Ever wonder about the value of bilingual books for kids?
Delia Berlin, an author of bilingual picture books who grew up in Argentina and Brazil yet has lived in the United States through her adult years, wrote a very insightful guest post on this subject…
Honestly, Delia’s post had me looking at the value of bilingual books in a broader light and because I felt she made her points so persuasively, so eloquently, I became eager to view the books she had written. Delia then kindly sent me several of her titles and I found them full of great warmth, gentle humor, and graceful writing. (Be sure to enter the giveaway below for a chance to win one of her books!)
So when I decided to launch this new series, to celebrate bilingual lives, it seemed to me that Delia—who has led a very active bilingual life, both personally and professionally—would make an inspiring example for others. I thank her for agreeing to be featured in this way and I hope you enjoy the story she has lived—and the stories she has written—as much as I have.
Interview with Delia Berlin
Could you please tell us about yourself? In what ways has your life been touched by bilingualism?
I have lived in New England for over 40 years, but I was born and raised in Argentina. My grandparents’ generation had immigrated to Argentina from Spain in the 1930s, a time of rapid growth and development in Argentina that attracted many immigrants looking for peace and prosperity for their families.
My grandparents were from Galicia, a poor rural area in northwestern Spain. They were ambitious workers of modest means, with few years of formal education. Yet, they were bilingual. Although I always knew this, it only dawned on me recently. My grandparents’ first language was Galician. Galician is not a Spanish dialect. Wikipedia defines Galician as “an Indo-European language of the Western Ibero-Romance branch” and more closely related to Portuguese than to Spanish. It’s spoken by approximately 2.4 million people, mostly in Galicia and surroundings.
Since most immigrants leave their countries of origin due to some duress, such as natural disasters, wars, or economic depressions, they tend to desire adaptability and flexibility for their children. The experience of geographic and cultural relocation is life-changing and traumatic. But immigrants know that it can also be life-saving, so it’s not surprising that they may want their children to grow up with options, and languages are considered important.
These days, wars and climate change are forcing huge numbers of people to relocate. Presently, it is estimated that there are more than 65 million people displaced by disasters. Among all the challenges that these people face, language barriers rank high. In these situations, an additional language can be a lifeline and open doors.
But the usefulness of additional languages is not limited to catastrophic and unforeseen circumstances. Each language offers a window to a different body of knowledge and a connection to a different group of people. A language can make travel abroad more enjoyable and it can make us more useful to others at home. My grandparents recognized this, but they also knew that, outside of Galicia, Galician had limited practical use. Spanish was the additional language that opened doors for them.
For my grandparents it was a foregone conclusion that their children and grandchildren would grow up with additional languages as well. So, even though Argentina was highly monolingual, children in my family went to schools that included foreign languages in the curriculum. From first grade on, we studied at least one foreign language in any given year. For me, over time these included German, English, French, and Portuguese.
Besides languages, I was always interested in animals and science. My formal education touched upon many subjects, and delved more deeply into physics, human development, and family relations. But perhaps no affiliation to a field should be used to define me, because my interests have always been eclectic.
What led you to become a writer, and in particular, an author of bilingual books for children?
I enjoyed writing from an early age, but my education at the primary and secondary levels was in Spanish. In my school, additional languages were taught as enrichment, not immersion. When I moved to the US, during my tertiary education years, my sense of competency as a writer plummeted. It took many years to regain similar fluidity and ease in English as in Spanish. But language learning is a life-long process. Almost inadvertently, we add vocabulary and nuances to our repertoire every day. So eventually, the time came for me to feel even more comfortable writing in English than in Spanish.
By the time I became a mother, I wasn’t sure if I was going to return to Argentina or remain in the US. I wanted my child to be equally well prepared for school in either language. I read all I could about maximizing language development and bilingualism. I decided to speak only Spanish at home, and to rely on a Montessori preschool program for English exposure. Even though the preschool program started at age 2 and was only a half-day program, within six month of enrollment my daughter’s English had reached the same level of her Spanish. Also, since she had learned both languages from native speakers, she had native accents and fluency in both.
I believe now that a variety of methods for introducing languages in infancy can be equally successful. Children are uniquely equipped to absorb languages and can easily manage learning several at once. Some general guidelines (like having each person always speak in the same language) can reduce confusion and facilitate learning, but young minds are masters of decoding and eventually figure it all out.
What motivated me to write children’s books was the birth of my first grandchild, also being raised bilingually. Remembering some of the challenges I had faced finding enough appropriate bilingual books for my daughter, I wanted to add my own two cents to the inventory. Not only was the selection limited, but often one of the language versions was a poor translation.
Could you tell us more about your books? What sort of themes are important to you?
I am interested in stories that can provide subtle insights in a non-directive manner. I like stories with elements that help children identify with the kindest characters, emerge with enhanced empathy for others, or gain a deeper understanding of fairness. Our self-preservation instincts tend to make us more invested in ourselves than others. Helping children see the world from the perspective of “the other” has practical and long-standing benefits. In a world that changes rapidly and is increasingly uncertain, kindness, tolerance, flexibility, and inner strength are important qualities.
But for a story to be processed, it has to be told. If a book is not fun to read, its lessons will go unlearned. I want books that are fun for children and their significant adults to read aloud and discuss. Humor and play are usually incorporated in my stories. Many of my characters are illustrated as animals, so children can identify with them regardless of their physical appearance or ethnic background.
In what ways can your books, and bilingual books in general, be of support to the language goals of families and schools?
Both in the family and in the classroom, bilingual books are an important tool to help build vocabulary. They provide a “ladder to the top” for language development, because learning a word in one language creates the desire to know it in the other, by simple curiosity.
In both households and schools, these books are also helpful for the adults, whose language development in one of the languages may lag behind the other. Bilingual children’s books provide a non-threatening tool for expanding adult vocabulary and understanding, as they read to children. These books also help build cross-cultural competency by frequently introducing topics that are more universal and less ethnocentric than those in monolingual books.
Another important quality of bilingual books is that they can allow an entire extended family (regardless of individuals’ primary languages) to share the same stories. Nobody needs to be “left out” just because a story is not written in their main language.
What other kinds of writing do you do?
Like my life, my writing is eclectic. Somewhat accidentally, my first published books were pet bird manuals. One of them, Mature Bird Care, supports and encourages pet parrot re-homing.
Parrots are extraordinary animals. Beautiful, intelligent, playful, and loyal, they can be loving, but demanding companions. Their long lifespans and individual idiosyncrasies can also make them challenging to keep, resulting in huge numbers of older parrots in need of new homes. Having lived with parrots most of my life, I was motivated to help the plight of rescue parrots by raising awareness about their great pet potential. I am proud to say ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, endorsed this book. After many years, it is still available in the electronic edition.
In addition to writing for children, I write for parents and professionals working with children. I have contributed articles for several magazines, newsletters, and blogs, including Teaching Tolerance, a resource for teachers from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
I’m also a regular contributor of essays and short stories for Neighbors, a free monthly regional community paper in northeast Connecticut, where I live. I also have published volumes of short stories with my husband, David Corsini.
What are you working on now? What kinds of books or other writing projects do you hope to pursue in the future?
At this time, I continue to write monthly for Neighbors and have a couple of children’s book manuscripts under review. In addition to new writing, I would like to elevate a few of my published titles. For example, Welcome the Weirds – Bienvenidas las Raras, is a whimsical story of two eccentric (and silly) old sisters. With simple black-and-white illustrations, this book is locally loved, but it remains largely undiscovered in a global sense. I would love to work on a color remake of this particular story, or even a sequel. This book has been a favorite of my granddaughter for a long time.
What would be your best advice for parents (or grandparents) seeking to raise bilingual children?
My best advice for families considering raising bilingual children is an unqualified “Go for it!” and without fears. There are simply no documented cases of children not learning the majority language well, when only a minority language is spoken at home. In fact, children are able to learn several languages at once, given sufficient exposure to each in their early years. Having the same person speak the same language at all times is helpful, at least until the child can understand the concept of different languages itself.
Relatives who don’t speak the minority language may be anxious about this “experiment” that they may not have seen play out before. They may fear that the children will not learn the majority language, or that they may not even be able to communicate well with them. They should be reassured and encouraged to talk to children in their own language as much and as intently as they want. There is no need to put one language on hold while the other one develops. Effortlessly, a bilingual child will emerge unscathed.
For maintaining bilingualism, the child’s motivation is as important as the parents’, if not more. No amount of parental effort will be enough if children decide that they don’t like or want to speak a language. Parents and grandparents should be alert and aware of prevailing cultural attitudes. Children who feel shunned or judged when they speak one of their languages may not want to speak it at all. It’s important to counter any negative stereotypes and to take steps for children to experience the benefits and practical value of their additional languages.
Using an additional language to help others, to be able to play with more children, to read more books or to travel, are good ways to derive practical value and encourage pride in bilingualism. For younger children, talking dolls whose language can be changed by flipping a switch, also can be very useful. Children usually speak to these dolls in the doll’s language, providing an incentive to practice the minority language in play.
See other posts in the “Bilingual Lives” series…
Book Giveaway! (Win one of these 3 books!)
Delia has kindly offered to send one of her books to two winners of this giveaway. The lucky winners can choose from among these three titles: How to Eat a Rainbow (English/Spanish edition, for Preschool to K); Tales of Eva and Lucas (English/Spanish, Pre-K to 2nd grade) or The Cherry Tree (English/Spanish, Pre-K to 2nd grade).
The two winners were picked randomly by my kids, with Lulu selecting…
Christina in the U.K.
…and Roy selecting…
Karen in the U.S.
Congratulations! And many thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway!
To enter the giveaway, just follow these three simple steps…
1. Share this post with others via social media. Help spread the word on Delia Berlin’s engaging bilingual books for young children. Use the sharing buttons on this page or simply copy and paste this link…
2. Leave a comment below with the following information. (And please proofread your comment, before submission, to check that the information is complete.)
1. Your first name and where you live (Example: Adam in Japan)
2. Your children and their ages (Example: Girl, 13 and Boy, 11)
3. Your two (or more) languages (Example: Japanese, English, and Spanish)
4. In what way do you use (or would like to use) bilingual books in your family? (Example: Because Spanish is our third language—and my kids and I are still at a basic level—we sometimes look at bilingual English/Spanish books for some enjoyable and effective “study time” together.)
3. All entries must be submitted by the morning of Thursday, May 10 (Japan time). On that day, the comments will be printed out and cut apart to serve as entry slips for the drawing. The slips will be placed in a big, blue bucket and my kids will each select one winner at random. I’ll then contact the lucky winners by email and update this post with the results.
I won’t respond to your comments here, but Delia and I look forward to seeing them. Thank you for entering the giveaway, and for sharing this information about Delia’s work with others.