A conversation with bilingual children’s author Delia Berlin (Family Fridays)

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(Photo via Carissa Rogers, Flickr CC)

¡Feliz viernes, amig@s!

Welcome back for another edition of our Family Fridays series here on the blog. This series features multilingual families from all over the globe, as well as other important friends (authors, singers, just to name a few) in the greater community who help and encourage us parents along the way. You can check out past installments in this series by clicking on the category FAMILIES on the right.

Today, I’m honored to introduce you to bilingual mother, grandmother, and author, Delia Berlin. Originally from Argentina, Delia has made the United States her home for the past forty years. My conversation with her today includes her personal journey with bilingualism, the role language plays in her family’s life, and her work as author of several bilingual books for children.

Be encouraged, friends. ¡Buen fin de semana!

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¡Tú!

Let’s start with you, Delia. Can you tell my readers a bit about yourself, your background, where you’re from?

Where am I from? Simple enough, but this is always a very hard question for me to answer. I have lived pretty much my entire adult life in Connecticut, USA. But in casual conversation what usually prompts this question is my unusual accent, so answering “I’m from Connecticut” tends to leave curiosity unsatisfied and credibility frayed. So I always feel compelled to give the longer answer, which is that I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and also lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during my teens, before coming to Connecticut as a young graduate student.

While this answer satisfies, it often leads to assumptions that bear little resemblance to reality. Many Americans think of South America as a homogeneous, primitive and dangerous place, yet growing up in Buenos Aires in the 60s was a privilege. A rigorous educational system and the opportunity to travel exposed me to German, English, French and Portuguese from a young age, and to levels of math and science that made American graduate physics easy. These early exposures, and later the need to navigate different cultures, have shaped and focused my thinking and interests.

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¡Los libros!

Why children’s literature? Why bilingual books?

Reading to children from early infancy provides permanent benefits, both for children and their readers. When a child enjoys that special interaction with a parent, the parent is rewarded, strengthening the long-term bond that raising a successful person will require. With children, early investment has the highest return. Lots of social stimulation and broad experiences in early childhood will increase curiosity, develop self-confidence, and make future learning easier.

Infancy and early childhood are critical periods for language development. During these periods, all normal children have their highest potential to learn languages without any special effort. When families are fortunate to have speakers of different languages, they have the opportunity to gift their children a highly valued and useful competency. For these families and their children, bilingual books are helpful tools to succeed in this effort.

When I became a mother in 1978 there was very little research on bilingualism. Unfortunately, most of the reported findings were negative, warning about confusion and language delays when children were exposed to more than one language at a time. But fortunately, in spite of my young age and inexperience, I decided that the advantage of being bilingual outweighed the risks of a temporary language delay. For my daughter there was no delay and her development in both languages proceeded in fast forward.

Today we know that my daughter was not an exception. Current research has confirmed that bilingual children learn faster, and that learning languages even supports other types of learning. The cognitive effects of bilingualism are positive through the entire lifespan, and even include protection against some forms of dementia in old age.

In anecdotal support of early bilingualism, I will exercise mother’s bragging rights and proudly say that my daughter is now a general surgeon and also a mother raising a bilingual child. She has retained high level native fluency in Spanish and English, and easily acquired fluent French during her high school years.

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Can you walk us through your creative process of writing your books?

My creative process is very eclectic. Sometimes it’s purposeful – I may remember a particular “aha” moment in my own childhood that seems like fun to recreate in a story. Other times it’s imaginary – I may “see” funny characters doing silly things that I think a child may find amusing. In some cases, I may retell a fable or folktale that moved me as a child. And there are also occasions when it just happens… as it was with the book I’m working on now (The Polka Dot Diet or Dieta de Lunares – see NOTE below). I just woke up one morning with the full story in my head, perhaps prompted by a dream.

I usually find it easier to write my books in English first, then translating them into Spanish. Translation can be very challenging and the Spanish-speaking audience in the US is very diverse, adding to the difficulties.

(NOTE: This book will have separate English and Spanish editions, instead of a bilingual one. The main characters are twins who speak chanting in rhyme, so each language version required different chants, since what rhymes in one language won’t necessarily rhyme in the other. But both language editions will have the same exact plot and feel.)

Your website says “With my writing I seek to provide moments of shared joy, to spark new insights in a non-directive manner, and to subtly expand language and social skills.” – Can you expand on that? What do you mean by “non-directive manner”?

I want my books to be enjoyed both by children and their readers. Shared joy is self-reinforcing and enjoyable activities are repeated. By expanding skills in a “non-directive manner” I mean that the main focus is in the process. My books do not attempt to “direct” children to a particular conclusion or learning objective, but to provide an experience that will be different for each child.

When the same stories are read to children over a period of time, they offer something new or different each time. A young infant may be interested in pictures and nouns, but a few months later may be ready for descriptive labels. As vocabulary and understanding expand, she may become interested in actions and temporal sequences in the story. And finally, she may want to be read the story word-by-word, until she can “read” it by memory, all by herself.

Play, intonation, rhythm, repetition, movement, and affection expressed through contact, are just some of the elements that can be used during reading to amplify mutual enjoyment. Lively emphasis on certain words or story points becomes anticipated and expected, adding to the familiarity and shared intimacy of reading something together again and again.

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Your books include animal characters and settings in the outdoors. (I also noticed a photo of you with a bird (parrot?) on your website.) Is it safe to assume that you’re a lover of nature? 

I do love nature, and animals have always been important in my life. Observing animals as non-verbal “persons” also helps develop skills to work with young children. There is much more to communication than spoken language, and early exposure to animals contributes to awareness of non-verbal gestures and cues.

We live with two domestic parrots in their twenties, and when it comes to observing cues either one of them would beat any human, wings down. They do not miss a beat, and it’s easy to imagine how keen observational skills would help these small social animals survive their very long spans in the jungle.

Becoming a grandmother has reinforced my naturalist world view. Social species with long life spans can derive benefit from the presence of their elders. Longevity has evolved in these species because it contributed to the successful passage of such genes. Helping raise a bilingual grandchild fits this paradigm.

In naturalistic terms, humans are social animals and language use is a survival skill. Raising a bilingual child or grandchild is giving offspring enhanced ability to cope in an environment where global interactions and relocations are increasingly necessary.

What do you see as the role of (bilingual) books in helping parents raise their children in more than one language?

Bilingual children often have caretakers who speak only one of their languages. Bilingual books allow any and all of these caretakers to read the same stories to these children. This in turn allows children to develop a core of experiences shared with all the important people in their lives, and also to make linguistic connections across languages.

Although raising bilingual children whenever possible may seem like a no-brainer, parents who choose to raise children in more than one language often face social barriers. Many older relatives become concerned, if not alarmed, when newborns in their families are raised in languages other than English. “How is this child going to learn English?” becomes a frequent question, and bilingual books may help alleviate these concerns and reduce resistance.

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Ser bilingüe:

Could you tell us a little bit about your own bilingual journey?

My first language is Spanish. My first foreign language was German, but oddly I forgot most of it. I playfully say that my English got recorded over my German, and there may be some truth to that. My Portuguese and French have also suffered from lack of use, but they were never very good.

When I came to Connecticut, I had relatively good academic knowledge of English, but no spoken fluency. It was a long and difficult journey to be able to be myself in English. I am a serious but playful person who never goes very far without a joke, and humor is nuanced and demands high cultural understanding, in addition to language command. Being truly bilingual requires dreaming and joking in both languages. I think it took me at least two years of living in Connecticut to get to that point.

What do you love about speaking more than one language?

Now we know that the benefits of speaking more than one language are many. But there were always significant pragmatic advantages.

I’ve worked in health care, social services, education, and administration. Although I had graduate degrees in hard sciences and social sciences, all my jobs have required being bilingual. In crowded fields, bilingualism was the advantage that helped me get in.

Of course, languages become very useful when traveling, allowing us to get around and to know people and places in a deeper way when we speak their language. And who doesn’t love the satisfaction of being able to help someone in need of translation.

I think it’s very important to help children discover and understand all of these benefits. Eventually, children want to fit in with their peers, and unless they see their bilingualism as advantageous, they may abandon it or even hide it.

Children are sensitive to subtle social messages and some aspects of our society remain highly ethnocentric. Spanish, for example, is too often associated with negative attributes instead of exotic glamour. Countering those views with truthful positives, such as practical language usefulness to make new friends, to travel foreign lands, to discover novel literature, and to understand other ways, must go hand-in-hand with language learning and continued reinforcement.

Mil gracias to Delia for talking with us today on Españolita…¡sobre la marcha! Please be sure to check out her website for information about her bilingual books for children.

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