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Early-Grades Bilingual Books: What Works and What Doesn’t

Bilingual books are great tools for teaching languages and changing attitudes about other cultures, but finding quality books can be challenging. Here’s what to look for. 

 

Current research confirms that bilingual children learn faster and that learning additional languages also supports other types of learning. The cognitive benefits of bilingualism cover the entire lifespan and even include protection against some forms of dementia. It makes sense for schools to support the development of such a useful competency, and bilingual books can be very helpful in that effort.

But finding enough quality bilingual books at appropriate levels in all desired languages presents a challenge. There are certain types of books for which bilingual editions may prove disappointing at best and awkward at worst. Here are some examples of the types of books to watch out for, followed by ideas for the types of books worth seeking out.

What Doesn’t Work

Books with rhymes

Have you ever tried to read Dr. Seuss in Spanish? Unfortunately, both the rhythm and the wonderful “singsong” nature of his rhymes are lost in translation. You don’t need to speak a second language to understand that the preservation of rhythm and rhyme in translation usually requires a complete rewrite.

Books with wordplay

Wordplay is particularly enchanting for students in early grades. It’s also a great way to introduce humor in reading. But attempts at translation often fail because translated words rarely retain the corresponding double meaning.

Alphabet books

Although one can find pairs of words beginning with the same letter in two languages, as a rule, a word’s translation would not bear such a resemblance. In addition, many languages have at least some differences in their alphabets, rendering the side-by-side use of each letter difficult or impossible.

Books rich with cultural references or themes

Culture-specific terms can be translated, but they usually require multiple-word explanations. Also, different cultural norms may cause a translation to be perceived as insensitive in one of the languages. Therefore, stories with universal themes work best.

Although these examples show that some books may be unsuitable for quality bilingual editions, they still present opportunities for provocative discussions about language with bilingual students. Assigning young students the task of translating a simple rhyme, for example, can help them experience one of many translation challenges they may face.

What Works

For pre-K, “pictionaries” are ideal for teaching single words bilingually in any language. In K–2, when picture and chapter books dominate reading lists, side-by-side bilingual editions become very useful to introduce new vocabulary and to help build connections between two languages.

These bilingual or dual-language editions also help affirm the value of languages and create an environment of positive acceptance by teachers and peers. Children’s 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. In an era of increasing xenophobia, teachers can use bilingual books to emphasize positive contributions of all nationalities and to confront misperceptions about foreign cultures and languages.

While we know that speaking additional languages has benefits, it is important that children themselves buy into this knowledge. Bilingual books open the door to conversations about the pragmatic advantages of all languages. Usefulness when traveling or when others need translation are practical illustrations.

Bilingual editions present special challenges, since not all books are suitable for side-by-side, dual-text presentation. The problems can be many, and vetting bilingual editions in both languages is important. Since it’s not always possible to do this for all languages, vetting a publisher, an editor or a particular writer may be easier. Boston-based Babl Books, for example, specializes in dual-language editions in many languages for pre-K to second grade. They are committed to the mission of providing access to bilingual books and use an innovative model of translation that utilizes a combination of crowdsourcing and trusted editors. Because bilingual editions are their specialty, they are experts at avoiding the pitfalls that are common in this type of book.

Thinking about languages is in itself a developmental exercise and it can help build cognitive connections across a broad range of disciplines and subjects. I encourage educators to take the time to find bilingual books that work well in this regard. But even unfortunate translations, when used creatively, offer opportunities for discussion and reflection, which may foster new ways of making interdisciplinary cognitive connections.

Berlin has written several bilingual children’s books, including one published by Babl Books. Learn about her work at deliaberlin.com.