Being Bilingual with Betty and Cat books



What makes a good bilingual book for children?

I get a lot of requests from various companies to partner on my blog, or to have me promote their services or products. I rarely do so, because I rarely find anything worth sharing. But every once and a while I get an email about a service or product that I really like, and I’m happy to talk about. So today I am introducing you to Betty and Cat, who share books but not a language.

Betty (who is a dog), originally speaks Dutch, and Cat (who is a cat!), originally speaks English, are housemates and friends. Betty and Cat have adventures together, each speaking their own language, but understanding each other. The vast majority of children’s books that are identified as bilingual are actually parallel monolingual; they are the same text, translated and put in a dual-language format in the book. While these can be used for some purposes educationally, they don’t represent the reality of bilingual children, who interact with most people in their lives in only one of their languages. The back and forth between the two characters allows bilingual children to use both their languages in reading or listening in an integrated manner, not translating but continuing the story. A side positive note aside from the educational value is that the illustrations are lovely!


Author Hennie Jacobs became bilingual at the age of six years old, when she moved from the Netherlands to Canada, and her journey inspired these delightful books. They have now been interpreted into other language pairs, including English-French, Dutch-French, English-Spanish and Spanish-French. Click on either illustration to visit the website.


Raising Bilingual (or multilingual!) Children: 6 building blocks for success (May 18)

Next parent seminar in Amsterdam coming up! If you are raising your children with more than one language (or thinking about it), come along and find out the six building blocks for a successful Family Language Plan. This seminar has been developed over a decade of working with bilingual/multilingual families and packs in theoretical background as well and practical planning. Looking forward to meeting my next group of parents!

Our host is the Jacaranda Tree Montessori, registration through this link: Raising Bilingual Children

Privilege and Paradox in Bilingual Education

A few weeks ago I sat down with Donna Bardsley at Amsterdam Mamas, to record a podcast on bilingualism and bilingual education. The topics ranged from my own experience raising three kids with three languages, to the more complex, and compelling, issue of how language status affects children who are becoming bilingual. I’ve written about language status here before (like this one) but in this podcast we get a chance to go in depth on a topic that is often overlooked in discussions about bilingualism.

Many of you may have heard me speak over the years at different events, but for those who haven’t, here is a chance to hear me live, on the Web! Click on the logo below to link to the podcast. Interview starts at 3:40.


When Family Languages are in Conflict

A different language is a different vision of life.

  • Federico Fellini

The vast majority of families I have worked with over the years have been in agreement about the decision to raise their children as bilingual/multilingual. Usually they come to me for family language planning advice because they want to “get it right” and ensure that their children are able to use both languages of the parents, and other languages (school, community) as well. But every once in a while, I work with a family in a situation of language conflict; they can not agree on language goals or priorities for their children.

Sometimes, it’s a direct consequence of a divorce/separation which leaves the parents in disagreement about language priorities. As many things become contentious as a family dissolves, so too can bilingualism, and language choice become a serious issue. This is often the case when one parent feels that their language is “more important” than the other parent’s language, and needs to be the priority. Juggling two or more languages in a family home is often challenging, but stretching two or more languages across shared custody adds an additional level of difficulty.

I’ve also worked with intact families struggling with language issues, where one parent is not supportive of the other parent’s language choices. This is particularly hard to deal with as it also impacts the children’s views on language. It can be extremely divisive when parents do not understand or value each other’s language priorities. In these cases, it is often that one parent wants to use a dialect or minor language in place of a “more important” language, and that choice is not supported or encouraged by the partner or extended family, who feel there is no reason for the choice.

And finally, I’ve worked with families in which one parent simply does not like the language of the other, or doesn’t being “shut out” because they don’t understand the other language. This leads to pressure to shift towards monolingualism in the family, to alleviate the discomfort the monolingual parent feels when confronted with conversations they can not understand.  Again, this creates tension in the family that the children can feel, and they may often then choose to stop using the disputed language, in an attempt to “keep the peace”.

In all these cases, the red thread is generally language status. In multilingual families, there are often differing views about the status – high or low – of each language, and this is linked to the perception of usefulness. If a parent determines the usefulness of their partner’s language as being low, they are more inclined, in some cases, to consider that language a hindrance, rather than a benefit for their children and family. I see this most commonly when the father speaks a high-status or majority language, and the mother speaks a low-status or minority language, and in these cases the children very often end up losing the mother’s language, which is at the least detrimental to their bilingual potential, and at worst, detrimental to the parent-child relationship.

In all cases, when we choose to marry someone who speaks a different language than we do, and we choose to have children with them, we have a duty to support our partner in their language choices, and make a family language plan that addresses the need for each language. This means that language choice must be respected, and supported, regardless of personal opinion or personal comfort level with other languages. The language we choose to use – need to use – with our children is highly personal and strongly linked to our own backgrounds and families. Each parent must be given the opportunity to choose the language that they feel best able to parent in, and that choice should come from the heart, and not from the head, or from someone else’s judgement. This holds true as well after separation/divorce; families need to plan for the children to continue to grow in both parents’ languages, to ensure they remain connected to the part of their identity that is linked to that language/culture.

In all bilingual families, it’s important to start from a place of mutual respect and support, and the understanding that the languages of both parents are equally important for children, regardless of the immediate or eventual usefulness of the language.

Recovering heritage languages: rediscovering your “whole self”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about why “heritage” languages are important, which came out of conversations with families trying to pass on a language with little “usefulness” but great emotional significance. Some of the most emotional stories I’ve heard over the years have been from adults who should have been raised bilingual, but who are not bilingual. Sometimes their parents actively choose not to use a language; this is most common with low-status languages and dialects. Some parents tried but were given the advice to drop a “useless” language, and listened to that poor (but oh, so common) advice. Some parents tried and persevered but didn’t have enough of a support system, or had a child who was just too resistant, so they eventually let it go. Whatever the reason, the end results are the same: loss of a language and loss of a cultural connection.

This affects people in different ways, but I’ve heard from many that they feel uncomfortable traveling to their “home country” because people expect them to be able to speak the language. I’ve heard that they get mocked when they do try to use the language, because they “sound like children”. And I’ve heard that they just never go anywhere where that language will be used, because they feel too guilty about not being able to speak it.

Now, I am sure that there are many adults out there who lost a family language and have no regrets, but of course, those are not the people I hear from. But for those dealing with this issue, it can feel isolating to not be able to talk to extended family, it can feel shameful – to look like something that you are not – and it can feel insurmountable. So the question I am often faced with is: “How can I get back my mother tongue?”. The answer, of course, is you can’t. You can not start over again from birth and get it right the second time through. What you can do, if it matters to you, is start again from where you are now.

One of the biggest hurdles for trying to learn your “mother tongue” as an adult can be the people who are trying to be helpful. Your aunt, who likes to correct you every time you pronounce something incorrectly, your grandmother, who compares you to your cousins who are “so much better” than you, your cousin who switches to English with you out of politeness or impatience. Family members, while well-meaning, are sometimes not very effective as a language-learning support system.

So who can help you? One of the best resources is people who speak the language fluently, but have no emotional connection to how well you speak it. I’ve seen many adults benefit immensely from “language partnerships” – you have a mutually beneficial relationship where both have a language the other wants to improve, so you help each other. It’s not always easy to find a fluent speaker of your heritage language, but if you have a local college or university, the International Students Office is a good place to start. I’ve also seen success with families who bring in a child minder who speaks the heritage language, and the parent learns alongside the children (and even better – the other parent too!).

But of course the most successful method is to arrange for a full language-immersion. I’ve not seen many try with this method, because the logistics are sometimes overwhelming or impossible. But taking a “gap year” from whatever is your normal life and moving “back” to the land of your heritage language can be the best way to improve quickly and to discover, or rediscover a connection with your cultural identity.

Whichever route you choose, please do take the time to share your story with other families in the same situation. Letting parents know that someday their child may want to know their language might make the difference for someone else.

Keeping the window open: why “heritage” languages are important too

I feel like I can not be half of myself.

I’ve heard variations of those words so many times over my career as a consultant, from adults all over the world, all referencing the fact that they do not speak the language of one (or both) of their parents. Many of them are children of immigrants who chose not to pass on their own “mother tongue”, because it wasn’t useful, because they were told not to, because they wanted their child to “fit in” to their new home, just… because. The adults expressing this sentiment to me come from all kinds of language backgrounds, but what they have in common is a sense of loss. For some it is a loss of potential:

“I could have been bilingual!”.

For some it is a loss of history:

“No one in our family can speak my grandmother’s language now.”.

And for some it is a loss of identity:

“When I go to my parents’ home country I am a foreigner.”.

No matter what the reasons, they all feel that they have missed out on, and are missing out on, something critical to their sense of self. As parents, we make the best choices we can for our children, and hope they were the right choices. In the case of heritage, or family, languages, it can seem too hard to keep using them with reluctant children, too much effort for no good reason. Many children go through phases (sometimes years long!) when they resist using the minority language, opting for the easier option, or the more acceptable option. Faced with resistance, even the most dedicated parents can lose their way and eventually shift to only the majority language as well.

So is it really worth it to keep using a language that your child doesn’t really need, may never use? From the voices of the now-adult children, yes, it is worth it. We can never predict where our children may want to go in their lives. Those of us raising children with complex cultural identities can not know what our children will eventually attach to, which side or facet of “self” they want to live with or live in. Choosing to not pass on a heritage language – a language that connects our children with their family, history, own story – eliminates a choice for them, and limits their ability to explore their sense of self from all angles.

So yes, it is worth it to keep using your language with your child, even when they refuse to speak it back to you. It is worth it to try and create a real or virtual community of practice so that your child can experience all of their cultural possibilities. It is worth it to do your best to keep the window open, so your child has the potential to grow up to be a speaker of that language if they choose, and to be a part of that culture.

If you are an adult who wants to speak your heritage language better, stay tuned for my next post.

If you are a parent who us trying to pass on a minority language, here are some previous posts that you may find helpful:

#IMLD: Whole-family support for (very minor) minority languages

Heritage languages: Fighting a losing battle?

“But she won’t speak *my* language…”

#IMLD: Supporting Mother Tongue (everyone’s!) at school

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

I’ve been really excited to write this post for the International Mother Language Day campaign, because this topic is at the heart of what I do and why – *every* bilingual needs a “Mother Tongue” and every child has a right to use their Mother Tongue at school. And I don’t use the word “right” lightly – I really mean it. Far too often, language is used to marginalise minority speaker children. “Only X language is allowed here.” is a rule in more schools than I care to count, and breaking the rule often leads to punishment. Imagine, for one moment, what it must feel like to be a child who is being punished for using the language in which they were raised, in which they think, play and love. And now imagine for a moment what school would feel like for that child – is it a warm, welcoming place where you feel welcome and included and ready to learn? Or is it a place where you feel insecure, unhappy, unwelcome. A child’s mother tongue is a fundamental part of who they are and where they are from, and they have the right to take that language with them to adulthood, without negative interference from their schools.

Here are some ways that all schools can embrace the challenge of languages, and support all their learners

1. Bilingualism is beneficial to children. All children, no matter what two (or more) languages are involved. Even if one or more of these are minor languages, or dialects, or not really “useful”.  This is a message that all schools need to hear and understand. All too often, bilingualism is seen as desirable and worth working for if the children are middle-upper class and the languages are high status, but bilingualism is viewed as  “problem” if the children are from immigrant or refugee families, and speak a low-status language at home. The brain does not differentiate between high and low status languages, and bilingualism should be supported at school no matter who the children are or what their mother tongue is. Educating staff and moving forward with a “additive bilingualism” attitude will be a first step in supporting the diverse mother tongues spoken in your school.

2. Let the children use their languages, for socialising, and for learning. If you make their language something “bad”, they will use it in this way. I hear all the time “but when they use their own language it is to mock or exclude” as an excuse for banning any other languages in school. If children are forbidden to use their language because it is unwelcome, not as good, or even “bad”, then they will use their language to prove what they are being told. In schools where language diversity is embraced and encouraged, there are fewer language-related problems, because all the children feel accepted and use their languages in more positive ways because of it.

3. Integrate knowledge about language across the curriculum. You don’t have to be a multilingual yourself to discuss how languages work  – the school language is talked about all the time, but let the other-language speakers talk about their mother tongue when language is being discussed. A conversation about how pronouns work in English can be enriched by comparing how pronouns work in other languages – for all the learners, including the monolinguals.

4. Use translanguaging as a pedagogical tool to help your minority language speakers thrive. Also known as “dynamic multilingualism” this strategy for deepening learning and improving language, both mother tongue and school language, is growing in prominence in research and literature about multilingualism in schools. Translanguaging is a practice that plans for the use of mother tongue in the classroom, so that early emergent bilinguals can understand and learn better, and later emergent bilinguals can continue to grow in their mother tongue by using it to mediate academic content.

Schools that enroll large numbers of non-native pupils, whether they be high-status  international schools or regular state schools, have a duty to understand the needs of these learners and provide for their growth and learning in ways that respect the whole child, including their mother tongue.