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.


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!


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?


Why kids seem to get my books quicker than adults

When I tell an adult – a bookstore owner, a librarian, or a potential buyer – that the books aren’t translated, they nod, and start flipping through a book.  Then suddenly, as though I’ve been hiding this fact from them, they look up and say, “But it’s not translated!”.


And kids don’t see this at all. I know a French four-year-old who stopped his mum translating the English bits – he found it annoying. He just wanted to get on with the story. And when you think about it, why is this so weird?

A four-year-old accepts that not every word he hears means something to him. That’s the beauty of being four: every day teaches you something new; every day you go a bit further, discovering your world. Today this is a bike. Tomorrow it can be a bike AND a fiets! (A precocious five-year-old of my acquaintance, whose mum is French and whose dad is English, explained to her mum one day that the raspberries they were having for dessert were also framboises, in case she hadn’t caught that!).

Since I started these books five years ago, I’ve been looking for a publisher – or at least someone to handle distribution. I can only approach so many bookstores, so many people – and there are so many people I want to make happy with my books! So I soldier on, hoping one day to reach a tipping point.

I’ve been told that the combination of unknown author and untried concept is deadly for bookstores.  And yet. . .


Indigo in Montreal can’t keep the books on their shelves.  Montreal, I admit, is a special case. People there are constantly flipping back and forth from French to English and back again. They don’t have that built-in reserve most of the adults I come across have when it comes to a book that’s not translated. They get it in one!

But how to convince the rest of the world? Any ideas?

(The photo is from Indigo in Montreal, although they’re too limiting in the age category: Betty & Cat can go – and do go – to age nine or ten)


Out of the blue, we now have Betty & Cat in Spanish

I find this article, translated from El Pais, very interesting and very encouraging. Among other facts, it states that: “In the case of families with children, 89.2% of parents say their kids are studying English. Despite the fact that 45% of parents say they have a favourable opinion of language studies at school, 38.3% say they also take their children to private language classes.”


Lucky Betty & Cat! I’ve just published a French/Spanish and an English/Spanish version of Home, the first book in the series. Although I don’t speak Spanish, a young Spanish teacher living in France who asked if I had Spanish books available contacted me. I did not. A few months later, she contacted me again and suggested she do one for me! After giving it some thought (it’s complicated because how do I judge whether she got the tone right, or is really good at interpretation; after all, my name is on it), we went ahead. I knew a Spanish person whose opinion I respected, and who could confirm that the tone was right, and so via Skype and email we went ahead. A true sign of the times.

I now feel I know Rocío quite well. Having gone through the self-publishing mill together I feel we have a shared bond and am thrilled with her enthusiasm and her contacts! And I’m confident that the tone is perfect!

At home with Betty & Cat En casa and Chez Betty & Cat En Casa is now on sale in the boutique of Toulouse’s natural history museum, as well as bookstores in and around Toulouse. The book has crossed the border into Spain and is being used in at least one classroom there (a first; most teachers are wary about using them in class since the books aren’t translated) as well as in some bookstores.


When you’re not sure what a word means, should you give up?

Kids are amazing! The way they play with language, you can almost feel their excitement, their sense of discovery. I have a French friend who moved to Australia with her four-year-old son. On a visit back to France, they were in our kitchen and Nino, who knew the house well, said, in English, that he was thirsty. (That somehow he knew to speak to us in English I already found amazing, but that’s not the story!).

I said that he knew where the glasses were and to go ahead and get one. He went to the cupboard, reached up, and said, “I can’t actually reach it.” That word “actually” was like a ray of sunshine on a dreary afternoon. How amazing! The word was superfluous to requirements. It added nothing, except perhaps a level of sophistication, indicating a love of language, of communications, of expression (I expect great things from this child!)

When I show my books to adults, and say that the books are NOT translated, they nod, then flip through the book. Nine times out of ten, they exclaim, “But they’re not translated! – (ie. Oh, the horror!). These adults are demonstrating their own insecurities, and not those of the target audience!

screen-shot-2016-09-04-at-20-53-22The first time I had this reaction, I crumbled, assuming I’d goofed with my lovely new book. However, I went back to CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I found in the library when I was nine. It was and always has been, a favourite book. But look at the language! I’m quite sure I had no idea what even a wardrobe was at that point, but dove in anyway. And there must have been tons of words I didn’t know (not to mention all the allegorical stuff!). The point is, I coped, I loved, I learned, I grew.


Happy Valentine’s Day to the Betty & Cat Crew

Five years after starting the Betty & Cat books, the crew has grown.  My husband  and chief valentine, Jeff Mann, continues to be the backbone of the operation, since without his encouragement, I would have thrown in the towel a dozen times.


Christine Duvernois and I didn’t know each other before we started on the books. Her illustrations are the first thing people notice – and love – about the books. Christine also spellchecks the French text.

Kirsten Veldhoen’s fierce defense of proper Dutch and Jannette Blom’s tempered stance on the subject ensure that the Dutch books don’t embarrass me.

Elodie Combes, former professor of plurilingualism at the University of Montreal, has introduced me through social media to scores of language enthusiasts – people who “get” the concept.

And of course, Rocío Ramos de Muller.  Rocío has been a real shot in the arm. A teacher herself, she approached me to do a Spanish version, and since I don’t speak Spanish, I declined – only to have her insist, and then do the interpretation herself. Rocío is also developing into an amazing salesperson –  the books were hardly off the press before they were on the shelves of the Toulouse Natural History Museum.

My friend and linguist Javier Dominguez, also a teacher, assured me that Rocío had done a great job!

Then there are the critters themselves. Betty was chien de tete for a musher before we adopted her. Cat just showed up in the barn seven years ago and has stayed (along with his brother Scaredy Cat, who remains feral). They’ve been joined by Bill, a rescue beagle who’s like a toddler with ADHD.

And of course all our readers!

I feel blessed. Happy Valentine’s day, dear Betty & Cat crew!


Switching from one language to another – kids learn early and become experts

When I was six, we immigrated to Montreal (the English-speaking part) from Holland. Obviously I spoke not a word of English when I started first grade. But I have no memory of being traumatised, etc. I loved it. Everything seemed new, natural and exciting. So I grew up switching from one language to another, and now that I speak three fluently, switching back and forth still seems natural – and fun!

You hear it everywhere in Montreal: people starting a conversation or transaction in one language and finishing in another, in response to the language they hear. I’ve heard the same thing happening in Hong Kong, in Singapore, on a tram in Amsterdam and in South Africa.

Why are we surprised? A five year old is still accumulating vocabulary, and she could care less whether this is a raspberry or a framboise (this was a word one of my early adaptors, Marianne who’s mum is French and whose dad is English, discovered meant the same thing. It was like Christmas in their house that day, her mum tells me!)

Evvan, four years old and French, wasn’t interested in his mum’s translation of the English bits in Au chenil avec Betty & Cat In the kennel. He was more interested in the story, and was able to follow it even though he didn’t speak the “other” language.

I remember as a kid rattling off the Lord’s Prayer in class assuming “into Temptation” was a place called “Intotemptation” (it was a place you could be lead to, after all!). I got there in the end, and without suffering any trauma! My sister, three years younger, had a favourite phrase she used all the time: “none of your bissimiss”. Everyone understood.


Betty & Cat books as confidence-builders


My Betty & Cat bilingual children’s books came about when a French illustrator friend with grandchildren growing up French/English in Brussels approached me to do a bilingual kids’ book. Her English wasn’t very good and she was feeling left out of the kids’ bilingual experience. We needed something to build up her confidence, something she could share with her grandkids.

I’ve written all my life, but I hesitated. Then one morning, drinking coffee in bed, with Betty and Cat on the bed with us, the idea for the books suddenly came to me. However, it never entered my mind to do a translation. Betty was French, we were in France, and so it was natural for her to speak French to the reader. Cat was born in the neighbour’s barn and showed up one day – and stayed. It made sense for him to speak English – he was the foreigner.

The confidence-building idea became crucial. Not just with grandparents, whose knowledge of the second language might date from high school, or foreign holidays, but also for parents in a bi-cultural family – both parents don’t always have the same comfort level with both languages.

And then there are the kids themselves. Although most of the research being done today shows that kids being brought up bilingually have numerous advantages over kids being brought up with only one language, not all kids are the same.

It turns out that there are several speech therapists in Holland who have ordered my Dutch/English books for their practices to help kids build confidence with the target language. And it seems to work. Kids discover that bilingualism is normal (the power of the printed page?), and that it can be fun.


Betty & Cat books are ahead of the pack – again!

When I wrote the first Betty & Cat bilingual children’s book five years ago in Dutch/English, there was only one other book like it out there, and that was for babies. There were lots of bilingual books, yes, but they all featured a translation, with the story told in both languages side by side. Betty & Cat is really bilingual, since each critter speaks his or her own language. Today, there are four book series like mine that I know of – three of which, like mine, are self-published.
es-en-casaJust before Christmas, I sent my first two books to Cuba – a Spanish/English version of Home and a Spanish/French version. In the last five years, I’ve sent books right around the world. Early adopters have been very encouraging and have spread the word. But this was the first time I’d sent books to Cuba.

My sister-in-law in Atlanta bought a Spanish/English book for everyone in her grandson’s first-grade class. Half are latino, half are anglophone, and this way, everyone’s on the same page (pardon the pun!)

The more I meet young readers of my books, the more I’m convinced that this is the way to go. No one has the patience to read the same thing twice; kids are so smart: they don’t need you to tell them what you just told them – they can figure it out, even if they don’t know the meaning of every word.


Betty’s a French dog and Cat’s an English. . .cat!

My Betty & Cat books reflect life with our two critters: Betty’s a retired sled dog whom we adopted. Cat’s a feral cat, born in the barn behind the house, who has since become tame. There was never any question in my mind about genders: it is what it is, you could say! However. . .

Because the first book was originally done in French/English I first went up to Paris to meet with a potential agent (at the time I still hoped to find a publisher). When she read the text, she said (in French; she didn’t speak English): “I see that the dog speaks French and the cat speaks English. But Cats are more intelligent, so could we have the cat speak French?” The immediate answer was “no”, and the subsequent answer was, “I’ll self-publish”.

On the other hand, an early adaptor in Quebec, who is French, and a teacher of plurilingualism, immediately liked the anti-sexist nature of the books: for her, having a female dog and a male cat was anti-stereotypical, and thus newsworthy. She’s been an amazing influencer for the books (you can see her read two of them with my nephew on YouTube:

In the same way I stayed faithful to who the critters are, it also never occurred to me to translate the books. Betty is a French dog, so she speaks French (or Dutch or Spanish, depending on the book; she’s the native-speaker); Cat came in from who-knows-where, so it makes sense that he speaks English. Play the ball where it lays. Things change. Realities differ. Shaking things up is a good thing. (Stereotypes may be on the way out, but where would we be without clichés!)