21 October 2009

Reading in English -- bilingual kids and mother tongue pride

Clover, my daughter, unexpectedly turned a most delightful corner this weekend: she's started to read in English.

Now this may not seem earth-shattering news. She's nearly 10 and has been reading in French, the language in which she is schooled, since the first grade.

But I have to say that with raising kids bilingually, especially when they are schooled in a language that is not yours, the pride you feel in their ability is tempered by a bittersweet feeling that they are missing out on something you enjoyed, and hoped they would one day share. I'm talking, I suppose, mainly about books, and reading in English. And specifically, reading children's books in English (and please, no sassy comments about American English, thanks).

I get a pang in my heart when I see Clover's older sister reading French translations of childhood classics. But of course she reads faster and better in French, and I'm glad she likes reading, so I won't force the originals on her. And sometimes she wants to read the VO (=version originale, as they refer here to films that have not been dubbed in the local language(s)). But I wonder, did she not love Laura Ingalls Wilder's books because she tried them in translation? I want her to love (eventually) the great wealth that is Anglo literature -- Dickens and Austen and 'Catcher in the Rye'; I want her to go through a Hemingway phase, and an e e cummings one, and even (should they still be in print) a Judy Blume one.

Helsinki started to read in English of her own accord, sometime around the age of 9 or 10 -- just like Clover has now done, only I'd forgotten about it in that way you forget about things with children that are not your firstborn. I don't know exactly what happened, either, this weekend, to set Clover off. Maybe it was because I'd cleaned out the bookshelves (Hels and I sold bunch of books to Pêle-Mêle for €35!), and we found a couple of Doctor Seuss books, which I said to keep. But I don't recall that I gave them, especially, to her, or told her to read them. Well, whatever happened, she picked one up, gave it a try, and now thanks to The Foot Book we are literarily off and running. I overheard the strains of Hop on Pop from her bedroom. And last night we branched out into The Color Kittens, which I remember reading with my grandmother, and I am so pleased that she, too, loves to chant the last lines of the book:

Sing Ho for the color of Brush
Sing Ho for the color of Hush
Sing Ho for the color of Brush and Hush
Sing Ho for the color of color
Now hush!

Classic. I was full of mother tongue pride.


  1. I assumed the girls read in english!!
    That's great that she can do both!

  2. Hi Jeannette,

    I just stumbled upon your post and thought it was really interesting. My husband and I recently started a bilingual (Spanish/English) publishing company in Madrid based on the concept that reading is an excellent tool for raising bilingual children. On our blog we have a section where we talk about issues that affect bilingual families, and I'd love to hear more on what role reading played in your home and why you think your children were more driven toward reading in French. You can check out our website at www.bilingualreaders.com and send me an email at deanna@bilingualreaders.com. Best of luck!