A Review from the Field

My name is Camille. I’m a primary school teacher in France. I started teaching in 2016 in a school with non-English speaking children, ages 8 to 11.  Since 2019 I started teaching the CLIL curriculum (Content Learning Integrated Language) with children ages  8 and 9. 

What I usually do, whatever the child’s age, is start the afternoon with a reading.  This is just for fun and pleasure. I, or the children, pick up an English-language book and we’ll read it every day for a week. It sounds like a lot, but children love repetition, the expectation of hearing something they know, and anticipating something that will create emotions they like. Repetition is key in teaching! 

Our very first experience with a Betty and Cat book was with children who had probably never heard a word of English before. 

I began simply by introducing Betty, the dog who thinks in French, and Cat, the critter who thinks in English. This is the interesting feature of the book. The languages themselves become characters in the story. Betty is not French because she is “from France” but because of the language she uses. Same for Cat. He is not “from England”. Cat is the language he uses. More than just animals, Betty and Cat are languages. The children picked that up much more quickly than it takes to explain it! 

With non-English speaking children, I show the pictures while I am reading. In this way they can use all the clues in the book to help them understand the story. They really enjoy the pictures, especially  little details like spotting a mouse on the pages.

The story makes sense to children very quickly as they use the language they know to build up their understanding of the other one.  Obviously, the children don’t understand every word, however, they make links and connections very quickly. They understand what’s happening. They also implement specific strategies very quickly: obvious words, expected actions. In my experience, the balance of English and French is just fine.  The books are not too long, so the children don’t give up. They know that what is coming next will help them understand what happened before.

One last, very important feature is that Betty and Cat is a real story: you don’t read the same simple phrases in English then in French. The children are not bored by it and they are involved in the story’s energy and events. So far their favourite, whatever the age and the language, is Betty and Cat In the Snow

My second experience with Betty and Cat is with children already playing with both languages. What makes immediate sense to them is that what is going on in the book with both languages is exactly what is going on in their brain. It is how they live and learn. The book builds on their vocabulary and grammatical structures and makes them feel more confident in the target language. They also like reading and role-playing with Betty and Cat. Every time I start reading one of the books, they ask for the other ones!

In conclusion, I highly recommend the Betty & Cat books for classroom learning.

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Anniversary Thoughts

It’s been ten years since I started this bilingual adventure. It started with a French friend of mine – a children’s book illustrator – whose grandkids were being brought up in Brussels by their French mother and Irish dad. Marie felt that her high-school English couldn’t keep up with her grandkids’ knowledge of English, and she was afraid of being left out. So: could we do a bilingual book together? Sure. But not for a nano-second did I think of doing it the traditional way (completely translated with left-side French and right-side English). After all, at age 6, we moved to Montreal from Holland and I was thrown into a new school, new language, with no ill effects. In Montreal, code switching is an art!

Our dog Betty was French, so she spoke French – a no-brainer. We inherited a cat from our neighbour, so it was logical that Cat would speak English. When I pitched the book to a potential French agent ages ago, she wanted me to switch languages. For her, cats were the smarter critter, so it was “logical” that he should speak French; we didn’t get into the fact that most people think cats are female and dogs are male! According to one educator, this was another plus – gender diversity!

Over the years, I’ve been blessed with tremendous feedback

Feedback often comes from grandparents who are in the same boat as Marie, and get the concept. At a Christmas fair, one young woman bought a bunch saying her father would be thrilled: he could finally read to his grandson in both languages.

One of my favourite comments came from a nine-year-old French boy. I’d given the kids in his class each a Betty & Cat book – their teacher is a friend of mine who has turned what was an exclusively French school into a bilingual one (more on that later!). Each of the kids wrote me a thank-you note. This one stood out:

For this dear child (whose name really is “Wisdom”) authors tend to be dead!

One world, so many languages!

One year, my sister-in-law in Atlanta bought a book for every kid in her grandson’s class. Half the kids were Latino, and so with their Spanish/English books, they could all be on the same page.

When stories about the “kids in cages” in America were everywhere, I got an order for a Spanish/English book from a woman in McAllen, Texas. The name of course was infamous. I wrote and asked what she wanted the book for. Turns out she was a volunteer at the camp. They discovered that one of the few things that calmed the kids, was being read to aloud. I shipped a bunch of books her way.

My husband’s colleague has a daughter who works with kids in the eastern jungle region of Guatemala.  The students are indigenous Mayans, so Spanish is actually their second language – their native tongue is Q’ecchi, one of many Mayan dialects.  The kids become fluent in Spanish very quickly and most yearn to learn English as well. We ended up shipping a bunch of books their way.

I’d love to find an agent to help take Betty & Cat further. The potential language combinations are endless, but the necessary energy and investments to do these on my own aren’t. For example, I get plenty of requests for a German/Italian or German/English version. Recently, I got a book order from a young educator working with kids on the German/Polish border. Her wish? “Maybe we’ll be able to encourage people there to develop complementary bilingual material for adolescents who [want] to stay in the region but want to open their space of communication to gain a 360 Radius instead of just one side of the river.”

Yup! 

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More and More Academics Are Interested in Betty & Cat

The last few years, Betty & Cat has come to the attention of several academics – full-blown professors like Joël Thibault at the University of Ottawa, and Elodie Combes when she was at the Université de Montréal. Lately, a number of young people studying language have stumbled on Betty & Cat and included the books in their studies.

Academics refer to Betty & Cat as an integrated bilingual book, as opposed to the traditional ones that are translated. My own feeling, based on my own character and experience (no patience to read the same thing twice!) is that integrated is the way to go. For kids who are studying another language, integrated is more fluid. The story doesn’t suffer from repetition. It’s also more rewarding – when you’ve finished the book, you’ve read a story in the target language, with only context and illustrations to point the way.

Here’s a blog by Joël Thibault on his latest study:

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And Suddenly I Feel Motivated Again!

A little while ago, I offered the French/English series to an acquaintance in Tokyo for his young son, Kai, aged 6 (while apologising that I still haven’t been able to find a publisher to do a Japanese/English version – arrgh!).

The book went home and into Kai’s hands – he speaks neither English nor French, but he connected right away with the illustrations: in his thank you note (bless him!) he managed to draw Betty with a droopy ear – something his dad hadn’t picked up on. Kids are awesome (I’m old enough to remember the original meaning of this over-rated word and this is the perfect spot to use it!).

I regularly come up against parents who find the fact that the books aren’t translated too intimidating for their kids, or the language “too complicated”. Rubbish. The children’s author Sandra Boynton, whose board books for small children have sold 75 million copies (I can only dream of such numbers), had to fight to have the word “intone” remain in one of her books. Her response: “We’re reading this to a zero-old. All language is new to a kid. Why not invite them into a vocabulary that’s special from the beginning?” Yay Sandra Boynton. (From an article in the November issue of The Atlantic)

I’m proud of my Betty & Cat books and I’m even more proud of the little readers and their parents who “get” them .

Note how Kai captured Betty’s droopy ear.
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Thanks to Adam Beck and Bilingual Monkeys for this great review!

Always lovely when someone in the business gets the concept.  Adam Beck has an interesting site for families living he bilingual life. He was generous in his praise of Betty & Cat:

Interview with Hennie Jacobs, Author of the Uniquely Bilingual “Betty & Cat” Book Series

Thanks a bunch, Adam, and I’m thrilled to read the comments!

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The Advantages of Meeting My Potential Readers

This past Saturday I had a stand at the salon de Livres Jeunesse at a village near us. An amazing number of people turned up, people bought armsful of books, and the whole atmosphere was one of amazing interest.DSCN4863

The people who saw my bilingual books (there were only two of us flogging bilingual books!) more often than not approached with a certain diffidence. Teachers and librarians were more open, as were the kids themselves. I had two girls – 11 year-olds – read me a sample page, each taking a part. The one reading the English part was amazed at how well she understood the text, even though she didn’t know every word on the page (probably not even half!). What a kick for me – and for her. Nice to know you’re on the right track. The interview below is interesting. A researcher explains how kids are perfectly capable of learning two languages at once, from day one. Have a listen.

Bilingual babies

http://www.abc.net.au/radio/sydney/programs/drive/bilingual-babies/8391152

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Does knowing another language make you more open to others?

For five years now I’ve been bringing my French/English books to the local post office here in France. OK, I’m no JK Rowling, so we’re not talking thousands, but we are talking a steady stream.  Not once did someone ask me what the books were about.

bettycoeur

Change of village.  The post office in the mairie is suddenly allowed to dispense the coveted Tarif Livre et Brochure (yet another way for France to spread the French language abroad; the rate is not available domestically). My first trip in last Thursday, I sent two sets of books – one to England and one to Canada.

Today, I went in again, and sent a bunch of books. I took one to show, and maybe display at the Mairie. When I showed the secretary the book, she said, “Oh, I know! I was curious and so I went on line and had a look at your books!”  She then said some complimentary things which I’ll spare you. I was chuffed.

But here’s the thing: This woman had lived for six years in Italy.  She had had a daughter in Italy and lived there till the child was six. They’re both bilingual. So, does being bilingual make you more curious about other languages, other cultures? I feel the answer is “yes”, and am often confronted with what I consider as proof.

We now share a warm fuzzy connection, as well as Chez Betty & Cat At Home.  I gave her the book for her daughter – once you’re bilingual, what’s a third or more languages!

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The bilingual debate – where do you stand?

The debate continues:  are you doing your kids a favour by encouraging them to be bilingual – or even trilingual – or are you risking what Victorians used to call *brain fever* (I think you can see where my sympathies lie!)screen-shot-2016-09-04-at-20-53-22

Of course, all kids are different, and respond to the idea of bilingualism in different ways.  I often hear people say that their child picks and chooses when to speak the target language.  Often the child will only in the right context.

For instance, a child who knows that her Dad speaks her native language may ignore the bilingual experiment with him.  But change the context, and off she goes, nattering like a native: maybe in the other country, maybe with a grandparent or other relative, or maybe even with a doll she associates with the other country.

Other kids are born communicators from the first oo and ah.  I know a boy whose parents immigrated from France to Australia.  At four years old he came back to France for a visit.  Somehow he knew we’re native English speakers (although he’d always spoken French with us), and asked in English for a glass of water. He was thirsty.  I told him in English that he knew where the glasses were, and to help himself.  Only thing was, the cupboard was too high for him to reach.  So, instead of saying “I can’t reach”, or grunting on tiptoe, he said, “I can’t actually reach them.” Not a phrase he would have picked up from his parents. From where, then? This child loves language, loves communicating, and instinctively made the target language his own – from day one. I love it!

What to do?  You don’t want to push too hard, you don’t want your child left behind, and you don’t want your partner or your parents or in-laws left behind either. Any thoughts?

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