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Multiliteracy in Action

Using and Researching Dual Language Books for Children

What are dual language books?

Dual texts for children are mostly folk tales, popular children’s classics and picture books, with some non-fiction works, reference works and curriculum related material.

Dual texts books have been made by teachers by sticking translations into English books, by using their own language skills, by working with bilingual colleagues and parents, by running book making workshops with children and parents. Many of these are used only internally in the school in which they are produced and some are published as resources by education authorities. High quality books are currently available in more than forty languages from publishers specialising in multilingual and multicultural materials.

Dual Language Books for Children

Books published in community languages and English have been in use in some multilingual schools in England since the 1980s. As teachers became aware of the importance of supporting and valuing pupils’ first languages, many started making their own dual-language books, working with bilingual colleagues and involving parents through writing workshops of various kinds. Professionally published books were gradually developed by the Language Services of some local authorities, special projects and commercial publishers.  Dual language books for children are now commercially available in over 40 languages, with many texts also available on tape or on audio CDs. The books published in this format are mostly folk tales, children’s classics, popular picture books, picture dictionaries, with some non-fiction works, reference works and curriculum related material.

Making a dual language book in 1984

For the books made by teachers, parents and children, the process of making them was as rewarding as the final product.

A very popular series of folk tales from round the world was developed by Professor Eve Gregory from Goldsmiths College, University of London, when she was a teacher in the London Borough of Newham in the 1980s. She writes:

The Fisherman and his wife and other wishing tales by Eve Gregory and Dorothy Penman (Arnold)

“I was very proud of those books and still like them a lot. They were developed by myself and a group of mothers from a Newham Primary School (and Barbara Howden, a teacher in Newham and illustrator) following a grant from UNESCO. Mothers simply shared their favourite stories with each other and translated them. In the first instance, those and other books were used by older secondary pupils who read them to young children in Primary Schools. Also, tapes were left with the classes of older pupils of mothers reading the texts. They were then taken on by Arnold (the example that features here) before they stopped publishing them owing to lack of sales! It would be wonderful if such books could start up again...”

The internet is a valuable source of stories in many languages, some of which are in dual text formats (see website list). Community organisations, education authorities, educational projects and some publishers offer materials free on the internet, some of which are illustrated and produced to a high standard and some others which include an audio file.

Kurdish Folktales – Learning by Design

In the early 1990s a small collection of Kurdish folktales made an impact on primary children in Hackney. Two colourful and eye-catching books were produced in Sorani and English and had an impact far beyond the Kurdish refugee community at whose children they were aimed. The stories appealed to children of all backgrounds and provided a starting point for story-telling, drama, and children’s own interpretations of the story which they developed in their own writing as well as in artwork inspired by the powerful and intriguing illustrations.

Patterned bookcoverThe project was initiated by Hackney P.A.C.T. (Parents and Children and Teachers) a project run from the Educational Psychology section of the Education Authority to encourage parents to read at home with their children, and also to support all forms of home-school collaboration between schools and families. Roger Hancock, who edited the collection, describes the aim in the foreword to The Rainstone (1993):

"it was felt that the publication of Kurdish folktales would serve to welcome newly arrived children and parents, give formal recognition to their literacy and culture and provide support for the learning of English as a second language.”

In a recent interview Roger described how a Kurdish colleague went, in a great hurry, to the Iranian part of Kurdistan to seek a small collection of stories from a famous, elderly and very frail story teller. The stories brought back were translated into English, reworked by Edward Korel, a children’s author, into a more dramatic, poetic and more western style of narrative and then translated back into Sorani. A Turkish artist, Kağan Güner, himself a refugee, was commissioned to illustrate the books which were then published by Learning by Design, at the time the in-house publisher for the Tower Hamlets Teachers’ Centre.

An important point for all those who are working on such projects was raised by Roger in the interview. Issues of language and identity are never simple and can bring with them the baggage of conflict. Roger reflected on some of the unexpected issues he was faced with and the steep learning curve that he and his team experienced. For example, the reality of “Kurdistan”, a people without a nation, whose geographical situation covers several countries, whose language, culture and people are marginalised and persecuted, is a minefield for the uninitiated. “Once you get into this, you suddenly realise you can be an innocent with regards to the politics and divisions. You can stumble into it, really” commented Hancock when he discovered that some members of the refugee Kurdish community, from the Turkish side of the border, were uncomfortable with his choice of Sorani, from the Iranian side, for the stories.Like many such folk tales, the stories went on a long journey, in this case from an ailing storyteller in Iran, to the classrooms of London children. The Selfish Sparrow and The White Cat and the Wicked Wolf, retold by Edward Korel is still available from Blackwell Online http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/id/Kurdish_Folktales/9781873928059

Dual language books and language maintenance and loss.

Keya Ashraf explains why she came to publish The Fisherman and the Cat, in English and Gujarati, and the important role that a dual language book can play in reclaiming a language.

Bilingual Brain – Bilingual Books

Why I started my bilingual publishing company, Chadpur Press.

My mother has a recording of my brothers and I when we were little, talking and laughing in Bengali. My mother keeps it to remind herself of the times when her children spoke Bangla fluently, when we were her Bangla bacha, because today we are her foreign children, grown and fed on the English soil. My parents did try to keep us Bangla manush with home lessons in both Bengali and Arabic, but with secondary school life our mother tongue language skills quickly diminished.

Learning on my Own

While at university the desire to read, write and speak Bengali fluently hit me violently and I took the only Bengali course available in a UK university, in the School of Oriental and African Studies. The year of Bengali classes were unremarkable; worse still I did not become a better speaker or reader. My professor was an English ex-Oxford graduate and I felt that his excitement at being part of a rich cultural heritage was greater than his ability to teach it. I wondered why a Bengali teacher wasn’t teaching me? I was told there were no Bengali teachers fluent in English. So not to be blamed for being a bad student although I was feeling a failure, I searched for bilingual storybooks to support my language learning attempts. I wanted to try hard, to find the one thing I knew I needed to bridge my two worlds. I knew exactly how it should look and feel, but it was nowhere to be found.

picture of Gujerati and English text

Picture: Double-Page spread from “The Fisherman and the Cat”

It was while I was searching for Bengali/English learning materials that I began researching the issue of Indic language resources. I began thinking about the layout. I knew I needed a storybook with vocabulary, English language as well as an audio CD so I could listen to the Bengali words I could not read. A vast range of learning materials is available in popular European languages, but I discovered that this was not true for Bengali, or any South Asian language. It was a journey to publishing “The Fisherman and the Cat” in English and Gujarati, and today I believe more than ever that Language is a discourse, and as such bilingual children (who may not be fluent) possess the discourse of two separate cultures, modes of life, thought and feeling. So bilingual books must encapsulate this. I feel that is why the bilingual books from the 1980s and 1990s failed.

Bilingual books are more than simply texts in two languages, more than nursery rhymes and numbers in different fonts. Until academics and establishment figures understand this, languages will continue to come under threat. Those who go through the sad experience of losing a language know that the feeling of language lives on long after the last words are ever spoken. Bilingual books ignite the feelings and thoughts belonging to language - in one world, two languages.

Keya Ashraf’s first bilingual book, “The Fisherman and the Cat in English and Gujarati” is available from Stanfords bookshop, Grant & Cutler language bookshop and Amazon.co.uk. Bengali and Arabic translations are planned for Spring 2009.

September 2012.



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