Why Bilingual Books?

Radhika Menon (Publisher) and Sandhya Rao (writer), Tulika Publishers, in Revive, a magazine for Learning Network, February 2005

For about three years now, Tulika has been working closely with NGOs in producing and distributing books for reading literacy. At one computer-book kiosk in a village in Tamilnadu, volunteer Asha Sanjay noticed that children quickly familiarized themselves with what was available and were soon all sitting with two copies of the same picture book, one in English, the other in Tamil. While one child carefully read aloud the English story, another matched the text page for page in Tamil, and the rest of the small group listened. All on their own, the children had discovered and were experiencing the empowering nature of bilingual reading.

          Cut to the principal’s office in a leading school in Chennai. A Tulika representative is showing the principal their popular bilingual title. The principal looks at the book and then, somewhat disdainfully, says, “We’ll take the book if you remove the Tamil text in it. Keep only the English.”

          Cut yet again to a classroom in another city school, the Children’s Garden School. Children are poring excitedly over a new book they have received. “Miss, English book!” a child exclaims. “Tamil also!” another exclaims. “In the same book!” a third child points out. The teacher smiles. The class is thrilled.

          It’s a strange thing. In our richly multicultural, multilingual country, bilingual books have only just begun to be taken seriously. Eight years ago, when Tulika pioneered the first such titles, there were, literally, no takers. Two years ago, its first and best-selling Line and Circle was produced in 23 different language combinations (i.e. English and another language) for a UK publisher. The languages included Serbo-Croatian, Kurdish, Arabic, Somali and Chinese.

          For some years now, the UK has been at the forefront of bilingual publishing for children in order to cater to the needs of children from different ethnic and language groups, no matter how small the numbers in that country. Several countries in Africa too have  taken recourse to the bilingual and trilingual approach in order to promote the learning of a new language while keeping alive the learning of their own native languages such as Shona and Ndbele and Xhosa. The approach stems from a recognition of the need to nurture the mother tongue, especially in cultures and situations where they are threatened. By combining the mother or first language with a language of power such as English, a double purpose is served: to preserve what exists and to preach what is new. 

          There are many colonial cobwebs clinging to the collective Indian psyche and culture, but this policy with regard to the bilingual approach in the teaching / learning / entertaining circuit is something we could adapt well to our needs. Bilingual books are an effective way of promoting meaningful literacy in India, through the promotion of meaningful reading based on comprehension and assimilation. They work especially and equally well with teachers and students. They are not the only way, but they are an effective way. And of course, as in all things, efficacy hinges upon the quality of the product and the efficiency of its use.

          Today, there is no getting away from the global power of the English language. We are told that the only thing that stands in the way of China assuming world leader status is the lack of proficiency of its citizens in the use of the English language. So now, the English language is being promoted in top gear. However, we are concerned about the status of literacy and empowerment among the majority population in India. Therefore, instead of resisting the language or submitting to its very poor third cousins removed, we believe that it serves our children well to be brought right into its embrace. Bilingual learning / teaching / reading makes it possible to access the ‘foreign’ language through one’s own mother or first language. And, in several instances, it works the other way too. In the context of the fact that every day so many languages are dying due to disuse and neglect, it assumes a greater significance.

          Prof. Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto has, for several years, been researching and advocating the bilingual approach to teaching. Of course, his research relates to North America where English is the first language, at least in most parts of that continent. He cautions that bilingual education is not a panacea that will “miraculously” elevate achievement levels among students. He points out that for such programmes to work there has to be a commitment “(a) to promote, to the extent possible, an additive form of bilingualism, (b) to collaborate with culturally diverse parents and communities in order to involve them as partners in their children’s education, and (c) to instruct in ways that build on bilingual students’ personal and cultural experience and that promote critical literacy; such instruction would focus on providing students with opportunities to generate new knowledge, create literature and art, and act on social realities”.

          Bilingual books (with one text in English) can also come to the aid of teacher who are weak in English and who feel unsure. Having the text in front of them make teaching a less daunting task.

           All of us know, through experience, that getting into the formal educational system is a long-time battle that needs to be fought, but children cannot wait that long. Therefore, small charges need to be assayed and regions brought under the banner of the bilingual approach on the non-formal, supplementary reading front.

          This is the philosophy that imbues much of Tulika’s efforts in publishing for children in the age-group 0 to 16 years, especially in the genre of picture books. Most of these books are available in several independent editions: in English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati and now, Telugu. The bilingual books are published in English as the primary text in combination with secondary texts in each of some of the languages listed above.

          When we first realised the importance of and the need to do bilingual books, we had only western models to follow, not always best-suited to our needs, given our multiplicity of languages and cultures, economic imbalances, social disparities, educational demands and lacunas, and so on. But the most important thing was the realisation that Indians are naturally multilingual. So, when we advocate bilingual books, we are only reinforcing and working upon our strengths.

          Broadly speaking, there are two ways to approach dual language books: one, keeping only the meaning in mind; and two, keeping in mind language learning. The latter incorporates words, meanings, sentence construction, syntax….and is the more challenging, but the more needed if we want to lead readers from one language into another. Therefore, the two texts in the book have to, literally, mirror image each other without distorting or misrepresenting the natural style and register of each language.

          Easily said. This is why bilingual texts for learning language, one from the other, works most effectively for the younger, picture-book age-group. Here, the storyline or concept is kept clear, the text runs unambiguous. In other words, the text has to be ‘translatable’!

          But it works. That’s what our experience tells us. The best books work brilliantly for literacy and reading programmes among children and adults because they are not textbookish and are not learning-driven, but enjoyment-driven. 

          Besides, the reader has two books for the price of one!