Episode 46 – Will I confuse my child if I read books in more than one language?

Episode 46

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I answer a mother’s question regarding whether she will confuse her child if she reads books in more than one language.  I share with her the pros and cons and how to go about making a distinction between the two languages when reading.  I share my thoughts on how reading in both languages can demonstrate to your child the abilities you gain as a multilingual.

Episode #46- Transcript

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bilingual Avenue podcast!

We have another great question today from a listener that came in via email!  Let’s listen to the question which came in from Julia!

Thanks for putting the podcast together, I have found it very helpful.  Let me tell you a bit about my family.  I am from Latvia, my husband is British and we live in the UK and we have a three year old son.  We don’t have many books in Latvian, only a handful.  Sometimes my son picks out one of our English book and so I read it to him in English.  Should I not be doing that?  Can I read to him in both languages?

Thanks Julia for your question and for sharing it with the Bilingual Avenue community.

Let’s break down the question a bit because there are a few parts that I would like to address.

The first issue Julia is sharing is a lack of books in the heritage language which is not all that uncommon!  You are almost always going to have more books in the community language because they are easier to find in your community so this is really typical.

Sometimes we really worry about finding books in the right language which is certainly a valid concern.  We should strive to find authentic text!  But can you do if you simply can’t find them?

I am going reference some great advice that Susanne Dopke shared on episode 17 of the podcast.  If you haven’t listened to that episode I strongly recommend that you do!  It’s really useful and Susanne really does break down some great actionable tips and strategies that you can use with your children.  You can check out the episode at bilingualavenue.com/episode17.  I’ll also be linking it the show notes for this episode.

Well on that episode, Susanne talks about how you should really focus on the pictures rather than the text when your children are young and not yet reading.  She says that there is a lot of value in just describing the illustrations because sometime the text can go over their heads so even if you only have books in English, you can still very much use them to add exposure in Latvian.  You just have to be a little more creative and find books with exciting and kid appropriate illustrations so you can talk about them together as you read the book.

So that’s the first thing I would say, you can still repurpose books in one language to meet the needs of the other.

Now let’s get to the second part of the question, should you be reading in two languages?

Well you can look at it both ways.

On the one hand, every time you engage with your child in the community language you are sort of “sacrificing” exposure in the heritage language.  So it really depends on how the languages are being balanced at home and what your language goals are.

And then other hand, you may feel that you want be flexible.  You may really think about your situation on the day to day and realize that you are already speak exclusively Latvian to your son and every now and then you want to read a book in English and that’s certainly ok!

Some books almost have to be read in the language they are written in. For example, if the story rhymes if can be a little trickier to keep the same flow if you are translating the text as you go. Not impossible of course but just a little trickier.  Let me share an example for you from my time in the classroom.  My first year teaching I taught my students in their heritage language Spanish and as the year progressed I would introduce them to more and more exposure to English so by the end of the year they were close to fluency or almost fluent altogether in English.  I didn’t always have books in Spanish, in fact I had very few. So in the beginning of the year I would just translate the books I had in English as I read them to my students.

One of my students’ favorite characters was Amelia Bedelia.  If you are supporting English at home, Amelia Bedelia books are great.  They are funny, playful and just a lot of fun.  I will link to it in the show notes.  The thing with Amelia Bedelia’s books is she, the character Amelia, always takes figures of speech very literally.  Often times figures of speech are specific to a language.  So I found it incredible difficult to translate the meaning and the message of the book to Spanish as I read the book to my students.  I tried but because of the figures of speech it just didn’t flow. So I made the decision that Amelia Bedelia books had to be read in English so whenever a student picked out one of her books, I would just read it in English.

So I understand how you may prefer to read some books to your child in English.  If you choose to go this route, I would just try to make the distinction.  For your little ones, you may want to say “Ok today we are going to read the book like Daddy does so we are going to use Daddy words this time.” Depending on the age, they may understand you or they may not but I am always in favor of just telling your kids what is happening around them because eventually they will understand.

For your older ones, you can just say “Ok, we are going to read this book in English this time.”

So here’s sort of the trade-off for you to consider:  Yes you may be losing some exposure to Latvian but you are also showing your child that by being multilingual you can read in more than one language and there is plenty of value in that.

So to answer the question, I think it is very much a personal choice but you certainly can read in both languages.  Just make sure that you find a way to differentiate between the two.

Alright Julia, I hope you found the answer helpful and let us know how it goes!

For everyone else, if you have a question, send me a note.  I’d love to hear from you and help you on your journey.  You can do so at bilingualavenue.com/contact. I also hope you found the answer helpful.

May you have fun travels on your language journey.  Hope to see you again on the avenue.


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