“The power of books must be fully harnessed. We must ensure their access so that everyone can take refuge in reading, and by doing so, be able to dream, learn and reflect”

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of World Book and Copyright Day 2021

Have you ever got ‘the look’ upon saying you prefer the ‘old-fashioned’ paper books? Or maybe because you simply delight in new book smell? I sure have! In our fast-paced world, reigned by social media and internet, books are slowly becoming artefacts from the past and obsolete for some. The pressure to devour information by the minute and learn fast has become prevalent. But it was not too long ago that people relied heavily on books to acquire knowledge and nobody needed to be reminded why reading is a vital part of life. People read every day.

To me, reading books is still omnipresent. It is this magical tool that opens the door to a fascinating new world and takes me on an exciting journey every time I start a new book. My earliest, and fondest, memories are of 1001 Arabian Nights, The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Alexander Pushkin and The Adventures of the Little Onion by Gianni Rodari. I must have been around 5 years old and remember sitting with my grandfather, reading, and indulging in each and every one of his favourite stories. Books still give me refuge and hope like they did back then.

Paradoxically, in our globally interconnected world, people are becoming increasingly disconnected from each other and it is through the stories we read and share that we can rebuild these lost connections. There is a dire need to encourage reading worldwide and that is why UNESCO designated a World Book and Copyright Day in 1995 – to promote books as a natural source of knowledge, “a link between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures”.[1] The date – April 23rd – was chosen to commemorate either the birth or death of some of the master story-tellers, such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

So, what do books mean to you? For me, they have always been trusted companions and advisors. They’ve provided me with inspiration, guidance, taught me ethical and moral principles. One of my highlights as a child was the trip to the library every other week, when I could browse and get lost in all the gems, patiently standing on the shelves and waiting to be discovered. Books have opened my eyes to the world and I would also like to think they’ve made me a little bit smarter. Therefore, it was not much of a surprise that when I had my children the world of magical stories became an indispensable part of their lives as well.

Reading to our children from a very early age teaches them to love books, fosters connections and strengthens the parent-child bond through shared tales, experiences, emotions and exclusive quality time spent together. It promotes knowledge, natural curiosity, creativity as well as focus and concentration. It expands vocabulary and lays the foundation for writing. Good readers grow up to be good writers.

But how about bilingual readers? Are they any different from monolingual readers? Do they get confused and overwhelmed with the various languages and writing systems? The short answer is – no, they don’t. Contrary to what a lot of people might believe, building a solid foundation in the home language(s), including reading and writing, is a great way to start a child on their bilingualism journey. Acquiring and cultivating abilities in two languages during the early years, especially when focusing on reading, allows for language transfer and promotes language awareness. Not only reading skills but also attitudes are transferred from one language to the next. Of course, we should talk to our children as much as possible because learning to listen and speak undoubtedly lays the foundation for reading. The amount of vocabulary knowledge acquired when learning to speak a language is an important prerequisite for budding readers. However, the spoken language we use at home is often quite limited and repetitive as it usually evolves around very similar topics. The same is valid for vocabulary and sentence structures. These conversations are not particularly rich and often repetitive, and, therefore, in order to acquire the breadth and depth of the language needed to develop the desired level of proficiency, children need more varied input and books are the perfect source. They open up a whole new world of opportunities for learning, providing a multitude of topics, vocabulary and ways of expression. What is essential throughout that process is to stick to your home-language(s) and keep building on your child’s skills by reading in that/these language(s). Learning about the world through the language that is closest to your heart, would strengthen the parent-child bond (yes, this needs to be repeated!) and further a child’s socio-emotional development. It would make the introduction to and mastering of concepts and ideas easier and more meaningful, transforming the home language into a powerful resource to tap into when starting school in the societal language or learning another foreign language. This secure foundation would facilitate learning to read at school.

What I am trying to say is – read to your children. Read to pass on the passion and magic. Read to connect with them through stories and in ways you have never imagined possible. Read to them to feed their curious minds and to teach them how much guidance and direction books can give them when they feel lost. Read to introduce them to these big words they might throw at you one day and, even enraged with their audacity, you will be secretly proud of them. Read to help them learn their home language, the language of your heart, so they can always keep it close to theirs and never ‘lose’ it because they have learned to read and write in it. And, no, this is not just a romantic aspiration. It is absolutely doable. Watch out for my next post where I will share some practical ideas how to implement all the reading in your busy daily routine and support your bilingual reader.

[1] https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldbookday

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