More than 41 percent of the students enrolled in New York City public schools speak a language other than English at home, reported the city’s Department of Education in its 2013 report on English language learners. Children’s brains are primed for language-skill development, so it is encouraged to start introducing bilingualism at an early age. Your child’s school, like many in major urban centers, is home to large numbers of children for whom English is a second language. These children represent a variety of languages and often are the majority in a single classroom.
There are many theories and arguments about bilingualism. However, it is known that knowledge of multiple languages aids cognitive development in a positive way. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, there are many advantages that benefit children who are raised bilingual from an early age into adulthood. For bilingual children, language skills are stronger in both their primary and secondary languages, and early reading skills tend to come more easily. Also, bilingual children have a greater ability to focus on mental tasks, like abstract reasoning — which comes in handy for test taking.
One way that parents can support bilingualism is by adding bilingual books to their home library, bookshelf, or book corner. The ability for your child to read in both English and another language will strengthen his or her literacy in an organic way. Reading bilingual books also helps children increase their cultural appreciation for others — not only for those that share a language, but for those different from them.
There are a variety of bilingual books available for children — from board books with simple vocabulary to story books with text for English and another language. Starting with these books at an early age will aid children on their path to fluency. Colorful picture books will make learning a new language (or maintaining a home language) fun and enjoyable for the whole family.
Many children’s book authors have a passion for providing language skills through fun stories in an educational way, and using a bilingual approach will immerse kids in other cultures. I spoke to author Luz M. Mack about her first bilingual children’s book, “Little María.” It’s part of a series that is full of beautiful images, with a story centered on a character that will help all curious kids better understand cultures around the world. Here’s what she had to say about her approach:
Shnieka Johnson: What was your inspiration?
Luz M. Mack: My inspiration was trying to show my children about my childhood experience. I also wanted to share with them things that other children experienced while growing up in another country, such as the Dominican Republic, as it is very different from what children experience growing up in the United States. That is how the character María originated. Her experiences are very similar to mine as a child growing up, and she enjoys time with her family, friends, and community, which is something I believe that U.S. children will be able to relate to.
SJ: Why was it important for you to produce bilingual books?
LM: It is important for me to produce bilingual books to enhance my children’s understanding of my own childhood experiences, and to be able to share these experiences with children from other cultures. María is a child of the world that all children will be able to see in themselves.
SJ: How many languages? Will there be more?
LM: The book is available in an English and Spanish edition, English and Italian, and English and French edition. I am working on offering the book as an online application. Children and their families will be able to, through this application, see and hear María and her family’s experiences in all the languages offered.
SJ: Any other books in the works?
LM: Definitely! The next installment of the Little María books is “María the Super Helper.” This book will show how exciting, fun, and rewarding it can be to be helpful around the home. I am also working on another book that will be called “Incredible You.” This book will be aimed at building children’s confidence and self-love.
Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Mack now lives in New York with her husband, Tony, and their three children: Andrea, Chloe, and Tony. Her books (illustrated by Arjeanette Vivero) promote an understanding of cultures, and they detail how childhood looks outside of the United States. The series is available in multiple languages and can be purchased via Amazo
Shnieka L. Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan, where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website: www.shnie
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