Bilingual Children’s Books

Storybooks can serve as useful language learning aids. The text of a book reinforces vocabulary and syntax. Dialogue between characters models the appropriate ways to use language (i.e., pragmatics). So, when my friends started having children and raising them bilingually, I thought dual language storybooks would make nice gifts. And so began my foray into multilingual children’s literature. I started visiting my local bookstores to explore their inventories. All the multilingual books I found were written in two languages, English and one of a small set of other languages (i.e., Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, French, German). While I did not open every title, I only saw full-text translations where each page displayed the same text in two languages. Here is a Spanish-English example:

But is that really the best design for a bilingual children’s book? Bilingualism is multifaceted. Some bilinguals are fluent in both their languages. Others have only oral proficiency or only written proficiency in one of their languages. Others may be contextually fluent, able to use their two languages fluently but only with distinct social groups or for distinct purposes (e.g., French at home with family, English in a business setting with colleagues). The ways in which bilinguals read, write, listen, and speak their two languages vary, but the children’s books I found did not reflect this complexity.

To better understand the ways in which children express their bilingualism, I turned to François Grosjean’s 1984 classic Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism. In chapter 4, he summarizes research findings on the language development of simultaneous bilingual children (i.e., children who acquire two languages at the same time from birth). He notes the following:

  • Bilingual children code-switch (i.e., alternate between two or more languages), but how they code-switch varies as they age. Younger children code-mix where they insert individual items from one language, mostly nouns, into the other language. Older children code-change where they switch their choice of language for entire phrases or sentences.
  • Bilingual children code-switch for a variety of reasons, but the reasons change as they age. At the youngest ages, children code-switch to clarify comments or attract attention. As they get older, they begin to code-switch to indicate a shift in the mode of the conversation (e.g., going from narration to commentary). When they are much older, they also code-switch to indicate their connectedness to particular cultural groups.
  • Bilingual children might avoid words in one language that are difficult to pronounce and use the equivalent word in the second language.
  • Some bilingual children associate a person with one language (e.g., always speaking to grandmother in Swedish), and sometimes become upset if that expectation is not upheld. This is called the person-language bond.

With this new knowledge in hand, I returned to the store in search of storybooks that might reflect the way bilingual children use language. I found some books that used a code-mixing approach where the majority of the story was written in English and a few nouns were written in the second language and made visually distinct (e.g., through a different color or italics). Here’s an example:

I found no examples of code-switching, where longer exchanges were in the second language. Nor did I find any books that incorporated the person-language bond (e.g., the main character always interacting with grandmother in Swedish). But I’m still looking! If such books exist, I wonder whether and how they might support bilingual children’s language development differently than full-text translation books.

What are your favorite bilingual or multilingual children’s books?

Looking for more books:

  • storyplayr: a digital library of books in French and English for children ages 3-8. You can even record yourself reading the book so your child can hear the story narrated in your voice.
  • Language Lizard: an online shop with dual language books, CDs, and posters in English and one of over 40 languages

2 thoughts on “Bilingual Children’s Books

  1. You should check out the book “I love Saturdays and Domingos” by Alma Flor Ada From what I remember it talks about a little girl who visits her European-American grandparents on Saturdays and her Mexican-American grandparents on Sundays. I love this book because growing up I also had a grandma & grandpa, and an abuela & abuelo. Also, there is code-switching in the book.

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