Is it okay to read to your child in another language?
The other day when my Czech friend Jolana and I were exchanging emails about her fall English language classes, she raised an interesting question: She wanted to start a small English-language library for her students to give them greater exposure to the language in different contexts, but feared that “normal” Czech parents might be intimidated reading to their children in English. Without giving the question much thought, I responded that I wasn’t sure either. I couldn’t really picture one of the non-English speaking parents of the children I teach feeling very confident picking up a borrowed English book and reading it to their child. Even some of the parents I know that speak English choose to communicate with me in Czech.
Jolana doesn’t live in Prague, so I suggested that she think about initiating some of the activities that Class Acts has successfully brought to Prague’s bilingual community, such as starting a children’s story hour in English, with a confident English speaker leading the reading, or founding a book club for older children who are already readers. Finding additional enrichment activities for the children in ways that are not dependant on the parents’ English abilities seemed to be a good path to follow. I even added that, personally, I almost never read my children Czech stories at home, except short rhymes and poems. For me, reading storybooks to them in Czech goes beyond my language abilities. Although I regularly help them with their Czech speech exercises (because I have to), I’m always worried they’ll pick up my foreign accent. Usually I gravitate to the English books because it feels natural. I went so far as to tell Jolana that I was worried I’d do more harm than good reading to my kids in Czech, and I could understand how her Czech parents might feel similarly about English.
“Do you really think it could do more harm?” she retorted. “I know what you mean but the vast majority of children have a non-native English teacher anyway. It would be almost like thinking no English is better than English with an accent. I believe the children can absorb a good accent from the radio, television and other media – books can help them have something in English that is not just ‘studying material.’” After I read her response, I was chagrined. I hadn’t meant to imply that English with an accent was a bad thing. In fact, I’m the teacher who’s constantly telling my adult students that, if they are able to communicate what they need, then their accents shouldn’t be a problem. So, I wondered why my response had conveyed the opposite.
After awhile, I realized that instead of responding like an ESL/TEFL teacher, I had answered my friend’s question like the mother of bilingual children. Living in a Czech community and attending Czech preschool, my children are saturated in the language. For me to read a Czech storybook to them seems nonsensical; I read to them in English because their father reads to them in Czech. Yet, I tried to imagine what I’d feel like once Anna Lee or Oliver began to learn a language other than their native Czech or English. Once I made the mental leap and imagined Anna Lee taking French lessons, I quickly realized I’d jump at the chance to have access to a library of children’s book in French. Although I still wouldn’t have an easy time reading them, I know I’d do my best to find some pronunciation guides (or a good French-speaking friend). I’d relish the opportunity to share the time exploring another language with my children. At the moment our children seem to be doing well balancing their two languages. But I expect their interest in other languages will grow once we travel more often to countries that speak something other than English or Czech.
Jolana told me about her eldest daughter’s similar reactions during a recent trip to Vienna. Although Nelinka is a pupil in one of her mother’s English classes, for the past few years she hasn’t been that keen on learning English, at least not in the classroom. Whenever we visit their hometown, she’s always prepared a welcome for me in English, and she seems to enjoy listening to English songs with Anna Lee and even singing along at times. Still her mother claims that Nelinka didn’t really want to attend her English lessons (before her mother became her teacher) and even though she knew the exercises, she often didn’t respond. However, on the trip to Vienna, there were several occasions that my friend needed to use English to communicate. Without prompting, Nelinka remarked to her mother that she could finally see how learning English could help her out. When we visited their family a few weeks ago, I tried to speak with all the children exclusively in English (with their parents’ consent), and I was surprised at how often Nelinka and her younger brothers understood what I said, and even gave simple replies in English.
I believe that generating enthusiasm around language learning and literacy is critical, and as a teacher and a parent I try to come up with activities that I hope will capture their attention and thus make the language stick better in their absorbent brains. At times this last year, teaching English to the Czech kindergartener’s at my children’s preschool, I’ve been seriously disheartened by the children’s responses. If they aren’t in the mood to participate, I’ll hear all sorts of complaints about how boring the lesson is or how they don’t feel like singing songs today or how they wish they could just play a game. I try to appease and shift my planned activities to mimic their energy level at the moment, but it’s often a challenging task. I know that having their lesson in the late afternoon is the single largest problem, and I’m eager to see how my teaching experience compares next year when I start teaching a few groups of Czech second graders immediately after lunch. I’m cautiously optimistic the timing might be more conducive for fun learning. A similar situation often unfolds at home when I press reading with Anna Lee. Being read to is her favorite pastime, but I haven’t been able to transfer her enthusiasm for stories into a desire to really work on sounding out words and learning to read for herself. I know it will come in due time. Still, I’ve spent a lot of mental effort thinking of ways to jumpstart her interest.
When I chatted again with Jolana, I revisited her email and apologized for my initial negative response. In truth, I think that any avenue that gives children (and their parents) more exposure to another language, particularly in a natural, un-translated form, is a positive step. I expect her English-library to be a success, and I applaud her innovative efforts. I don’t know many parents who wouldn’t want to be a part of their children’s language learning. From my perspective as a mother, I believe most parents just need a little jumpstart to get their own courage up.
We’re traveling to Italy this coming week for a family holiday, and I hope I’ll be brave enough to practice a few Italian phrases and help the children learn to communicate the basics in another language. Look for Half n Half again on June 17.