Vilella: Bringing up bilingual bebes through summer reading
By Olga Vilella Guest Commentary July 6, 2012 6:36PM
Olga Vilella. | Supplied photo
Updated: August 9, 2012 6:22AM
For many parents, one of the simple pleasures of summer is the leisurely pace of the season and the opportunity it gives us to read to our children.
Visits to the library go hand in hand with trips to the beach, easy twilights spent on the deck and afternoons at the Field Museum or Shedd Aquarium.
For those households that can be described as “language plus,” where English plus another language are routinely in use, summers also provide a great opportunity to develop a child’s vocabulary in a “heritage” language.
Polish, Farsi, Spanish, Arabic, whatever your second language, your child will benefit immensely from developing her second-language skills at a similar rate as she develops strong reading and writing skills in English at school.
Here are some suggestions to help you keep your bébés bilingual:
Take advantage of your local public library. Your librarian can be of great help in locating books for children in languages other than English.
If you already have a favorite author, conduct a library search for more of his or her works. Often you will find the ability to search “more like this” on a library search engine.
Along those lines, Google short phrases such as “best juvenile books of the year” in your target language to get a feeling for what is available. Online catalogs of books also are a good resource.
For example, the venerable Spanish bookstore La casa del libro has an online catalog with many titles for children. Or consider contacting a bookstore in Chicago that stocks books in your target language and ask them if they will order for you.
If you have family or friends in your home country, ask for their help in locating authors who would be of interest to your child. Books not only make wonderful presents, online companies such as Amazon can ship a book directly to your child.
If at all possible, subscribe to a popular magazine from your country. Many women’s magazines the world over have book sections that often include books for children.
Not only will you find out titles of popular authors in your target language, your child will see the benefits of reading in a language other than English.
Swap books with friends. Friends with a similar linguistic background as you and whose children have outgrown their books may be willing to lend you their books or arrange for a swap.
Consider starting a book club for children. Recruit a few parents and take turns hosting the event once a month. Even a brief exposure to your target language can help your child acquire a wider vocabulary.
More than 20 years of experience dealing with college students has shown me that many young people who grow up bilingual show a considerable lag between their English vocabulary and their “heritage” language vocabulary.
Again, while we recognize that mastery of English is an obvious educational priority, there is no reason why your child cannot reach college with a considerable vocabulary in his or her “heritage” language, too.
The ability to speak another language well is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children!
Olga Vilella is an associate professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago and is director of its Latino/Latin American Studies Program.