We have seen our share of protesters taking to the streets in 2020. As a nation, we are not shy to publicly advocate for human rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women rights, immigrant rights, and even animal rights, but we’ve yet to see anyone picketing for language rights. On the surface, language appears to be an inalienable right of all. However, the stark reality is that as a nation we do a poor job ensuring language equality for non-English speakers.
Today, one in five households in the U.S. speak a second language in the home. This suggests that English is not the native language of tens of millions of Americans, yet only three percent of our literature is translated. Compare this with Italy where half their literary works are translations. So, where do we really stand on language equality in a nation that prides itself on diversity? Does our literature truly reflect our country’s multi-culturalism?
As assiduously as U.S. educators advocate for monolingual children to pick up a second language in school, the vast majority of our country’s bilinguals come from first- and second-generation immigrants rather native-English speakers. Although most Americans born speaking English never become proficient in a second language, monolingualism is actually the exception in the world. In fact, sixty percent of the world’s population speak more than one language.
As a nation, we carry the responsibility of not only teaching English to non-English students, but to encourage all children to study a second language, even if for no other reason than to improve their native English. A common misconception among Americans is that bilingual children have difficulty in school when juggling more than one spoken and written language. However, studies show quite the opposite. Canadian professor Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto conducted a study of 134 four- and five-year old children and found that bilingual children understood better than monolingual children the general symbolic representation of print. Numerous other studies show a positive relationship between foreign language study and English language arts achievement. All these results suggest that second language study helps enhance English and other academic skills”
This brings us back to our language equality question. Do we have the materials and the educational infrastructure to adequately meet the needs of an immigrant population that continues to grow exponentially year-after-year? This presents a real concern for educators. Where in times past, immigrants migrated in waves from particular regions of the world such as mass migrations from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, China, and Italy in the 19th century. That is not the case today. Today, we see immigrants coming from the four corners of the globe, representing a staggering number of languages and dialects. In some communities, we’re seeing over 200 languages spoken by students inside the boundaries of a single educational program. As one generation passes to next, bilingual families are pushed to acclimate to English and our unique societal landscape, thus losing their native language and heritage that was intended to make our country vibrant and diverse. We must ask ourselves if this is an acceptable outcome? Many school districts think not. Over recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of successful immersion programs changing the face of education and how we teach language to our children.
Immersion programs for dual-language learners is effective because students learn to master English without losing their native language. In Minnesota, Saint Paul Public Schools is one of the state’s largest school districts with more than 37,000 students who speak one of the 125 spoken languages in the area. Maintaining a student’s native language is vital to their self-esteem, family heritage, and identity, according to a recent study. All native languages are critical to defining who we are as individuals. But, how and when do we start our children on the path to bilingual learning?
We know that a young child’s mind is like a sponge. Preschoolers, in particular, are at the prime leaning stage to pick up a second or even third language as compared to older children and adults who struggle to learn in later years. “The child’s brain is different from the adult brain in that it is a very dynamic structure that is evolving […]. The four- or five-year old’s learning a second language is a ‘perfect model for the idea of the critical period’,” according to Dr. Susan Curtiss, Professor of Linguistics at UCLA. “The power to learn language is so great in the young child that it doesn’t seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way [ …]. They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children have this capacity. Their brain is just ripe to do this.” Dr. Patricia Kuhl, a Speech Scientist at the University of Washington, reports that “babies are born ‘citizens of the world’ in that they can distinguish differences among sounds (temporal, spectral, and duration cues) borrowed from all languages.”
Although immersion programs meet the needs for a large segment of our bilingual children, the challenge grows when extending this to the other 200 plus languages, such as Vietnamese to Burmese, Thai to Hindi, or Arabic to Somali. How do we supply these families with the materials and the learning structure that is needed to be successful?
Even with this continuing surge of immigrants arriving at our shores, (over 47 million since 2015), the growth in the number of translated works remains vastly underrepresented, and that gap continues to widen with every new immigrant. So, why not just print more language books you may ask. The answer is not difficult to understand when you look at dollars and cents, or more accurately “dollars that make sense.”
Like most businesses, multi-billion-dollar publishing firms work on a business model that maximizes their return on their investment. Why shouldn’t they, right? Transactions are costly and the quality of work is difficult to authenticate. Although machine translators are improving, they can not convey of essence of a story in the manner to which a reader can relate. Hence, the extra cost of employing translators, editors, and proofreaders adds a substantial cost in publishing. Books with parallel text of English and the second language double book size, thus increasing printing and shipping costs. Plainly said, there’s no money in publishing large translated works, especially with dual-text formats.
However, this is not where the story ends. Remember the studies that reveal a child’s potential for learning languages during preschool years. The rules that currently apply to publishing bilingual novels for adults do not apply to children books in quite the same way. Self-publishers can easily circumvent the cost and land on a business model that allows them to produce children picture books at an affordable cost. One such publisher in the Pacific Northwest has done just that. Advance Books LLC, otherwise known as Children Bilingual Books, has changed the way books are developed for bilinguals. In the past two years, this Washington-based company has developed a model that supports the development of bilingual materials for early learners.
This is why it works. A 32-page children picture book is roughly 400 words as compared to one or two hundred thousand words in a novel. That is roughly one percent of the cost assigned to translating. The vocabulary for a children’s book is simple and direct, making editing and proofreading a much easier task. Now, the same book can be replicated using the same illustrations and English text for as many language versions as desired. The publisher can produce a straight translation or add English dual-text to the translation without increasing the size of the book. The development overhead for additional versions is negligible, apart from the cost of registering the added works. In other words, you get thirty books for the cost of one.
Traditional publishers shy away from producing the same book in multiple languages for good reason. If the same book was translated into 30 languages, they would have to manage the expense of implementing large print runs for 30 SKUs of hardback and 30 SKUS of paperback. That could be over a hundred thousand copies to stock, a sizable commitment for any publisher.
Enter Print-on-Demand and self-publishing. Now authors can produce as many book versions as desired and always be in stock. Although slower delivery times, print factories owned or contracted by KDP (Amazon) and IngramSpark can print, pack and ship orders as they are captured from online retailers. The difference in materials and print quality is minimal. In fact, self-publishing of children books with Print-on-Demand has become the normal practice. In recent years, both PoD companies have offered self-publishers production-quality copies of their books for resell at a discounted author’s cost. Technology, print infrastructure, and enhancements to self-publishing tools, have all combined to make bilingual books a viable option. Match this up with a growing immigrant population, the advent of immersion programs, and the need for remote learning during COVID, and suddenly the possibilities become endless, a perfect storm in reverse.
Thanks to Advance Books, our nation’s bilingual children may soon become acquainted with Sophia and Alex, two preschoolers who are about to start a trend in the children book industry. These loveable 4-year-old twins are the central characters in a series of 11 early learning books, directed to immigrant and second language learners across the country. Their cast of multi-cultural friends are on point to teach young learners the values conducive to navigating their bilingual world at school and at home. Children will benefit socially, emotionally, and academically while they are encouraged to maintain their family’s native culture and language. Our best early childhood educators know that when we celebrate our differences, we find our commonalities. At Advance Books, we embrace the principles of acceptance and inclusion. These lessons apply to both bilingual and monolingual children who learn to respect their peer’s ethnicity, race, traditions, and values.
Series author and co-founder of Advance Books LLC, Denise Bourgeois-Vance, is a fellow immigrant to the U.S., fluent in her first language, French, and her second language, English. Ms. Vance is a graduate of Washington State University and has worked with preschool-age children in varying capacities throughout her adult life. She is currently a family support specialist in Kent, Washington as well as a former preschool teacher. “I work with immigrant families in our community who were constantly asking me for books they could read to their young children in their native language,” says Ms. Vance. “A couple of years ago, I decided, at the prompting of my husband, to create a series of books not only written to further language proficiency, but books that reflect the cultural landscape of our multi-cultural classrooms.”
The results of her endeavor are the stories of Sophia and Alex who encounter the 11 most common events experienced in the life of a preschooler. Through these events, children learn traits that will follow them throughout their educational years and into their life’s career.
“I not only wanted books in bilingual text,” says Ms. Vance, “but I wanted quality translations from native speakers. This includes not only immigrants, but translator from around the word. For example, I found a translator in Singapore, another in India, one in Thailand and another is Israel. Our Spanish translator is an immigrant and educator from Mexico, our Arabic from Saudi Arabia. Who better to translate than those who work with early learners? “There is little in life that is more comforting for me than to see a parent read to their young child. My hope is that more writers and illustrations will publish works in their native tongue, either about their native culture, or the experiences they encounter coming into our country.”
Writers, illustrators, and publishers now sit at the crossroads to our nation’s literary future. We can either continue down the same worn-out road of limited access to multi-language works, or we can set our sights on the open road that leads to language equality. At Advance Books, we’re paving the way for others to follow.