Listen to Professor Elodie Combes describe why she thinks Betty & Cat (French) books are ideal for today’s kids learning a second language:
This time it’s work done on adult brains, but you’ve got to start somewhere. . .! Like when you’re young.
Dealing with booksellers is fun, but what really gets me going is hearing that a bilingual child somewhere, who has been given a copy of Betty & Cat, reads it – and likes it! Does my heart good.
Nikki, aged 7, has her own video on YouTube, explaining how she likes the book. Cecilia, aged 7, reads the book to her sister Delphine, aged 5, explaining what *raining cats and dogs* means, and that sometimes you can’t translate phrases exactly; that each language has a different way of saying things. Aren’t kids amazing!
The girls’ mum sent along this link from the NYTimes:
Thanks Kyra. Fascinating reading, and another reason I’m going full speed ahead with sequels to Thuis bij Betty & Cat At Home (besides the fact that they’re so much fun to do!). Do read the article – especially if you speak more than one language (it will make you feel good about yourself, too!)
The Betty and Cat books came about when a French friend of mine, whose grandchildren are being brought up in French and English, complained that she felt left out of the bilingual experience. Her English skills were there, but rusty. She asked me if we couldn’t do a bilingual book together (Marie’s an illustrator of children’s books). And not one that was translated. We both agreed that no one has the patience to read something twice: once in the foreign language ad once in translation.
One day, while Jeff and I were having breakfast in bed, with Betty and Cat at our feet, the idea came to me. Thus my primary motivation was to help parents and grandparents feel more at home with the budding bilingualism of the kids around them. Kids themselves are so flexible and so greedy for learning new things, that I figured they didn’t need any more help! They would just *get* it. So far, it seems to be working. Lots of sales have come from grandparents who bought the book as a gift. They then read it to or with the bilingual kids around them. That makes them feel good – and me feel good!
On October 12, 2011, an article appeared in The International Herald Tribune, the gist of which I would like to share. It was called “The bilingual brain from early infancy on”, by Perri Klass, MD. In it, Doctor Klass explained that we have moved away from thinking that kids exposed to more than one language would suffer “language confusion”. In fact, kids brought up bilingually “develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking skills which are often considered part of the brain’s so-called executive function.” (Ellen Bialystok, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto)
There is now a relatively new science of bilingualism. More and more research groups using the newest imaging devices have determined that bilingual babies are “more open” (Dr. Patricia Kuhl, professor of speech and hearing sciences, University of Washington). They’re “more cognitively flexible” than monolingual infants. According to Dr. Kuhl, “. . .what you experience shapes the brain.”
Self-centredly, I see this all as reinforcing my belief that Betty & Cat books are good for kids. Whether they’re reading it themselves, or better yet having it read to them, Betty & Cat speak to kids, they never speak down to them. Kids are so smart. They know to skate over the bits they don’t get yet, to look for learning clues elsewhere: in the tone of voice, pictures, and the reader’s expression. Everything about their experience so far has taught them that “tomorrow is another day” and what I don’t get today I will tomorrow. That’s the beauty of learning!
One of my most vivid childhood memories are of a sunlit room somewhere in our church (St. Ignatius of Loyola in Montreal). After Mass one Sunday, aged about nine, I discovered CS Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I would have had only three years of English by then, not that anyone would have noticed, or that it made any impression on my young self. Books were books, and English was what I read. If words like “pitter-patter” and “wardrobe” were new to me, and the idea of an allegory years beyond my ken, it didn’t seem to bother me – the magic of the story swept me away, and understanding just seemed to happen eventually.
Anyway. . .this anecdote, in the context of Betty & Cat, is meant to justify the fact that the books aren’t translated. Kids are amazing creatures when it comes to language. Not much fazes them. They seem to know that they’re there to learn, to absorb. And that if something’s not clear today, well, tomorrow’s another day. Experience has taught them that. Also, if you think of yourself in a foreign country with some knowledge of that country’s language, you know that the actual words are only part of the communication: there’s context (there are only so many things “it” can mean), your mood and energy level; for the spoken word, there’s all that plus expression, and tone of voice . . .
The amazing thing is that kids – the younger they are the better – don’t analyze any of this, they just skate on, as though learning another language is the most normal thing in the whole world! Bliss.
Another fabulous TED talk (Thanks Linda Warren) – Sir Ken Robinson making a case for teaching creativity in schools. Funny, and close to home. His most appealing remark relevant to Betty & Cat, is that kids aren’t afraid to get something wrong: he tells the story of a group of four year-olds in a nativity play. Th three wise men appeared. The first one said, I bring gold; the second one said, I bring myrrh. The third one said, Frank sent you this. . . How adorable! He was obviously stuck, but not afraid to try something.
So no, no, and no again, to translations of Betty & Cat!
My friend Alexandra Buytendijk, who has two young girls who are being brought up trilingually (English, Dutch, and German), attended a recent workshop in Utrecht on growing up bilingual. She learned that babies pay more attention to speech than any other sound. Babies learn fairly early to identify phonetic patterns – within a few months in fact. It’s only after patterns have been learned that babies learn words. These greedy little learning devices seem able to absorb whatever we feed them aurally: English, Dutch. . .and it appears they appreciate quality as much as quantity!
What wonderful news for all of us who have instinctively been reading to babies and children all these years!
In promoting Betty & Cat, I’m always amazed when someone says, “but it’s not translated!” – (I must say it doesn’t happen often, but still…) Growing up bilingual myself, it never worried me when I came across a word I didn’t know – I instinctively knew that learning was a process and that “all would eventually be revealed.” (For years, when I said The Lord’s Prayer, I thought that the sentence “and lead us not into temptation” was a request to keep us from some unpleasant place called “Totemptation” – no one had explained the meaning of the word “temptation” – and I enjoyed the sound of the word on my ears.
And so, kudos to the crèche in Amsterdam Zuid-Oost who saw the value of Betty & Cat immediately and started reading it to their (very) young charges right away. No complaints from them!
For more information on the workshop or on the organization that presented it, go to www.growingupbilingual.org
Went to waterstones.com this morning on the Kalverstraat and had a nice chat with the children’s books manager, Tim Butler. He gets it! He even identified a new market – one that I hate to admit had escaped me: parents of children who are being brought up in English, even though one of the parents is Dutch, sometimes feel left out when the child makes giant leaps forward in Dutch – and they don’t. So another way Thuis bij Betty & Cat At Home can spread some joy and self confidence among young readers and their carers.
What a nice surprise! This morning Jeff took Betty for a walk round the neighbourhood, and came home with the picture below. It’s Betty in front of the window of the English Bookshop on the Lauriergracht (thank you, Liesl for giving it such a nice spot, next to the Sint!).