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.


Professor Calls for Bilingual Education Services to Go Beyond English Instruction

This is a great article about bilingual advocate Diane Rodriguez. She is working on improving provisions in US schools for newly arrived immigrant children who do not speak English. Schools often see these learners in a very one-dimensional way – they are “English-language learners”, and therefore the focus is on teaching them English. Her point, which is so important, is that these children as so much more than just “ELL”. They are also fluent speakers of another language, and have cultural knowledge and personalities and interests that they cannot tap into in English. They are also learners of culture, a new way of life, new ways of socialising and a new school and school system.

Good support for these children needs to go beyond focusing on the fact that they need to learn English, and consider all the other things they need to learn, without neglecting what they are bringing with them,


Professor Calls for Bilingual Education Services to Go Beyond English Instruction.

#IMLD: Books for kids

Firstly, I’d like to say that I think there should be more books for kids about being bilingual. I’ve had an idea in my head for years for a children’s book, but it’s still in my head…
Bilingual books are important not only to help children achieve literacy in both languages, but also to help them integrate their two (or more worlds) and see them represented in the same stories and books – much as the two or more sides of themselves, culturally, are integrated into one person. They are also very important for showing minority language speakers that their language has as much value and use as the school language, and for helping parents participate in the literacy process in their own language.

Diglot Books, make great bilingual books for kids, including an outstanding alphabet series – what bilingual child has not been confused when faced with a monolingual alphabet book? The unfortunate thing is that there are not so many books and languages available through Diglot – developing these books and getting good translations and getting them printed is all expensive in an increasingly digital world. So, if you are looking for books with Cornish (yes, really!), Dutch, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or Welsh, this site is for you.

Nik Nak is a Belgian organisation that produces bilingual books in Dutch and other languages. They have quite a wide range of languages, many of which are minority languages, which is great. I’ve heard (anecdotally) that some of the translations are not fantastic but in my opinion, a bilingual book in the hand is worth two in the head…

Readers – please comment on this if you know of other bilingual book resources for children – I’d like to build up a hopefully-comprehensive list on my resources page.

California Puts More Attention on Long-Term English-Language Learners – Learning the Language – Education Week

Way to go California – recognising that being a language learner lasts a lot longer than the 1-2 years support usually given. It’s a first step in narrowing the gap between those-who-can in the school language and those-who-can’t… now let’s follow it up with Mother Tongue/first language teaching in schools, and models that promote positive bilingualism rather than shift to monolingualism, and with proper training for all staff – teaching and non-teaching – that work with these pupils!


California Puts More Attention on Long-Term English-Language Learners – Learning the Language – Education Week.

“A” is for airplane. But “V” is for vliegtuig… the beauty of bilingual resources from Diglot Books

The question of reading – who reads what and in what language? is a common one in bilingual families. Should each parent only read books in their own language? Is it okay to read books in the other language? What if your accent is terrible? What if you only want to read in *your* language but your tantruming toddler wants the favourite book in the other language?
My standard advice is that you can “read” a book in any language you want, especially kids’ books which are not, let’s face it, very challenging in terms of vocabulary and content. So, I can read an English book to my kids in French, and my husband can read a French book in English. It sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Of course, nothing in life is always that simple. And that realization led to a great idea. In 2010 two friends, Alison O’Dornan and Wilma vanRiel were having coffee and chatting and Wilma brought up and issue she was having with her daughter and books. Sophie was being raised with two languages, Dutch and English. And she was finding alphabet books confusing, because words do not always start with the same letter in both languages. This led Wilma to the idea of writing an English/Dutch bilingual alphabet book with only words that work in both languages. From this idea, Diglot Books was born.
These books are fantastic resources for bilingual families. Not only is it easier for children to manage one alphabet, but it also demonstrates to them bilingualism in action – you can read in two languages, and you can use both to say the *same* things. Some of the books are available digitally and some in print version, and the selection of books varies by language pair. Right now they have resources available in Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Welsh and Cornish, all paired with English.

You can browse the store or find out more at Diglot Books

Author’s Note: This is not a sponsored post. I am blogging about Diglot Books because I believe they are a great resource for bilingual families, and I am not getting any compensation, either monetary or other, for this post!

Bilingual = Biliterate?

Continuing on the theme of reading, I’d like to talk about biliteracy. If bilingualism is the ability to be able to use two or more languages, is literacy a necessary part of this? Do you need to be able to read and write a language to qualify as “bilingual”? And if you would like your children to be literate in two or more languages, how do you get there?

The answer to the first question – Is literacy necessary for bilingualism – is “not really”. People all over the world speak two or more languages, and are literate in only one, or even none. It is not necessary to be literate to be bilingual. However, literacy does make it easier to maintain a language, especially if you live outside a community of practice. Literacy brings you access to a host of ways to gather passive input (reading) and use a language (writing) that may not be available to you if you are not surrounded by speakers of this language. Reading is also one of the best ways to grow vocabulary in a language, so if a child has little daily exposure (in form of oral input) to a language, being able to read will help them acquire a better vocabulary, and therefore be able to use the language better.
So for parents raising bilingual children, literacy is always a good goal for at least two of their languages. That said, is there a “best practice” way to get there? The answer to this question is “not really”. There are many routes to biliteracy, and which one is right for your child depends on the languages in question, your situation, and of course, your child. One important point to remember is that there is no evidence that *simultaneous* biliteracy (learning to read in two or more languages at the same time) is better than sequential biliteracy. Children can and do learn to read in the second (or subsequent) language any time from months to years after learning to read and write in the first language. So, there is no need to pressure or overload a child to achieve literacy in both languages early on in schooling. In my opinion, if there are no clear benefits to simultaneous biliteracy, then it is (generally) better to wait until the child is comfortably literate in the school language before formally beginning literacy training in the second language.
Why? Simply because if they don’t need to work that hard, why make them? Once a child has gained literacy skills in one language, presuming the alphabets are the same, literacy in the other language comes quite easily. Even if alphabets are different, a lot of the basics of literacy are the same, so the second will still come more easily. My kids are in a school where they are learning to read in the class language (English) in the same year, and at the same time as they are learning to read in their registered “mother tongue” (French). I watch them go through this process, and compare it to my older daughter, who learned to read in the school language first (French) and then one day picked up a book and read it in English. The whole process was so much easier for my older daughter. Despite the fact that my twins *are* doing it – learning to read in two languages at the same time – I think it is harder than it needs to be.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Cummins about this (notice the linguistic-geek name-dropping… 🙂 ) and his opinion (which I respect greatly) is that it is fine for kids to learn to read in the school language and mother tongue at the same time. But as hard as I try, I can’t equate “fine”, with “the right thing”. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean they should have to – it makes that critical first year of schooling so much harder. For parents with children in an early-literacy school system (literacy before the age of six) this is an even more important point. Children work very hard to learn to read and write, even when it is taught at the “right” age (6-7 years old). Why make our kids work so much harder than necessary, and in the meantime impact their enjoyment of school and learning, for no good reason? Because if we go back to the bottom line, learning to read in the second language later leads to the same academic outcomes – not better, not worse!

So my top points for parents who want to achieve biliteracy for their children are these:

1. Prioritize actual literacy in the school language first.
2. Do lots of literacy-type activities in the other language(s) – reading out loud, alphabet/writing system play, writing play.
3. Have a plan for how you will help your child become literate in the other language.
4. Remember that reading and writing should be fun for kids – they need to learn in a positive way, when they are cognitively ready.
5. Don’t tell Jim Cummins I disagree with him…

Reading: Who does what, and why?

One of the questions that comes up in almost every seminar I do is related to reading. Most of the families I work with are lucky enough to have available children’s books in both family languages. Children (being often contrary) tend to pick up a book from the “other” language and refuse any attempt to be directed to a book in the “right” language for the reading parent. So, what’s a parent to do? Stumble through in an attempt to read the Dutch book? Refuse altogether? Or, the third, and preferred option, read the book in the “right” language? I think that parents should never refuse to read a book their child has chosen. But, I also think that with young children, consistency of language input is important. So, parent becomes translator for the moment, and reads the book in their preferred language. This is easy enough when the book is a baby book, with words alone, or simple text. But what about when the books get harder? And the parent doesn’t actually understand? Well, at this point, parent becomes author… and creates their own story to go with the pictures, engaging their child about the content along the way.
Now, wouldn’t it just be easier to say “Sorry honey, that book is in Daddy’s language, so you have to wait for Daddy to read it.”? Yes, of course. But the message you send to your child about reading, in all their languages, is worth the effort. For a child to see the same story, told in different languages, and sometimes even in different ways, is a demonstration of the dynamic nature of both bilingualism and reading, and that, in my opinion, is worth the effort.

Author’s note: I’ve decided to spend some time on the theme of reading in 2014, so the next few posts will all be related to bilingualism and reading. Upcoming is biliteracy, and I am also going to feature some great resources for bilingual literacy. If you have any questions relating to this topic, please post them!