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Are you overthinking how to read to your bilingual child?

While a monolingual family might be learning and focusing on using  best practices to encourage the love of books and reading at home, a bilingual/bicultural family might be struggling  to decide who, how and when to read books in each language.

Parents might try to offer as much exposure as they can to the target -or heritage language- and culture, yet kids will always live in a different reality outside the doors of their home, and that reality will always come back home in forms of books, music, new traditions, etc.

My kids attend an only English school. Every week they bring home a new book they have chosen at the library, and every time we visit the Book Fair at their school – that does not offer any Spanish options- we always buy a book to each of them that is in English. Some of them are read by my husband, who is in charge of reading in English at home, and I try to translate them to Spanish as I go.

However, if they want it to be read in English or if is to challenging to be translated, I just read it in English… Am I breaking the OPOL (One Person One Language) rule?

Maybe…

Do I care?

NO.

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5 things NOT to worry about when reading to a bilingual child

Whether you are using OPOL or MLAH, or any other method to raise bilingual kids, you realize by now that reading (as well as singing) is one of the most powerful ways to teach and add exposure to the target language.

However, the reality is that reading could become more complicated than just choosing a book every night when you have 2 or more languages going on at home.

The challenges are not limited to the language of the books, but to whether or not you or your partner can read in the target language and what your approach to reading is. While some families might see reading as a task, other families might see it as an important opportunity to bond.

In spite of your approach, here are 5 things NOT to worry about when reading to a bilingual child

1. Amount of books

There are so many benefits of reading. It is recommended that you have as much books as possible, and hopefully everywhere at home, but it isn’t always possible for every family. In the end it doesn’t matter how many books you have, what matters is that you read them and your child likes them.

Growing up we did not have too many books at home.  There were few titles for children at my house and maybe few stories for children in one of the volumes from my grandparents’ Encyclopedias.

However, I grew up loving story time thanks to the special time we used to spend as a family together listening to my grandfather reading to both children and adults when we were visiting. When my sisters and I had to read books as an assignment at school, I remember sometimes seating with my parents in the family room and take turns each night to read some chapters.

Recommended: Free online books for kids in multi-languages

2. Book repetition

You might get tired of the same books, but research has shown that repetition is actually beneficial for children. In spite of your desire to add new titles and introduce new themes, characters and vocabulary to your child, the fact of the matter is that he/she might be really into certain books and this could be your best opportunity to improve and master specific areas in the target language as: grammar structures, pronunciation, and memorization of concepts and vocabulary.

Every night I ask my children which book would they like me to read. Some nights they chose something new, some weeks we read the same book every night.

I have read Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” Spanish version for children so many times during the last year to my 8 year old. Every time is different.

In the beginning he was not able to read. Then he started reading few words. One time we wrote down the cities Fogg – the main character -was visiting and then checked them out on Google Earth. Now he began reading phrases of the book and asking for the meaning of more words in it.

Recommended: Reading The Same Book Over and Over Makes Kids Smarter

3. Translations

There is nothing that can get you closer to a language and the culture or cultures that it represents than a book written by a native speaker. However, the fact that not everyone has the opportunity to access these kinds of books while raising a bilingual child, makes translations a very helpful alternative any time that give you the opportunity to read in the target language.

Moreover, translations allow you to use the minority language while you read books that might be very popular or part of the culture in the community your child is growing up in, which is very important to help balance the identity of bicultural kids.

When I was pregnant with our first child, my American husband bought “Oh, Baby, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, among others. Most of them totally new for me, but definitely icons of the American literature for children.

He read them in English and I started reading them in Spanish, then I bought some of the Spanish translation of other titles by these, and other authors. I though was good idea to help my child understand that we were not living in two different worlds, just in a world where the same things can be said in different ways.  

If you want to get the best out of a translation, try to read the books prior to introducing them to your child so you can be sure that the translation is accurate and high quality. Remember, however, that some languages, such as Spanish, have regional variations, which could make certain translations look inaccurate to some native speakers.

4. Translating as you read

Despite the popularity of services as Amazon, book subscriptions, online weand virtual libraries, having access to books in the target language (whatever that language is for your family), is not always easy. Also, as your child starts school, or just interacting with peers he/she will be exposed to new literature and will be bringing home books in the community language that they might want you to read aloud.

In our case,  we have books in Spanish that I bought online, some that my family brought us from Colombia when visiting,  we have used the small selection at our local library, and we have few more that one of my friends – who is a Spanish teacher- have shared with us. But the reality is that every year my children receive books in English for their birthdays and Christmas, so we definitely have a wider variety of titles in English and that means that I translate as I go very frequently.

Now, you might be wondering:

a. Isn’t this tiring?
Well, certainly some times and depending on how was my day. But I guess I just made it part of our routine and I am used to do it.

b. What if my own language skills in the community language or in the target language are not enough to translate certain books as I read?
That has been my case with some books, especially with some by Dr. Seuss. In that case I let my husband read those or I read them in English and later ask a couple of questions at the end in Spanish.

c. What if my child can read and begins to realize that I am translating?
That happened to my son and it is happening now with my daughter – who is learning to read- and can identify if the book I am reading is in English or Spanish. She does not complain, she just knows that mom reads in Spanish. Sometimes she stops me and points out to a word saying: “Mom, I know that word”, then she says the word in English. I congratulate her and say something in Spanish like: “Sí, muy bien, ahí dice fin” (Yes, you are right, that says End).

That has worked for us so far, but I am sure there are kids that don’t like the idea of the translation in this way. The important part is to be transparent and let them know why you prefer to read and share the content of the book in the minority language, and also be flexible if they prefer you to read it in the majority language sometimes.

d. What if my child doesn’t like how the books in the majority language sounds when I read them?
There is one book my children don’t like to be read in Spanish: “Goldie Locks has chicken Pox”. Might be the way I read it, or the fact that the rhyming is not the same, or may be is because there is some kind of emotional component attached to the way my husband reads it.

This is a story that my husband grew up with and reminds him of his childhood. He really makes it especial and fun when he reads it to them and became an especial book that connects them with him.

d. What happens if I can’t read the book in the same way every time?
I am sure I change things here and there, but the reality is that when it comes to books that we read a lot, I guess I know them by heart and just tell the story as I pass the pages. If it change so much what usually happens is that my kids correct me.

Here are some additional options to approach the situations described above:

  • Would your partner or someone close to you be able to read the particular book instead?
  • Could you find an audiobook version of the book read on the target language?
  • Could you ask someone (a relative, friend or a teacher) to record their selves reading the book and share it with you? As long as is for private purposes you might not have any issues with copyrights.
  • Make your own audio books.

Recommended: Chameleon Reader DIY Audio Book Maker

If you are introducing a language that is not your mother tongue, don’t worry about reading with an accent, your child also needs to understand that having a second language does not limit but empower one to read, talk, write and sing in a different language.

Having an accent should never be considered a limitation to express our selves. If you are worry about how s/he could learn the pronunciation of the words, reinforce with audiobooks and lots of music, which will help you too to improve your own language skills.

5. Reading in the majority language

As you might want to stick to the minority language in order to add as much exposure you  can to it, or  because you are doing a very strict OPOL or MLAH, chances are that sooner than later your child will hand you a book in the majority language and even ask you to read it in that language.

You will have to make a decision: You can refuse to read it and either ignore the fact that your child might love that book for a reason and wants you to read it, or relax and enjoy reading together a book in the majority language here and there.

By reading the book in the majority language you might be breaking the rules of whatever method you are using to raise bilingual your child, but you would be giving also a great example of the flexibility and freedom that speaking two or more languages could give to a person in order to access more information, knowledge, resources and experiences.

You are showing them one of the huge benefits of being bilingual.

So, don’t let techniques limit or constrain your reading routines, because reading is all about connecting with your child and teaching them the love of books, no matter the language.

In the end, following your heart and having a sense of flexibility is what will help you get the best out of each book when you read to your bilingual child.

Setting the mood for story time

Here are some ideas that will help you set the mood at home and hopefully encourage your kids to love story time.

Songs about reading

English

Spanish

French

Kids TV shows episodes about reading

English

Spanish

I hope these ideas will help to encourage story time in your family. Reading has so many benefits for children, and sometimes it is necessary to “break the rules” to make sure it is enjoyable for everyone.

So rather than worry about how you are reading to your bilingual child, concentrate on making reading about the time you spend together and the memories they will treasure in their hearts for years to come.

Author: Ana Calabrese is a native Spanish speaker raising bilingual-bicultural kids in the U.S. She promotes bilingualism and the Spanish language with children, through the use of songs, movement and fun. Find Ana’s original songs for Spanish learners on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play. Download lyrics, tips, and activities on her website & follow on Instagram.

How to Read with Bilingual Children