Starting a Bilingual Storytime

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This article written by longtime contributor Rebecca Grossberg was originally published on the MultiLingual Living website, dedicated to helping parents raising children in more than one language and culture to find inspiration, tools, advice, wisdom and support!


Bilingual Storytime: What Is It? How Do I Do It? Will Anyone Come?

Bilingual Storytime

Getting ready for bilingual storytime at the Lille, France library

“La la la….une balle!” “You found my ball!” “Cette balle est à toi?” “Yes, I threw it from over there.” “Tu l’as lancée de là-bas?”  And so begins storytime at the Wazemmes branch of the Lille, France public library. (The above is an extract from Watch Me Throw the Ball!, translated as  Chacun son tour !,by Mo Willems.)

Because Lille, France’s fifth largest city, has a decent-sized English-speaking population, you would think that English activities would be easy to find. But outside of my group of friends, it has been a struggle to find English activities for my children, Suzanne 6 and Max 2 1/2, who are  products of a strict OPOL (One Parent One Language) home and survivors of full-time French daycare and school since infancy.

Despite the highly imbalanced exposure both kids get to English, they are both miraculously fully bilingual. And thanks to my network of English-speaking friends, my children’s English is not completely confined to the walls of our house, where a two-sided conversation in one language rarely takes place.

With so many English speakers in Lille and so many English children’s books in the public library, I wondered why there was no free English language story time open to all. The only game in town was the fee-based storytime at the British Cultural Centre.

So with my idea in hand, I approached the director of my local library branch in October 2010. My idea was simple: free, English storytime at the local public library.

Two months later, we met for the first time to talk about an English reading for 4-8 year olds. But the librarians had a better idea: a bilingual format, an idea inspired by a bilingual story in a kids’ magazine. Since the library already had trouble attracting a crowd for the French storytime, they told me not to get my hopes up. We hoped that the bilingual format would attract both bilingual and monolingual kids, as everyone would understand at least part of the story and we could build on the library’s English language resources.

The Schedule

At first, storytime was scheduled one Wednesday afternoon per month (when French children do not have school), and attracting people outside of my entourage was tough. So after the summer vacation, we decided to test twice-monthly readings, including a Saturday and  a Wednesday reading once a month. We’ve noticed that the Saturday readings attract a different audience.

Making storytime a success has taken a lot of elbow grease: I send emails out through the Parent-Teacher Association, hang posters at both the school and nursery school, and post messages on Facebook. A newspaper article even appeared in the local newspaper!

The most effective means of attracting participants has been the library’s own publicity: there are posters and brochures throughout the Lille library system as well as publicity from the branch librarians themselves. As an aside, not a single new face came to storytime after that article appeared in the regional newspaper!

The main problem has been scheduling around last-minutes school activities, which never seem to be announced ahead of time (the December reading was just me and my son because of the school holiday party).

What has been most astonishing is the lack of participation. In the US and in England (my English friends tell me), story times are very popular activities. But in France, such activities are apparently rare and do not attract much of an audience. At first, the only participants were my bilingual friends and my entourage. Even though it has picked up, not a single of my daughters’ classmates has come to story time. When my mother,  a retired children’s librarian, read books during her last visit, she was amazed at the lack of participation despite the crowded room. The book was screaming for crowd participation, yet all of kids just sat there.

Bilingual French English Storytime

So how does the bilingual story time work?

Since it’s “my” baby, the librarians leave the book selection up to me.We choose the books based on what is available at the library and in my own personal book collection (which traces its roots to my mother, a retired children’s librarian.) We try to select books available in both English and French. If they are not available in Lille’s system, I choose an American or English book in French and then get the original version somewhere else.

My French reading partner and I prepare by going through the texts to make sure the translation is balanced and that the books are cut up in the same way in both languages. Then we see how we can break up the text  in a bilingual format.

The books we read fall into 5 categories:

  • One page, one page: This works well for shorter books with little dialogue and where reading a page in French and then the same page in English aids in comprehension without boring the children. This works well with books like Willy the Dreamer or My Mum, both by Anthony Brown.
  • Split dialogue: This is similar to the above, but works in books where there is dialogue that can be split between the languages without losing the meaning. This works for books like The Thing : Edition bilingue français-anglais, by Stéphane Servant or some of the stories in Yummy: My Favourite Nursery Stories by Lucy Cousins where the dialogue repeats throughout the story. When read bilingually, the repetition happens once in each language.
  • Two voices: Perfect for books with two characters: One character speaks French and the other responds in English. Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggy books with their repetitive text, written for new readers, works perfectly because the sentences repeat in each character’s voice.
  • Bilingual text: This is the easiest method since it requires no preparation at all. Although there aren’t many stories that are bilingual in the text, books by Tout le monde dit hello are good examples.

Good Translations and Universal Themes

As readers reading the same book in two different languages, we allow ourselves quite a bit of creative license.  For example, we might change minor details to help the children understand without detracting from the story itself.  For example, in Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne, Willy becomes Marcel in the French version. At other times we might adapt a sentence so the text follows in both languages as in There Is a Bird On Your Head! (An Elephant and Piggie Book), by Mo Willems, where Elephant’s interjections are long in English but he only says “yes” in French.

But mostly, we try to find universal themes that all kids can relate to even if they don’t understand the actual words.

Some other main things to keep in mind when selecting books are good translation, repetition and onomatopoeia which, besides being a really cool sounding word, works great for kids because they love hearing how sounds differ between languages.

The last thing I can say about the storytime project is that it’s a victim of its own success. After a really slow start, we now have a packed room each time. In fact it’s so successful and the librarians are so enthusiastic about the project, that we’ll be reading at the annual “Braderie des livres” (book fair), where we’re scheduled to do a whole hour at the local exhibition hall.

And what is the most exciting bit? Stephane Servant, the author of The Thing, one of the kids’ most loved storytime books, will be there to hear his book! It has a dual language edition expressly for the purpose of English language acquisition for kids to be read in the bilingual format.

How do I know storytime is a success?

When I walk through my neighborhood, the kids who go to storytime all say “hello” to me. As for my own kids, I asked my daughter and one of her bilingual friends what they thought of storytime. Their answer was simply, “great!” When I watch their faces as we read back in forth in English and French, I know it’s working.

You can find our complete reading list (so far) on Amazon.fr.

Bilingual Storytime in Action!

One comment

  1. Reynolds Bénédicte

    Such a great idea. We are not a bilingual couple but we have British ancestry and I spent 1 year in the USA as an au-pair.
    I’ve been trying to find a way to teach English to my daughter but I have been quite unsuccessful so far.
    She’s just been watching Winnie the Pooh in English since day one. But since she has been starting school she know uses the French names 🙁 I so loved when she was requesting Winnie Le Pooh 🙁
    I think I’m going to try your way with books 🙂

    Reply

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