Especially when we follow the OPOL method and only communicate in one language with our children, wondering if reading a book in another language is detrimental is natural. In this blog post, we will go over why reading to/with our children in different languages is perfectly ok, and can even be beneficial.
Is it OK to read books in different languages?
The general worry behind the question comes from the fear that mixing languages goes against what the OPOL method (One Person One Language) suggests.
A child associates a language with a context. The context can be a person, but it can also be a situation. This is why other ways to raise a child than the OPOL method work. For example, if a family chooses to follow the “minority language at home” method, where the same parent(s) would be speaking one language at home, and another one outside, the child goes along.
With books, it is the same. The story provides a context that justifies the use of a certain language. When our children cannot read yet, reading a book to them, we are allowing them to access the meaning behind the “scribbles on the pages”. Therefore, reading a book in a different language to the one we generally use with them will not be shocking or confusing.
The comments and explanations on the story can either be in the language of the book or in the language we usually use.
What are the benefits of reading in different languages?
Being able to read in different languages is an amazing skill that allows us to access many more books than if we only read one language. By reading books in all of our children’s languages we demonstrate this opportunity. Of course, our children might have different people who can read to/with them in their different languages E.g.: Mum reads in one language, dad, in a second language, and the older sibling in a third language. But reading a book with someone is not just about enjoying a story. It is a moment we share, and our children might really want to read a certain story with us (more than anyone else). Reading in different languages enables this bonding moment to happen more easily, as they are with the person they want, enjoying the story they chose.
The benefits are also educational. By reading books together, we can teach our children new words and expressions. This can happen as much in the home language as in the school language.
I invite you to watch this interview with my eldest (when he was 7) about the beginning of his multi-literacy journey. (Start at 2:20 to hear his opinion about reading together)
Reading books in the school and home languages also presents opportunities to compare them, and therefore consolidate their knowledge of each language. Idiomatic expressions, for example, can be fun to explore. The other day, my 6 y.o son and I were reading a French book and came across the expression “donner un coup de main” (in French – home language) which means “to help” – literally “to give a punch (with your hand)”. He then asked me if it meant the same as “to give a hand” (in English – school language). He was therefore clearly comparing things he learnt in his school language with this similar expression in French. Comparing the literal meaning of both expressions was quite fun at the time, but also helped him remember them. Indeed, three days later, he saw me tidying up the dishes and asked me “Tu veux un coup de main?” (= Do you need a hand?) He was really proud to show that he could use this new expression! In the same way, encountering new words and expressions in the school language is an opportunity to introduce the equivalent in our home languages as we explain them. By reading books in different languages, it is therefore possible to enrich all of them at the same time (without necessarily making a lesson out of every new word).
Does that mean that I don’t need to read books in our home language(s)?
No. Books in the school language can be helpful to support our children’s development of their home languages, but of course, reading books in our home languages is even better. Like for the spoken language, the more exposure there is, the better.
It is important to present our children’s languages as tools to access more books / fun, and not restrict the choice of books you are going to read together by language. In other words, instead of saying “Should we read a (insert home language) book?” we can ask “How about reading a comic book?”
If you do this and see that your child always go for the book in the school language, here are a few ways you can include more books in your home language.
“It’s been a while we haven’t read this book, should we read it?” If your child likes the story, and don’t particularly have a story they want to read, they are likely to say “yes”.
“I love this story, should we read it?” Reading together is a bonding time, and we are allowed to also pick the book we’d like to read^^ (Not because it is in the home language, but because you want to read it).
Because we want our children to enjoy the books they read, it is our responsibility to find these books they will love and be interested in. Reading reviews, going on forums or finding groups where families share (some of) our languages is a way find these precious books.
Through their friends, our children might already know some books they (would) love in the school language. We can see if they are translated into our home languages.
If we read WITH/TO our child, they are likely to love reading them, no matter the language, as we will be helping them access this story they are impatient to dive into. It might not be as easy if we give them the book(s) to read on their own, as they will certainly prefer one in the language they can read more fluently in and/or have a wider range of vocabulary.
Generally speaking, books in the community language are more widely available. It is therefore a good idea to take advantage of them for the reasons mentioned above. A quick trip to the local library is an easy way to fulfil your child’s interests and curiosity, that you can leverage to develop their love for reading as well as their vocabulary in their school and home languages.
How can I encourage my child to read books in my language on their own?
One reason we probably want our children to read in our language is to expose them to it so they can expand their vocabulary (and have fun through our languages). When our children become more independent readers, they might prefer reading in their school language as it demands less effort from them. So here are a few things we have implemented in our household to do that.
1) Making access to books EASIER in our home languages:
We have subscribed to children’s magazines in our languages. So they come every month by mail. Not having to spend time searching for new things to read has been extremely helpful. (I would like to add that we also have English subscriptions (school language) for magazines that were better in that language. This is, as mentioned before, to allow our sons to access a variety of material using all their languages.)
Although we have books in English too, the majority of our sons’ bookshelves are filled with French and Korean books (our home languages). They, therefore have more choice of books in our home languages.
2) Finding books they LOVE in our languages:
New books and series that only exist in our languages are great. It gives our sons the impression that they are lucky to be able to understand stories their friends can’t have access to because they cannot read the language.
3) Giving our sons the CHOICE - Pocket money:
Six or seven months ago, we have started giving our children some pocket money for chores. They can spend it as they want. And when it comes to books, we tell them that if there are books in French or Korean, we buy them. But if there are in English, they need to pay for them. There are two ACTUAL reasons for that, that we explained to our sons:
They know that it is important for us that they can read and write in our languages. These books are going to help them develop their reading skills (in an enjoyable way). So we are happy to buy them.
English books are freely available at the library, so we do not see this as necessary spending.
Therefore, if a book exists in English and French for example, they can CHOOSE to get one or the other. Generally speaking, they prefer us paying for them and getting a toy with their pocket money.
Reading a book with our children is creating a particular context that allows us to switch the language we generally use, without impacting on the model we follow to raise them with more than one language.
Reading books in the school language can help us introduce new words and expressions in our children’s vocabulary in their home language(s) too.
In order to encourage our children to read in our home language as well as in their school language, it is important to present their language skills as tools to access more books and fun.