Monday 6 May 2024

The double-joys of bi-lingual books by Chitra Soundar


I was in a class recently where the children were from China and Korea and it was their first week and they had no idea what I was talking about or their classmates. How wonderful it would have been to give them books that have English and their own language – so they can learn the new language faster. 

As a child, I grew up in a tri-lingual home. All my parents spoke the same language – Tamil but I was at a school that taught in English and I wanted to learn Hindi – another Indian language. But often the books were in one language or the other. I wonder how wonderful it would have been if I had been able to read the same story in two languages – how my vocabulary and command of language and syntax would have grown. 

In an increasingly connected world, many children today are either bi-lingual or need to be bi-lingual. From emigrating parents to people forced to move to safer places across the world, our need for being able to speak more than one language has grown multi-fold.

I come from India which is the fifth largest English-language publishing country in the world. However less than 25% of Indians speak / read / write in English. The rest of the country speaks, writes and reads in regional languages. So there is a big need for bi-lingual books with one of the language being English.

Illustrated by Uttara Sivadas

Illustrated by Priya Kuriyan

Two of my titles were published as bi-lingual titles – English with 5 different Indian languages to facilitate this – a reader who is aspiring to read English can read and comprehend the story in their own language, while they are slowly recognising and learning the new English words. 

As I visit schools in England, I realise that we have a dearth of bi-lingual books in our midst.  

It is also would be of great help to British and immigrant families if the child who can read in English and the parent who can read in their own language to share a story, share an experience.

Research shows that the reader can be empowered to learn on their own by giving them text in one familiar language alongside the new language they are trying to learn.  And it also improves their metalinguistic awareness – the sentence structure, the grammar and the noun-verb order if you will, between the two languages – making it easy for them to translate what they want to say into the new language until they start thinking in the new language. 

Publishing English-language picture books and early chapter books in bilingual editions especially in languages of those who seek refuge in our shores, is an act of welcome – a gesture that tells them that we are going to help them integrate into their new communities. 

Illustrated by Kanika Nair

But even in the case of expats and those who are second or third generation children, stories that are culturally relevant and are bi-lingually told can help the reader connect with their own language, culture and roots. Parents can use the book to keep their own language alive in their new home – a connection to the roots. 

This is also true for many countries where the dominant language is English but the older native languages are on the wane because of using the dominant language – Welsh, Gaelic and many indigenous languages in Australia, NZ, and North America   are fighting for space amongst their native speakers. 

There are a few publishers in the UK who cater to dual-language publishing. And I think it is not enough. It is important that all publishers who publish picture books should try and find a way to integrate this into their list. 

However, the lack of such bi-lingual books in the UK is a reminder that we don’t have many tools in the UK to welcome non-English speakers. We expect that everyone speaks English and must do so if they can’t. 

There are a number of ways publishers can address this. Here are some of my own ideas.

a) When stories are relevant to a culture, and written by someone from that heritage, it will be great to explore if the book can be turned into a bi-lingual edition.
b) Creating learning books – like stories for phonics and reading bands in bi-lingual editions to get the parents involved in the stories.
c) Bringing books from other countries and publishing bi-lingual editions.

And to illustrate how it can help readers and communities, here is a reading of my picture book from Tulika Books being read in two languages by a librarian in the US.

What do you think about bi-lingual books. Are there any situations where it is not appropriate? Is there a specific book you would love to read in another language? Do you know of other publishers who publish dual-language books? Share with us. 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of children’s books and an oral storyteller. Chitra regularly visits schools, libraries and presents at national and international literary festivals. She often runs writers' surgeries, courses and teaches writing to writers, teachers and children. She is also the creator of The Colourful Bookshelf, a curated place for books for children by British authors and illustrators.  

 Find out more at and follow her on X (ex-twitter) here and Instagram here.

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