Infancy and early childhood are critical periods for language development. During these periods, all children have their highest potential to learn multiple languages without special effort. When families have speakers of different languages, they have the opportunity to easily gift their children with a highly valued and useful competency. For these families and their children, bilingual books are very helpful tools to succeed in this effort.
Benefits for families
Reading to children from early infancy provides permanent benefits, both for children and for those who read to them. When a child enjoys that special interaction with a parent, the parent is rewarded, strengthening the long-term bond that raising a successful person will require. With children, early investment has the highest return. Lots of social stimulation and broad experiences in early childhood will increase curiosity, develop self-confidence, and make future learning easier.
Current research has confirmed that bilingual children learn faster, and that learning languages even supports other types of learning. The cognitive effects of bilingualism are positive through the entire lifespan, and even include protection against some forms of dementia in old age.
But most bilingual or multilingual families have some members who don’t speak all the languages in play. Different relatives will remain limited to communicating only in the languages they can speak. Accordingly, they will be able to read to children only in those languages.
Since books should be part of a child’s environment from infancy, finding enough of them at the appropriate levels in all the desired languages presents a challenge. In infancy, pictionaries are ideal for learning single words bilingually. These books can be used by anyone in the family, regardless of their own language. Since infants can’t read, they focus on the pictures and the accompanying sounds that adults make. Pictionaries are the perfect starting point for teaching labels in more than one language.
Sharing the same stories
As the early picture books come into play, introducing actions and simple stories, it may still be possible for all family members to read books in any language, translating them out loud. But as language further develops and stories become more complex, proper translation “on the fly” becomes too hard, or at the very least slows down the rhythm of the story.
Separate sets of books for each language to be read by different relatives accordingly, offer one solution and are certainly useful. But naturally, single-language books prevent the sharing of the same stories among all members of the family. Separate micro-cultures may develop around each language, and many opportunities to make connections between the languages are lost.
Why is it important for families to share the same stories? Good books are read many times and become iconic in families. Play, intonation, rhythm, repetition, movement, and affection expressed through contact, are just some of the elements that may amplify the enjoyment of each story. Lively emphasis on certain words or story points becomes anticipated and expected, adding to the familiarity and shared intimacy of reading something together again and again. Being able to do this with everyone regardless of language, is rewarding for the child and the family, and becomes a building block of each unique family culture.
More benefits at home
Bilingual books also help adults with their own vocabulary building and reinforcement of their non-dominant language. While they may not be enough to serve as a formal language teaching tool, they are helpful for learning a language up to a rudimentary level and for understanding cultural norms in a non-threatening way. Depending on each reader’s motivation and curiosity, it is possible to use dual text books to expand knowledge of the non-dominant language.
In addition, parents who choose to raise their children in more than one language often face social barriers and resistance from older relatives. “How is this child ever going to learn English (or whatever the dominant language may be)?” may become a frequent question. Bilingual books may help alleviate these concerns.
Bilingual books in schools
In schools, bilingual books also have multiple uses. While vocabulary building, language teaching and reinforcement are the most obvious, confirming the value of languages and creating an environment of positive acceptance by teachers and peers may be just as important. Children’s natural eagerness to fit in with their peers motivates them to learn desirable skills, but also to abandon anything that is perceived as unpopular by their reference group. Teachers can use bilingual books to debunk myths and misperceptions about foreign cultures and languages, and to emphasize the positive contributions of all countries and groups.
We know that the benefits of speaking more than one language are many. But it is important that children themselves buy into this knowledge. Bilingual books open the door to conversations about bilingualism and its significant pragmatic advantages. Usefulness when traveling and to help others with translations are clear and practical ways of explaining the value of additional languages. Bilingual books about different countries or cultures can be helpful to illustrate these advantages.
In spite of recent movements sparked by anxiety about immigration and globalization, people will continue to travel and to enjoy increasing interactions with the rest of the world. We need to raise children equipped to compete in a rapidly changing environment, and to be able to cope with this change. Bilingualism is a start, and bilingual books are a valuable tool to succeed in this journey.