Bilingual Children’s Books – good or bad?

When PaperTigers’ book reviewer Abigail Sawyer mentioned to me that she is going to be hosting a Blog Carnival about bilingualism over at Speaking in Tongues, she got me thinking. Again. I first started mulling over bilingual children’s books here in relation to Tulika Books, a publisher in India that produces bilingual books in many different Indian languages alongside English, and to former IBBY Preisdent and founder of Groundwood Books Patsy Aldana’s comments in an interview with PaperTigers, and I will quote them again here:

I have always been opposed to the use of bilingual books, however given that Spanish-only books hardly sell at all, I have had to accept that books in Spanish can only reach Latinos if they are bilingual. This goes against everything I believe and know to be true about language instruction, the joy of reading in your mother tongue…

I was surprised by Aldana’s dislike of bilingual books because I love them and my children love them, and I have found that they can be a joy for inquisitive children seeking to learn independently – but I do realise that our contexts are different. Aldana’s dislike of them seems to stem from their being a substitute for monolingual Spanish books in an English-biased market, and she has found a pragmatic way of providing books in their mother-tongue to the Latino community in North America.

We love reading bilingual books because, although our main vehicle is the English, having another language running alongside, often enhances the reading experience for us, especially where the setting of the story is culturally appropriate to the language. This is true even when we can’t read the script, because even without being able to understand it, we can sometimes pull out certain consistencies. Seeing the writing always provides a glimpse of that different culture.

One of my favorite books of the last few year’s is Jorge Luján’s Tarde de invierno/ Winter Afternoon, published by Groundwood Books – and without the original Spanish and the English lying alongside eachother, we would not have been able to appreciate so fully the simply gorgeous animation Jorge and his family produced of the book (watch it here). Some authors like Yuyi Morales effortlessly slide between English and Spanish (we love her delightful Señor Calavera and Grandma Beetle books, Just a Minute and Just in Case). Some books provide a parallel experience of language, like Demi’s Bamboo Hats and a Rice Cake or Ed Young’s Beyond the Great Mountains. None of these books is truly bilingual, in that they do not provide a similar reading experience regardless of which of the two languages you approach the story from – but they all offer a bridge between languages and cultures that is not to be understimated.

It would be very interesting to hear about the experiences and needs of truly bilingual parents and children. If you are bringing up bilingual children or have bilingual children in your class, do you or they seek out bilingual books? Are you frustrated by what’s out there – and what’s not? Do you have any special recommendations? We’d love to hear from you. And do go and take a look at the Speaking in Tongues Carnival.

11 Responses to “Bilingual Children’s Books – good or bad?”

  1. MotherReader Says:

    I’m surprised that there is any issue with bilingual books, as on a broad scale it seems like a clear win-win. The publisher has a broader market, kids/parents get books in their language. But the other thing that seems of value to me is that so many kids in the U.S. have a variety of people in their lives who may read/speak different languages and such books make it more accessible to everyone to read with the child. Grandma can read in Spanish, Daddy can read it in English, and Junior can read it either way!

  2. Eve Says:

    My concern with bilingual books for children with advanced language skills in both languages is that it is somewhat artificial for them to have both languages side by side. I also think it would give them the tendency to translate between the two languages when they should look at each language on its own merits. We don’t want our kids to “translate” but just to view each language as its own entity, not in relation to the other language. My children have been raised bilingual since birth, and I never use bilingual books. I use monolingual books in either language.

    However, I can see, for children who are learning a second language a bit later, that bilingual books could be helpful for learning the second language, in relation to the first.

  3. Marjorie Says:

    MotherReader, my thinking has always been along similar lines – but as I’ve thought about it more, I wondered what was the perspective of people who are actually bilingual – so thanks for your comments, too, Eve. It seems to be a question of translation, and the extra persona almost that brings in to the reading, where there is a parallel text. But what about books which flow between two languages, providing enough contextual clues to provide meaning without translation?

  4. cartside Says:

    It depends on the books I suppose. If they’re badly translated or not attractive looking, I can see why. I learned languages using such books and often it was a drag reading them, but it did help me read a real book without the help of a dictionary in a foreign language.
    As a parent, I’d love to have more bilingual children’s books, as in books that I read to my kids. For instance, Julia Donaldson (of Gruffalo fame) has all her books translated into German as she has a German connection and her main illustrator is German. The translations are fab, they really work and rhyme too. However, you can’t get them as bilingual editions and I really don’t get why. Surely the German/English market is big, what with every parent in Germany trying to teach their kids English… Instead I have to buy each book twice (we don’t do that, we buy some in English, some in German). So in my view, if it’s good attractive books with good translations, who could not want to have more?

  5. smashedpea Says:

    We have mainly monolingual books, but we like bilingual books as it means Papa can read them to the kids, too (like MotherReader said above). Like the one we have that is both English and German and has a couple of stories in it, nicely illustrated, that teaches kids how to tell time.

    I get Eve’s point about the importance of seeing each language as it’s own entity, but my eldest for example is quite interested between the differences between languages and has looked at the bilingual books from that angle. She seems to like having the same story in both languages, side by side. She doesn’t need the book to be bilingual as her language skills are good enough to follow the story in either language, but she enjoys it.

  6. bilinguepergioco Says:

    I have always been suspicious of bilingual books too, but I do see that they are very useful in some situations.

    The way I see it when in a family there’s a native speaker, or a near native, it’s better to have monolingual books, this reduces risks of interference among languages. I buy books in English for my son (we live in Italy), and he would never dream of asking me to read them in Italian, because he knows these books are only in English, and this is very important for us.

    On the other side, I agree that bilingual italian- english books would be very useful for parents who want to approach their children to english but need support in doing so, they just wouldn’t but English only books.

    So, as it often happens, it really depends….


  7. Sarah @ Bringing up Baby Bilingual Says:

    I’m a non-native speaker of French raising my son bilingually and we have very few bilingual (French-English books), mostly because I haven’t come across many (other than the ones with pictures of objects with vocabulary words in both languages). I do like to buy translations of some of my favorites, though (usually French translations of books written in English, like Madeline and classic children’s pictures like Where the Wild Things Are; other times it turns out that we’ve acquired the French translation first and later find the original at a yard sale or used book store).

    Otherwise, though, I do a lot of translating on the fly when my son brings me a book or magazine in English. At three, he knows for the most part which books are in which language, but sometimes he just wants to hear me read a certain book, even though it’s written in English. And it’s not unusual for us to take a book or magazine in English and just look at the pictures and talk about them in French.

    Basically, I feel that any exposure to any written texts (be it a classic children’s book or the back of a cereal box) is beneficial to children learning any language!

  8. Marjorie Says:

    If you are looking for bilingual picture books with English as one of the languages, take a look at Mantra Lingua, who have a very varied catalogue in 52 languages… – we have borrowed their books from our local library on a number of occasions and with a number of languages, including French since Older Brother started studying it at school.

  9. Patricia Brady-Danzig Says:

    I wrote a delightful bilingual children’s book, “Fabrizio’s Fable” (La Favola di Fabrizio) about a smart little Italian mouse who outwits a hungry fat cat! I fell in love with the Italian language, however, I am currently expanding to a series in Romanian and next, Spanish! Also included is a CD with “Fabrizio’s Song” sung in English & Italian by the Celebration Singers children’s choir and the author reading in English and Italian. Please visit to find out more! Grazie! Patricia