Dilemma on Reading

maclaryWe have books for Nina in all three languages that she’s growing up with. So far, Nicolas and I stick to OPOL (One Parent One Language) quite religiously, which also applies to the book reading time. It means that when I read a book with Nina I read in Chinese, and when Nicolas reads a book with Nina he reads in French.

So here is the dilemma. When we read a book that’s not written in ‘our language’ basically what we do is speaking ‘our language’ (by live translating or simply improvising) while looking at the written language of the book. One of Nina’s favorite books at the moment is ‘Hairy MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy’, a picture book in English about the little hairy black dog Maclary going out and about running into other dogs. It’s a beautiful book both in drawing and in text. The text rhymes, but of course it rhymes in English only! So when I read – meaning Speaking by half translating half improvising the story in Chinese – the rhyme is totally gone!

While it serves the purpose – from linguistic point of view – on providing Chinese language input in this case, it loses the beauty of its original language (in English in this case).

So I wonder if there are times, such as reading books, when it’s better to just follow the language that the book is written in?

<update on Oct 19th>

I shared my dilemma with ‘Raising Multilingual Children’ group on facebook, and got some fantastic insights from the members there! It’s relieving to read that I am certainly not the only person with the dilemma – there are many others out there facing the similar challenge and come up with their own solution with trials and errors. A more popular practice through these comments is to eventually read the book in  the language that the book is written in. However there is one practice that I particularly like, which is to make sure at least certain amount of time every day (20 minutes in that case) to read the ‘minority language’ books. I like this practice because: 1) it ensures the quantity of the exposure of the minority language (in reading/speaking/hearing)  on regular basis; 2) it respects all the languages that the books are written in, hence ensures the quality of exposure of all languages by helping the children to build the connection between the written form and the spoken form of these languages.

So I decided to give a try this morning – not live translating non-Chinese books into Chinese, and read only Chinese books in Chinese. Nina picked up one of her favorite French books (Tchoupi Part En Vacances), and came sitting next to me signaling me to read the book to her. I have read this book many times with her in Chinese, but this time I started to read … in FRENCH! After I read the first phrase or so, I saw Nina literally turning her head from the book to me, looking at me … puzzled/surprised. Did she realize that I was not using the ‘normal’ language? Did she notice something different? Was she saying ‘why are you reading this book like papa’?

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how much a child at her age (merely 21 months, who has only less than 2 dozens of vocabularies) is aware of what’s going on around her, from linguistic perspective. She knows what mama is talking about in which language, and picks up immediately when mama starts to do things differently. They are exquisite observers, which make them the most exquisite learners.

Now what’s left to do is to make sure we build a good collection of books in Chinese and French (the more difficult ones being in Australia), and read English books in English.


  • Tof

    October 17, 2013 at 6:56 pm Reply

    It’s probably, you may want your kid to make the association between the writings, the letters and the spoken language.
    On a more curious note, what french book are you using, somehow i found english much more interesting than french ( but maybe my upbringing did not expose me to the good ones ) ?
    And what are the typical chinese for kids ?

    • yin

      October 17, 2013 at 11:11 pm Reply

      I know Tof – totally in the same train of thoughts on the association issue. However I’m still a little hesitant, esp when reading English books (which are the most abundant being here in Australia) as it means that there will be even less time for Nina to be exposed to the other two non-English languages. After all, she hears mostly English already and we can only fit in this much of French and Chinese in a day, and cannot really afford to not take every opportunity …

      Anyway on the books – French ones we have a few ‘tchoupi’s (she loves tchoupi), some picture (animal and stuff) books, ‘Lou et Mouf’, ‘Petits Nez’.
      Chinese ones I got a few series on my last trip to China – 小桃子系列,我的身后是谁,童谣绘画本, and also some animals and stuff.

  • Best4Future.com (@Best4Future)

    October 19, 2013 at 1:32 am Reply

    Hello, Yin:

    Very nice to get to know you! I am a Chinese mother living in the US and have a bilingual family (Chines/English). I had exactly the same dilemma as you do about reading books to my children. I was struggling whether I should translate the English book into Chinese and read to them in Chinese, or I should just read English books to them in English. see http://www.best4future.com/blog/is-this-the-reason-that-she-speaks-more-english-than-chinese

    Later, I find out reading English book is not the vital reason that my children speak more English than Chinese. It is the environment in which English is the majority language. So right now I do my best to read more Chinese books to them (in Chinese, of course). But if they want me to read an English book to them once a while, sure, no problem! After all, reading in any language is a good thing and should be highly encouraged.

    There are so many places in the US that your family should go. I have just been very few places. I am waiting for my toddler twins (just 2 year old) to be a little older. It is a challenge to take three kids to travel!

    Keep in touch!

    Lina @ Best4Future.com/blog

    • yin

      October 26, 2013 at 10:07 pm Reply

      Hi Lina,

      I actually went through your blog and found some of the resources very relevant as we share two of the same languages! One of the challenges I found is to find the good non-mainstream books (Chinese books in US and in Australia for example) even in the current digital and flattened world! I just purchase loads of them every time when I travel to China or have family/close friends bring them when they travel from China to Australia. How do you deal with that?
      I’d certainly love to keep in touch and exchange our experience!

      • Lina Dickson

        November 1, 2013 at 11:59 pm Reply

        I got my Chinese books the same way as you did. I ordered them from websites in China and asked my parents to ship them to me. This way, I can choose whatever books I want and got them in loads.

        There are tons of books in Chinese that were translated from Europe and North America, such as http://www.best4future.com/blog/tchoupi-came-to-china. I find these books are especially engaging to young children, because of the content and illustrations. You may try some of those.

        Best luck!

  • tacodelenguas

    October 20, 2013 at 1:34 am Reply

    Hi. Thanks for your post. I also have the same problem. We are doing ‘minority language at home’ with Spanish (we live in UK) but we have lots of English books. I have mainly been translating these English books into Spanish as I go along but sometimes I read the rhyming ones in English to enjoy the language. My son is only 13 months at the moment so most of the books are quite simple.. but as he gets older I think I will just read them in English. When we read books we also spend time talking about the pictures. So my question is when I read the books in English, should I do the commentary also in English or in Spanish, as this is the language we usually use at home? What do people suggest? Thanks for your help.

  • yin

    October 26, 2013 at 10:12 pm Reply

    Hi Tacodelenguas,

    Such a timely comment/question! I have recently been experimenting all sorts of approaches and combination. and I come to appreciate that, while reading the book in the language that the book is written in, I would do the commentary in ‘my language’ (in my case Chinese). My rationale is this: reading the book in the language that the book is written in is to help build the connection between written form and spoken form of the language (apart from enjoying the language itself), making commentary only is detached from the written form but focuses only on spoken form, hence no real issue in speaking another language (hence sticking to ‘my language).
    So far I haven’t seen Nina having issue with that – she seems to get what I was reading (in English or in French) as well as what I sometimes threw in as additional comments (in Chinese).
    I’d so like to throw this out to the group and see what others would say about this.

    Happy bilingual parenting!

  • Judith (little bilingues)

    October 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm Reply

    I love the fact that you read to your daughter in the 3 languages, it must be such a special moment to share with her!

    I created a website about a month ago where you can download bilingual eBooks (for free). They are designed for children aged 2 to 6 and revolve around bilingual animals who speak and answer to each other in French and then in English. The books are not bilingual in the traditional way as there isn’t any translation: a character asks something in French, another one answers something in English and another one adds something in French… and so on. Children can make progress in both their primary and minority languages.

    Do not hesitate to visit the website, I would be glad to be able to help you on your trilingual journey! 🙂

    • yin

      October 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm Reply

      Hi Judith!
      Thanks for stopping by. I had a quick look at your website – your drawing looks lovely. I’m very curious about your no-translation bilingual books and very eager to explore! Bad news: cannot find the download button … where is it hiding?? 🙂

      • Judith (little bilingues)

        October 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm Reply

        Hi Yin,

        To download the eBook, click on “Download the books” in the header menu.
        Then, under the cover of the eBook “Adventures at the beach – A la mer”, click on “Download the eBook” 🙂
        The second eBook about clothes will be released soon.
        Hope it works, your feedback is welcome! 🙂

  • Jonathan

    October 28, 2013 at 4:58 am Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this, it’s such an interesting topic! We’re faced with similar issues raising our six month old son here in Wales. I’m speaking to him in Welsh (a non-native language for me that I speak fluently) and my wife speaks to him mainly in English. What this means is that I’m not going to be able to read the same books to him as I read / had read to me when I was small. I guess that I’ll be able to find Welsh language versions of some very well known ones, but perhaps this just creates a fun challenge of trying to find fun books to read with him in Welsh!

    • yin

      October 29, 2013 at 10:18 am Reply

      ah indeed Jonathan, I consider myself lucky in the sense that all three languages running through the family (English, French, Chinese) are all very popular and there is (generally) no lack of books, although being in Australia it can be challenging to find constant good (and breaking our bank account) supply of Chinese and French books. But since Chinese books have evolved so much over the last 2 decades (due to political, social changes), I do not at all read the same type of books to Nina as the ones that I read/was read to when I was a kid. so from this perspective we are in the similar situation 🙂

  • […] I would pretty much read whichever book that she asks me to or that comes in handy. And I have dilemma on which language to read the books in, which is an ongoing […]

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