Parents, boost your whole bilingual journey, for years to come, in just a few hours!

Get your child speaking the minority language more actively right now!

How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?

BOOKS BOOKS BOOKSNote: This isn’t a contest, like my last post. I won’t be awarding stuffed animals to the people with the most books. However, if you have a lot of books—and the research I’ll share in this article makes this point persuasively—you’ll win something far more valuable: better language ability for your children.

This past Saturday we went to Hiroshima International School for its big spring festival. It’s been nearly ten years since I taught there, but we haven’t missed a festival yet. For me, my main motivation—apart from seeing old friends—is the books: children’s books of all kinds, from the school library and students’ homes, at rock-bottom prices.

I came home with two heavy shopping bags.

Most of them are chapter books, either books I can read aloud to my kids at breakfast or books we’ll read together in “shared reading” (taking turns, page by page) as part of our daily homework routine. About half are above their level of maturity, though, and these will join the many others that wait patiently until they’re older.

If you stepped inside my little house, you’d probably laugh: it’s bursting with books, to the point where there really isn’t room for them all. Our bookshelves overflowed long ago and there are now tipsy piles growing from the floor like weeds. (My wife just shakes her head and sighs. :mrgreen: )

When we got home from the festival, I sat down at the table, happily examining my treasure and taping together the loose covers and pages. That’s when Lulu approached me and said, “Daddy, we have too many books!”

“Too many books?” I replied.

“You can never have too many books!”

My philosophy of education

“You can never have too many books!” These tweetable words basically sum up my entire philosophy of education since I first became an English teacher of bilingual children at Hiroshima International School back in 1999. After reading such books as The Power of Reading and The Read-Aloud Handbook, I was completely persuaded that books and reading—lots of books and lots of reading—were the single best way to nurture a child’s language ability.

So during my teaching time there, I flooded my classroom with books and read often to my students. As I watched their English ability grow quickly, it became clear to me that this same approach would form the bedrock of my own efforts to one day raise bilingual children of my own. I would flood the house with books in the minority language and make reading a daily staple of my family’s lifestyle.

500 books

I have seen the rewarding results of this “method” in my own personal experience, but in fact, there is also prominent research which indicates that a correlation between the number of books in the home and a child’s language development and ability, as well as academic achievement and even career success, is evident in countries and languages around the world.

Pursued over a period of 20 years and published in 2010, the authors of the massive study Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations analyzed the lives of some 70,000 people in 27 countries with this key question at the heart of their research: About how many books were in your family’s house when you were 14 years old? (Any books, not simply books for children.)

At the same time, they also gathered background data on these participants, such as the parents’ level of education and occupation, and their own schooling and work.

What does this research reveal? It demonstrates—even given the parents’ level of education and occupation, as well as such factors as gender, class, nationality, political system, and gross national product—that the impact of books is the same throughout the world and throughout many generations: children in families with a home library of 500 books or more experience significantly greater educational success. On average, these children pursue their education for 3.7 years longer than children in homes with few or no books.

As the authors themselves write: “We find that parents’ commitment to scholarly culture [defined as “the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed”], manifest by a large home library, greatly enhances their children’s educational attainment. … Scholarly culture has a powerful impact on children’s education throughout the world, in rich nations and in poor, under Communism and under capitalism, under good governments and bad, in the present generation and as far back in history as now living memory can take us. … A book-oriented home environment, we argue, endows children with tools that are directly useful in learning at school: vocabulary, information, comprehension skills, imagination, broad horizons of history and geography, familiarity with good writing, understanding of the importance of evidence in argument, and many others.”

Implications for parents

Although this study was concerned more broadly with books in the majority language of each nation, and success in schooling, I think there are important implications for parents seeking to support the minority language of their bilingual children. After all, success in schooling is a direct outgrowth of success in language development.

Build a home library of books in the minority language—the bigger, the better
Even if you don’t own 500 books (both children’s books and books for adults count!), the more books you have, and the more you make use of those books by reading aloud to your children each day and reading together, the more your children’s language ability will grow.

And, as the study suggests, the language-related “tools” that your children will gain in the minority language will also be a source of support to them when attending school in the majority language. For example, the knowledge about the world that my kids have gleaned from our English books at home will serve them well when studying similar topics in Japanese at school.

Create an environment of bookshelves and books, not simply e-readers and e-books
One important reason I haven’t yet shifted from “real books” to e-books is because real books, in my view, provide a much richer environment for the senses. It’s true, we’re slowly getting buried in books here, but the fact that my kids are surrounded by them (and stumbling over them), day in and day out, makes books and reading a way of life.

With bookshelves, books are continuously on display and available for discovery; this just isn’t the case with e-books lurking inside an e-reader. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking e-books—they would certainly help me dig out of my housekeeping dilemma. But, to me, they turn books from “public things” into “private things.” For the sake of my children’s language development, I want our home environment to support my aims, and I think making books tangible and tactile, as “public things” always beckoning to the eye, is a more effective course during their formative years.

Keep in mind, as these researchers contend, that a “taste for books is largely inherited”
Of course, our main goal involves supporting the minority language of our bilingual kids. But have you ever considered the fact that, in a way, the support you’re providing to your children today will also affect the language development of their kids, your future grandchildren? (Sorry to turn you into a grandparent so soon! :mrgreen: )

The study on “scholarly culture” makes this very clear in exploring the question: Where do libraries come from—who acquires a large library? And the authors conclude that “Scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, persists from generation to generation within families largely of its own accord, independent of education and class.”

In other words, if you build a big library of books in your home, your children probably will, too, when they’re adults! And if your children do, your grandchildren will do the same for their own kids! (And so on, book after book, life after life, until the world stops spinning and we’re all just glittering star dust once again…)

Want to add to your library of English books? See the category Books for Kids.

How about you? How’s your home library of books in the minority language? Is there more you can do to create a rich environment of bookshelves and books?

32 Responses

  1. Excellent post!

    I think you will be unsurprised to learn that we have a lot of books. 🙂

    But I think that there are some things that make my book collecting different in Japan than it would be in Canada (my home country). For one, I would probably buy less if I was in Canada as I would have access to a library with English books. But books in Canada last longer than they do here with all the humidity.

    I have switched to ebooks for myself mostly just because of the convenience. I love being able to buy a book and immediately start reading it, no waiting for it to ship from home like when I first arrived! But in some ways it makes it more difficult to share with my kids. I hope someday we will all have ebook readers on the same account and share what we buy. But I don’t know if that will be as interesting to them as a paper book in their face.

    Lots to think about anyway!

    1. Jen, thanks for your thoughts. Your points are well taken. I would no doubt have fewer books, too, if we had access to a library with a good collection of books in English. This is actually one of my greatest regrets as a parent in Japan. Sometimes I even daydream about starting my own little library of English books in town!

      As for e-books, their advantages are clear and as my kids get older, I suspect we’ll move further in that direction.

  2. I don’t know how many books we have. A lot. Most of them are put away because I never re-read and we have very little room for them all. For adults we have switched to e-readers especially for the minority language. It is very difficult and expensive to get physical books from a different country. In my experience the moment I switched to e-books was the moment my own personal pleasure reading achieved balance between minority and majority language. Prior to that most of my books were in the majority language because I could go to a bookstore and find whatever my heart desires for a reasonable price.

    My daughter probably has about 100-200 age appropriate books. We’re willing to spend a small fortune to make her library be split equally in each language. In fact we have shelves dedicated to each language so she knows exactly where “mama’s books” are and where “papa’s books” are.

    I also think book ownership, as opposed to book reading, is a very cultural thing. In Russia everywhere you went everyone had their book collections on display. Books was a way to display your social status. In United States I was horrified to find that most homes I visited had no hint of a bookshelf with exception maybe a small one in kids’ rooms. Having lived with Americans I realized that this difference doesn’t actually affect reading habits. Americans simply don’t keep their books – they sell them back for profit or borrow them from a library so there is no need to own every book you have ever read.

    1. Tatyana, I always appreciate your perspective. I certainly sympathize with your experience of spending “a small fortune” on books! In the end, though, it’s a modest investment, really, when the payoff in language development is so huge. (Only a small fraction of what private schools and tutors would cost!) This is why, no matter the size of the family budget, I always encourage a monthly amount be designated for books so that books and reading can be made a priority within the family and the home library can continually grow larger.

    2. Tatyana, I search local Good Will stores. It is not always easy, but it is worth the search. Library book sales and garage sales are also good resources. You can also look for free sites where people are seeking to just get rid of things. Craigslist is one of those sights. You can find a local listing for Craigslist in every major city. That has been what we have done with our kids as a mystery type trip. At first they did not like it, but they realize that is where we get the majority of their nice things. Now they want to know where are we going next? It is a source of family adventure and exploration. We have fun and find new treasures!

  3. Hello Adam,

    You zero-in to the key factor for scholarship. We have plenty of books and I always had plenty of books. I read a lot and so do our bilingual children. This was not the case for my wife and it takes at least a generation to change it.

    For the weakest languages, it is a bit more tricky as we may have 30 to 50 books in Esperanto, half of them being in pdf format and dozen in german. I do not see any way I can balance all 3 languages with so few books.

    For very minority languages, I would advise to produce your own books. When we find some interesting book, we simply translate it by ourselves. We even do some movies sometimes.

    1. Cyrille, you make a good point about it being harder to obtain books in some minority languages. But your idea of “producing your own books,” through translation, is excellent. As my children get older, and we find a good book in Japanese that lacks an English version, I’ll challenge them to create one.

      1. Good. That will make them aware of translation skills required. And they might find that they could make a business about it. It is not that I think translating is an interesting business, but I think that we should push our children a bit more. I realized that our societies is expecting them to waste 10 of their better years (between 14 to 24) to wait until they get a degree. I decided that my daughters will DO something during these years. If they like to translate, dub movies or something else, why not do it?

  4. I certainly agree that you can never have too many books! My kids’ library is not as developed as I’d like, mainly due to the fact that for younger kids, it’s harder to find books at Goodwill that are in decent/readable condition. That is where I tend to stock up when we are home. Now that my older son is getting into higher level books, maybe we’ll have more luck. For myself, my husband is thrilled with my Kindle, as it means I have stopped lugging back suitcases full of books back with us on our yearly trips home. (I try to limit myself to 10 or 15 per trip now instead of 70+ 😉 )

    1. Alisa, as much as I champion “real books” while children are small, I do look forward to the freedom and convenience of e-readers for my family in the future. Perhaps my feeling is that “real books” can be more beneficial for younger kids, while e-readers may have advantages for older children (and adults) who already have developed a love of books. This is something I’m still pondering!

  5. On a related note, do you know about the children’s magazines offered here: There are three different ones for different ages. My kids were given a subscription each by their grandparents last year, and they really looked forward to getting them each month. They still go back to them now, too. I can definitely recommend them – educational and fun.

    1. Jane, thank you for this helpful link. Though I haven’t blogged about it at any length yet, I’ve also found that subscriptions to children’s magazines are an excellent way to bring appealing reading material regularly into the home. In the U.S., Carus Publishing produces a number of fine magazines, for a range of ages, which can be sent to overseas addresses at a reasonable cost. See their magazines here:

  6. I loved this post, as I had said before I have a set budget for books each month, it’s definite priority I grew up reading a lot because my dad encouraged me. And now trying to fill the house with as many things in the minority language books are the first priority! Alex is barely 15 months but he already grabs his favorite books and brings them to me for me to read me, because he’s come to expect reading during the day.

    1. Denhi, it sounds like your son is getting really solid support for his minority language. Good for you!

      I have fond memories of the books my children would want me to read over and over when they were Alex’s age. Although we can’t keep all the books from their younger years, I’ll definitely try to hold onto their first favorites. I think it will be fun for them to still have these books when they’re older. Maybe they’ll even read them to their kids one day!

  7. I agree you can never have too many books! I grew up in a house with lots of books of all kinds. My parents still have lots of books, including an old encyclopia from the 1970s that my kids look at sometimes. In my house now there are books in all 3 bedrooms, the living room and family room. My kids are 11 & 14, but will sometimes go back and read younger level books. My daughter has also been known to read some of my college books on Archaeology because she finds it fascinating. I’m American, and while we do certainly borrow books from the library as well, we also buy them/trade them with others/give them as gifts.

    1. Anne, your comment brought back fond memories of the old set of World Book encyclopedias that I grew up with way back when. At one point (I was probably about 10), I vowed to read through the whole set, from A to Z. I don’t think I got much farther than the first few pages of volume A, but I still spent many happy hours browsing through those wonderful books! I think that’s one reason I try to have good single-volume encyclopedias on our shelves at home, about animals, the human body, etc.

  8. How many books are ideal for a family with 3 kids (all under 8 yrs)? We are from the Philippines but currently working in Qatar. We speak/read Tagalog (Philippines’ language) and English. All our books are in English. Ironically, English is our ‘minority’ language.

    1. Broadly speaking, I would say “The more books, the better,” and this is especially the case for the minority language. At the same time, if all your books are in English, you should probably build a home library in Tagalog, too. I don’t know how long you’ll be in Qatar, but the longer you’re there, the importance of supporting your children’s literacy in Tagalog—with a good home library—will only grow. Best of luck to you!

  9. I found your blog through Teach The Sprog, and it looks like I’m going to be spending the rest of the day reading! I too have flooded, purged and then re-flooded our living space with books…I’m currently trying to work out the best strategy for presenting them with a flourish as we no longer have the space to make them all available and still be able to move. I was really pleased to read this post in particular because I’ve been wondering about introducing e-books, but something in me just doesn’t want to switch over to that format yet – I know that it will mean the end of “book-books”…Very glad to have found your blog!

    1. Jenny, welcome! Yes, although a large library is clearly a boon to language development, it also presents challenges in small living spaces and in relocations. And this is compounded by the fact that new books are needed regularly to match the age and language level of the child. Still, for the early years—until elementary school, let’s say—I think that it’s well worth coping with these issues and focusing on “real books.”

      Actually, now that my kids are 9 and 6, and literacy in the minority language is developing well, I plan to gradually take advantage of e-readers and e-books, too. Not only will this help with our housekeeping predicament, I realized just the other day that e-books could probably boost my daughter’s ability to read more advanced material. I discussed this in detail in the post There’s a Fine Line Between Being Firm and Being Rigid.

      And on the subject of books and literacy, you might also enjoy 43 Great Quotes on the Power and Importance of Reading.

  10. Great article, and great comments! I just need to add that in my experience, both as a child, and now as a parent, turning the TV off is a great way to enhance the magic of books.

    We have movie nights once a week, in the minority language thanks to a netflix hack 🙂 and we try to remain “TV free” the rest of the week. Not only does my 2 yo love her books, but she recognizes all her letters and numbers, without any pushing from us. And we have the best library I have ever seen, with a great selection of foreign books, so once a week I visit the library and get new books.

    1. Junia, I fully agree that controlling screen time, whether TV or other electronic devices, is crucial to fostering strong literacy and a love of books. Good for you!

      I wish I had access to a library with more books in our minority language. Like you, I used to visit the library once a week, to check out picture books—and there are some of those—but now that my kids are a bit older, our only option for higher-level books is a credit card!

  11. This is a crucial point for me. Italian libraries have got a limited number and variety of books for kids. Sometimes some English authors organize children’s books festival at Rome. Even though we stay near I haven’t got opportunity to go there!!! I have got some cousins in London. I prayed them to send me some picture books for my children, but nothing to do!!! My kids like buy books!!! I have to do something to get grow my kid’s library!!!

    1. Reena, it’s frustrating, I understand, but the fact that you’re making efforts to address the situation is a very good thing. Isn’t it possible for you to place online orders for suitable books? (Personally, I now rarely buy books at bookstores—I order everything online.)

      Also, if you haven’t already seen this post, it might offer some additional ideas or inspiration…

      What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Books in Your Minority Language

  12. Adam, I totally agree with you. I remember myself reading Russian classics from my parents’ library (mostly great Russian classics). I was so lucky that my parents had so many fabulous books! Now I’m telling myself that it’s MY duty now to create a good library for my kids. I’m reading Nabokov’s short stories right now and keep telling myself I’d be the happiest mother on earth if my kids are able to read these stories one day and get one of these feelings… That’s a big challenge.

    I also feel like e-books are quite different, I’m not ready for them now, and I don’t want the kids to switch to the screens too soon. It’s such a magical time, when I sit in bed with my 2 kids next to each me, one of us is reading and one of my kids will often try to “cheat” and turn the page to see the pictures, so we continue reading with our heads bent sideways. 🙂

    I’m also very reluctant to sell or give away our books, especially the favourite ones, because I would love my grandchildren to read them, too. 🙂 Will they still read paper books by then?? As long as I have some free space, I’ll keep them anyway. 🙂

    1. Julia, yes, when it comes to books, we’re definitely “on the same page.” (Sorry, that was an awful joke, but I just couldn’t resist!)

      Because you’re clearly conscious and proactive about this, I fully expect your children (and grandchildren) will one day be reading Nabokov, too. Just keep at it, day by day, sharing your love and passion for good books with them.

      As for keeping books for posterity, I’ll definitely hold on to our favorites—I bet my kids would love reading them again in the future, and with their own children, too—but it’s also true that I have to continuously let some go as I bring new books into the house. If we had more space, I’d probably keep them all, but this isn’t realistic, I’m afraid, unless we started sleeping on top of them! :mrgreen:

  13. I was just recommended this website for ordering books…you can use search filters such as language, price, popularity, audio, baby books etc…and the shipping is free worldwide! As a soon to be mom, how many books do you think I should budget for in the first year? I know little babies are cool with repetition, so perhaps my budget can be smaller, buying one new book a month? Opinions from other people with experience reading to babies?
    The website:

    1. Joanna, thank you for sharing this helpful link. In my case, I probably went overboard with buying books when my kids were babies (well, I still go overboard), but I believe strongly that, when it comes to books, the more, the better.

      It’s true, repeated readings of the same book are very beneficial for the language development of babies and small children, but I think it’s also true that parents themselves need a bit of variety, too, to feel motivated to continue reading, day after day. Unless you have access to a library that’s well-stocked with books in your minority language, I would encourage you to make a larger investment in your home library.

      And if you haven’t already seen it, this page of links for new parents might be of special interest. Best wishes on your bilingual journey!

  14. I’m coming back to comment again that only 3 weeks out from my due date for the baby I’ve got 15 books in the ml, and I’ve been taking your advice and have already started reading aloud daily. For now I’ve been militant about only acquiring ml books, I wonder if other people also buy ML books?

    1. Joanna, in our case, 95% of the books I’ve bought for our home have been in the minority language. Because I collect picture books, I did buy some nice picture books in the majority language when my kids were younger, but, in general, we’ve relied mostly on our local library for such books.

  15. Great article Adam!! Growing up we did not have at home a large selection of children’s books; however, my parents and grandparents used to read a lot to us. Some times were the traditional fables, like those in your book, most of the time were stories and novels. As I am raising two bilingual kids in a community with limited resources in Spanish, I have found myself buying more books, and my family brings me a good amount every time they visit me. I counted about 430 titles for kids just the other day. Reading every day in Spanish has been key for us to keep Spanish alive at home!!

    1. Ana, you have a lot of books! Good for you, and good for your kids! A large home library is a powerful force in our efforts to promote our children’s language development and their love of literacy. Keep reading to your kids in Spanish, right through their teenage years (as I’m doing with my kids in English), and continue encouraging their independent reading in Spanish, too. Beyond these two, captive reading is also a productive strategy for advancing literacy skills and overall language ability.

Comments, please!

Your email address will not be displayed. Required fields are marked *

Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

My Popular Books

Browse the Blog

Free Webinar