Books and reading should lie at the very heart of your bilingual journey.
In The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child, I stress the tremendous power of reading aloud to your children each day, day in and day out, to nurture language and literacy development.
In How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?, I cite sweeping international research which indicates that the larger your home library, the stronger your children’s language ability can grow.
In Free Report: The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child, I offer a PDF with a full overview of my thoughts on ways to make books and reading a central part of your efforts.
But what if your minority tongue is a less-common language? How can you meet these key conditions of the bilingual journey when children’s books in your minority language seem hard to come by? Here are several ideas…
I know this is easy for me to say—especially since books in English, our minority language, are so plentiful—but I would first encourage you to be even more proactive, more resourceful, in your quest to find resources. Where are the books you need? How can you get those books into your hands? Who could help you?
There’s no getting around the fact that obtaining resources—in any language, really—costs time and money, but the payoff in stronger language ability is well worth the investment, in my opinion. Skimp on that investment and you undermine the conditions that can maximize your children’s language development.
As I suggested in There Are More Resources in Your Minority Language Than You Think, once you put additional effort into searching for suitable books, you may be surprised at what you find.
Wordless picture books
One type of children’s book that can be “read” in any language—and I do mean any language—is the wordless picture book. Wordless picture books, which convey stories through illustrations alone, have long been one of my “secret weapons” for nurturing language ability in my kids and my students. A more versatile resource than you might imagine, these books can be used in a variety of ways, and even with older children, to nurture a wide range of language skills.
For parents struggling to locate resources, a supply of wordless picture books can be extremely helpful by providing a springboard for storytelling in the minority language. Just turn the pages and talk—it’s as simple as that. And because you aren’t bound by written text, the experience can be even richer, linguistically, than “ordinary” children’s books. In fact, research has demonstrated that wordless picture books can generate more “complex talk” from parents, and more meaningful interaction with children.
To find wordless picture books (there are hundreds of good titles out there), you might start with these links…
Wordless picture books at Amazon
Wordless picture books at GoodReads
For more information on ways to use wordless picture books, these articles are highly recommended…
Wordless Picture Books at Children’s Books and Reading
An excellent post, with a range of good ideas and a list of favorite titles.
How to Explore and Enjoy Wordless Picture Books at My Little Bookcase
Another thoughtful post, which links to a very helpful list of titles.
One more thought: Because these books lack text (or have very little text), when you want them to “model” written language for your kids, you could write out the story yourself—at whatever level of complexity suits your needs—and then (temporarily, perhaps) affix this homemade text to the pages in some fashion.
Majority language books
Of course, books in the majority language can also be “read” in the minority language: just tell the story in your own words. As with wordless picture books, you could affix your own text to the pages, too, effectively replacing the majority language text and turning them into minority language books.
Your own books
Another possibility is to create your own simple books, perhaps recounting stories from your own childhood or spinning lively adventures featuring your kids. This obviously takes more time and effort, but the results could be very rewarding and might even turn into family keepsakes. Maybe your children can be involved in the creative process, too, helping you imagine the story or provide illustrations. Who knows? Your creations may even become published books!
For inspiration, see my step-by-step process for generating original stories, shared in Turn Your Kids into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy.
The hard truth
Yes, addressing the need for children’s books in a less-common minority language can be a challenge, but there’s no alternative, really, except to lower your expectations for your children’s language development. The hard truth is, if books and reading don’t form the core of your efforts, it will be hard for your children to advance to higher levels of proficiency in the minority language during childhood.
But if you give extra effort to obtaining needed resources, and supplement your minority language books with wordless picture books, majority language books (used in the target language), and books that you create yourself, you’ll surely raise the odds of achieving your highest aim for your children’s bilingual ability.
Thank you for another great post Adam, and very timely for me. My little boy is nearly 2, we live in an English-speaking country and our target language is Bosnian. While I do have a small collection of books in Bosnian and will be able to get more from time to time, it’s nothing compared to the amazing selection of English books I can get from the library.
So far I have focused on ‘picture dictionary’ type books and they have been great in developing his vocab. We look at pictures, talk about what’s what, or do a “where’s Wally” style game, in spotting objects on the page. I can highly recommend anything by Usborne.
Now that he is getting a bit older, I really want to get more into story books with him, to introduce the concept of narrative and storytelling. I have been doing a lot of on the fly translating, trying to translate exactly the same each time which is tricky, sometimes downright impossible – so many English books for this age group rely on rhyme and alliteration.
Of course, just talking about what I see on the page and roughly translating is fine, and I do that too, but I feel that kids really like repetition and hearing the same words and phrases over and over again, which they then learn by heart and can say out loud and participate in the reading of the book that way.
I think with some of the favourites, I will just go ahead and paste over my translation on top of the English. I did already have that idea, but thought it was maybe a bit silly – your post has persuaded me to go ahead! And those lists of wordless books are great, I am ordering a bunch now.
Anabela, I’m glad you found this post useful. I appreciate you sharing your experience so far and I’m sure other parents will benefit from hearing it.
Your situation is challenging, but it sounds like you’re making strong, proactive efforts to overcome it. Good for you!
I hope you and your son enjoy your new wordless picture books! I love them!
Another great post for parents who are raising bilingual children! Pinterest is another resource for parents to locate reading materials in a collaborative way.
Thanks for this, Adam. Very timely post as I have this dilemma. My partner’s language is a dialect of Cook Islands Maori (group of 15 tiny islands in the South Pacific) and I have acquired all the possible books available (in the main dialect but close enough). We have a total of about 60 books now, most I got for free through the Ministry of Education here in New Zealand which was awesome but they aren’t producing anymore. Great idea about attaching the translation onto English books. I am now on a quest to have my partner help me translate some books into his dialect and I’ll glue it over the top. That will help me with my own language development too. Thanks!
I’m glad this post could be of some support. Your situation sounds challenging, but the good efforts you’re making will surely pay off over time in stronger language development (for both you and your children!). Keep at it, day by day!
What you are doing is so important. Teaching your child Cook Island Maori is in invaluable gift to him/her and to humanity. Every language is a unique, irreplaceable, and incomparable part of our human heritage and they are like the different species of birds—so beautiful in their diversity and so fragile if they are not protected. Do not let colonial or post-colonial ideologies take away this precious gift from your family.
I started to make books for my children. It’s something like baking bread for each day!!! I do it at night. In the morning it’s ready to eat!!! No one can stop me now!!! I do it also with my children. They like to stick everything!!!
Reena, I love your enthusiasm! Keep baking that bread and it will nourish not only your children’s language development, but also their creative spirit!
I wish there were an easier way to make certain I have read every single post on your website. Do you have a site list or something I could go through?
I originally clicked on a link to this website because I was curious since I have a first cousin named Adam Beck, but once I arrived I felt like the stars had aligned–somehow your writing style and sense of humor are exactly to my taste and you just happen to be writing about what is probably the most important topic in the world to me…
You know, Adam, I just noticed the “previous post” “next post” at the bottom. I bet I could go through them all by doing previous post until I reach the very beginning and then doing next post until reaching the most recent.
Dear Christina, (I’d like to address you by your name and I saw this in your email address. Do let me know, though, if you go by a different name.)
Yes, it sounds like the stars have aligned! And I’m really happy that you’re now enjoying my site!
If you’d like to read through the past seven (!) years of posts chronologically, you could use the Archives drop-down list—on the far right sidebar, at the very bottom—and begin with the posts from September 2012. I must warn you, though, that there are now 421 posts (and 27 pages) at this blog!
My book, Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, also brings together many of my thoughts and experiences in an accessible way.
I also warmly invite you to join me and hundreds of other parents at The Bilingual Zoo, my lively (and free) forum. Many of the parents there are very passionate about their bilingual or multilingual aim and it sounds like you’d feel a real kinship with them.
” you could affix your own text to the pages” – how do I go about doing this, in a way that looks nice and is durable? Also, any advice on what to do when your target language reads left to right and the majority language reads right to left?
Eva, I guess it depends on how “permanent” you’d like your text to be. Of course, you could print out the text and glue it into the book. But I believe there are certain kinds of adhesive that are more temporary, and so the paper could eventually be peeled away. But I haven’t tried this myself so you’d need to experiment with the possibilities. Or perhaps simply taping the text into the book would suffice so that the paper can still be removed, if desired.
As for the different direction of the target language, the question of “what to do” isn’t quite clear to me. Without knowing the full details of your situation, it’s hard to offer specific advice, but children can certainly grow accustomed to the features of different scripts with sufficient exposure and practice. So read aloud in these languages as much as possible, pointing out their different features, as appropriate, while providing your kids with plenty of opportunity and appealing materials to read on their own, once they reach this stage.
Hi Adam, permanent is fine, kid’s books are very cheap. My handwriting isn’t good though so I would want to print it and glue it on – mailing labels?
For direction, the problem is the way the book opens and reads. You know how manga produced for the US used to open the ‘wrong’ way to help English audiences, but people thought that changed the art too much. So now they have manga open left to right and there is a note to the reader about direction. If I change an English book, it will open the wrong way and the story reads the wrong direction. I’m already seeing my kid, who isn’t even 2, reads to herself by opening a book from the right…it makes me sad.
Eva, mailing labels could work. It would easiest if the full paper had an adhesive backing so you could simply cut out the sizes you need. Or just print the text out on paper (maybe paper that’s a bit thicker, nicer) and glue-stick your cut-outs on the page.
As for the direction of text, it sounds like this is something that will simply take time and experience for her to effectively resolve. She’s still only 2 so don’t worry! She’ll get there over the course of the years ahead. Just make sure she’s bathed in the written form of both languages as much as possible, and especially your minority language, assuming she’ll attend a majority language school. And, for now, you might simply stick to books with the English direction since most Japanese books these days, at least picture books for kids, follow that same convention.