever.