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Supporting Bilingual Children: A Call to Authors

by Vickie Tsui

Growing up bilingual is becoming more common in certain areas of the world. Recently, the minority births in the United States reached over 50% for the first time partially due to increasing Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial populations. In addition, recently scientific studies showing advantages of bilingualism to brain development have rushed eager parents to attempt to raise their kids bilingual.

However, truly bilingual children are still a minority. At this young age, being different from most of your classmates often leads to negative feelings like embarrassment and shame, no matter how much Mom and Dad say that this difference is actually a gift. Why should the bilingual kids not feel isolated? There are few children's role models either in real life or in the media who are truly bilingual. You may be asking, "How about Diego and Dora? How about Kai-Lan?" Give me a break. Those shows and books are aimed at the wide English-speaking audience, with a few basic Spanish or Chinese phrases inserted to make parents feel like their children are learning something useful. For a truly bilingual child, these characters can look more ridiculous than admirable.

So here is my plea to all authors out there who can write in multiple languages: please consider writing children's books that are truly bilingual, or contain bilingual heroes and heroines. We all know the benefits of having a child identify with a character in a book, both for increasing their love of reading, and for improving their self-esteem. Harry Potter is the best known example, but there are thousands more.

These books can be realistic and about a child's daily life; except the child may be speaking English to his teachers and Chinese to his parents. To be even more realistic, he may be speaking a mix of both languages to his siblings. There may be times in which he forgets a phrase in a language, leading to some embarrassing situation; yet later on he might help as a translator to resolve some communication issues and feels like a hero. Alternatively, these books may be completely fantastic. For example, what if the famous Chinese Monkey King accidentally landed in the world of Star Wars? Would Darth Vader try to lure him to the Dark Side while Yoda is convinced the Monkey King must become a Jedi? Imagine how helpful C-3PO would be, being able to also speak Chinese to the Monkey King!

These books are certainly targeted towards a very limited audience, so major publishing companies may be reluctant to such ideas. However, in today's world of easy self-publishing, there must be a way to get these books out through other means. The community of bilingual children, immersion schools, and hard-working parents are in desperate need of such children's books for a wide age range.

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