How reading shapes cultural identity & why bilinguals need mother tongue reading
It’s Saturday night at our local microbrewery. Radek and I are chatting about the recent Czech presidential election with our neighbors. (Truth: They’re making jokes. I’m listening in hopes of improving my Czech humor.) The younger children have lined up plastic soldiers and army tanks on the wooden table and are preparing for battle. And my 13-year daughter is hunched over in an armchair at an empty table. She’s not pouting. She’s reading.
Anna is juggling Karel Capek’s Válka s Mloky, Brian Jacques’s Redwall, and An Illustrated Version of the Bible. Capek’s book is required reading for her 7th grade Czech literature class; Redwall is an adventure story my father brought her (because he read it aloud to my brother years ago). Anna decided to read the Bible herself. There’s nothing like a question about Moses on a state school exam (administered by one of Europe’s most outwardly atheist countries) to spark religious curiosity in a teenager.
One of the neighbors is celebrating the birth of his first son. He downs his shot and turns to me. “How did you do that?” He jerks his finger toward Anna. “How did you make her such a reader? I’m new at this, give me some tips.”
Reading for pleasure has long been one of my (and now my children’s) greatest forms of relaxation. At our house, reprimands include – “It’s time for dinner, get the magazines off the table!” “Yes, you do have to loan your brother your copy of The Wimpy Kid,” and my favorite, “Mommy, he’s not using the bathroom, he’s just sitting on the potty reading!”
While my children’s reading habits sometimes annoy me, I am to blame. For years, I believed reading aloud to my children was the most important thing I could do to improve their English language skills. They attended Czech schools, and we lived immersed in Czech culture. Reading to them in English was a treat.
But, when my neighbor asked me to explain how to raise a reader, I was lost.
His question also led me to wonder, is there anything different about raising a child who likes to read in multiple languages?
A Librarian’s Perspective
I turned to Sandra Richards, a librarian at an international school in Prague, for help. Specifically, I wanted to hear Sandra’s opinion on what sparks reading curiosity and how to help multilingual children use reading to deepen their linguistic and their cultural roots, particularly when their mother tongue/native language/first language (L1) might be the minority community language. (Mother tongue reading can be defined as reading in a language that comes from the child’s native cultural identity from either parent.)
I was also curious if Sandra had any insight on why children preferred reading in one language versus another. Dutch-born and raised, Sandra has spent most of her adult life living outside Holland in places like Taipei, Taiwan and now Prague. While Sandra is adept at guiding young learners to their favorite English-language storybooks in the school’s library, she has also helped encourage mother tongue reading in her school.
And, Sandra has raised two multilingual daughters whose experiences growing up as third-culture kids has given them a unique perspective on how language shapes cultural identity. Sandra’s children are half Dutch, half American, born in Holland and Taiwan and raised in Prague. They speak English, Dutch, French, and German fluently as well as basic Czech.
When more than one spoken language is the household norm, which language do you give priority to for reading?
Since I work with students in an international school, they have come to the school to learn English. It is the majority language. However, many of the children are from multilingual families and their parents speak different languages at home. Years ago, in the library we started a mother tongue reading section. The idea was to help our students, especially those new to the school, feel pride in having books in the library that they could read. We even asked parents to help us find favorite books in their native languages.
Over the years, we have acquired quite a collection. It is wonderful to see new readers grab a book off the shelf and exclaim, “That’s in my language!” Mother tongue reading can be a very comforting experience, particularly for children who are adjusting to a new place and shaping their identity within the place. I remember one little Dutch girl who checked out the same Dutch board book every week. I think she checked it out 16 times.
But, it all depends on the child. I have seen children in the same family where some of the children could switch easily between 2 or 3 languages while another sibling was struggling. As far as mother tongue reading in our school goes, it is the most popular with the younger children.
So, Harry Potter is usually read in English?
Yes, I would say that once children become more advanced readers, they would like to read the works like the Harry Potter series, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other international series in their original languages. By this point, they are often more comfortable in their cultural identities.
How did you balance your own children’s language development growing up in the Czech Republic, but speaking English and Dutch? Were there any specific challenges?
Being consistent, particularly with Dutch, our minority language, was essential. I spoke Dutch to the girls and my husband spoke English. They also attended Dutch lessons after school. Even though English was the majority language, they were used to me speaking Dutch to them. Now, if I have a brain lapse and email them in English, they write back, “Mom, why did you write me in English?”
Another benefit to being bilingual for our daughters was that adding their 3rd languages wasn’t that difficult. They excelled in their French and German lessons in school and have been complimented by native speakers in both languages for having native-speaking accents. When they left Prague to attend university in Scotland and later to study abroad, they found their experiences growing up bilingual also helped them adjust quickly to new situations.
(To get Sandra’s daughter Faye’s full perspective on growing up as a 3rd culture kid, read her story here.)
Is there anything special about bi(multi)lingual readers?
Two resource books that I have found immensely helpful are A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism and The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents. The Guide to Bilingualism is arranged in Q&A format and it answers almost any situation you can imagine related to bi(multi)lingual children. In The Bilingual Family Handbook, you can find a wide range of case studies that show just how varied and diverse bilingual upbringings can be.
I would say that it is essential to remember there are many ways to be bilingual. Reading does not seem to present a specific challenge to bilingual identity. However, I have seen the ways reading has enriched a bilingual child’s cultural identity and strengthened ties to the minority language.
After speaking with Sandra, I did what any reader would do, I started reading.
The reference books Sandra brought me confirmed that there are many reasons a child may prefer reading a book in one language versus another, and that reading in different languages can help children discover their cultural roots and heritages.
As I read, I found a quote that summed up my perspective of being bicultural. In the Guide to Bilingualism, author Colin Baker describes biculturalism. “A bilingual tends to be bicultural in a unique sense. There is a complex but integrated combination of both cultures inside one person. It is like the overlapping of two circles rather than two circles side by side.”
I like the idea of having multiple circles of overlapping cultural identity. It goes with my vision that being Half ‘n Half doesn’t mean you are split into two identities – either Czech or American (or insert nationality). Instead, the experiences, cultures, languages, and traditions that make up your identity overlap and mix up to (hopefully) result in a more inclusive, multicultural citizen of the world.
5 Tips for my Neighbor (and anyone who’d like to spark the love of reading in a child)
Make reading material easily accessible
My children have books on low bookshelves in their rooms. Even before they learned to read, they knew they could pull out their board books anytime they wanted and leaf through them. They also carry books with them to the bathroom, and we have baskets of books around the house.
Invest in magazine subscriptions (comics books or graphic novels)
We subscribe to several English language magazines which my mother mails us. (Highlights, High Five, Ranger Rick, Click and National Geographic Kids are favorites.) I leave these around the house for my children to pick up and browse through. TIP: National Geographic Kids can be ordered in English in the Czech Republic. Comic books and graphic novels are other ways to get children reading who don’t want to read a traditional book.
Don’t censor what your child reads (but be available to discuss sensitive themes)
When Anna wanted to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman a year or two ago, I let her. She also read The Hunger Games series (before she turned 12) under the condition that we would discuss each book after she finished reading it. When my 10-year old became obsessed with guns and WWII, I let him check books out of the library and buy history books at used book stores. My youngest loves everything related to circuses and garbage collection. We spend a lot of time making lists of the things you need to run your own circus or to have a successful garbage collection company.
Read aloud to your child (and listen as he reads to you)
Consistent reading aloud to your child and later having your child read to you, will turn children into lifelong readers, improve literacy skills, and enhance the imagination more than any other factor, according to Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook and international reading expert. Trelease’s reading aloud programs have been adopted around the world, including a Polish program called All Poland Reads to Kids (which has a Czech counterpart Celé Česko čte dětem – Every Czech Reads to Kids).
Let your child see you reading (and not on your mobile phone)
This may sound easy. But, a few years ago I realized that I spent a lot of time reading news articles and even entire books on my phone. (TRUTH: My children pointed it out.) Now, I save my mobile phone reading for when they aren’t around. When in lack of a good book, I am guilty of reading their books! They get annoyed, but it helps their motivation to see me enjoying one of their favorite stories.
For more information on how prevent our reliance on modern technology from negatively impacting our relationships with our children, consider reading Dr. Catherine Steiner – Adair’s book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.
Where to find English (& other non-Czech) children’s books in the Czech Republic
If you live in the Czech Republic, here is a resource list (at the bottom of the linked article) to libraries, bookstores and online buying options in the Czech Republic, or check out Class Acts’s comprehensive list.