"A secret superpower": Top tips for reading with a bilingual child

Published on: 21 September 2022

Author Ewa Jozefkowicz grew up speaking two languages - just like many children in Britain today. But how can we make reading engaging across two or more languages? She shares her top tips...

Author Ewa Jozefkowicz and the cover of The Dragon in the BookshopAuthor Ewa Jozefkowicz and the cover of The Dragon in the Bookshop

Growing up in a bilingual household, I always thought that knowing an additional language was a secret superpower.

I felt like there were twice as many worlds to discover and twice as much fun to be had. I’d always been a bookworm, and the stories that my mum and dad read to me were in Polish, whereas the ones I first learnt to read on my own after I’d started school were in English – so there was a natural separation there. I now have children of my own (twins aged 4 and a half) and I’ve done my best to share the joy of reading with them from a very early age. One is very keen; the other is more reluctant. 

They’ve learnt languages a little differently to the way I did. I didn’t speak English until I went to school, whereas they’ve spoken it from the beginning. We’ve adopted the ‘one parent; one language’ approach in our house, where I speak to them in Polish and their dad speaks to them in English. As he also speaks French, we’re hoping to introduce this third language too when they’re a little older.

But how do you encourage reading for pleasure in two languages? Here are a few tips based on what’s worked for us.

1. Let them choose

Visiting bookshops and libraries are among our top things to do with the girls. We’re often found browsing through the children’s section of our local London library, and we make a point of visiting bookshops whenever we’re in Poland to stock up on some Polish reading material.

As one of my daughters isn’t hugely keen on reading, I find that giving her time to pick her own stories makes a huge difference. We’ve come across some brilliant librarians who have asked both girls what they’ve enjoyed reading in the past and helped them pick new stories to discover.

Then we read the chosen stories on alternate nights – one night I read a Polish story; the next night their dad would read one in English. Among our favourite books in English at the moment are Nen and The Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew, and Beast Feast by Emma Yarlett. In Polish, we’ve particularly enjoyed Król(King) by Ewa Madeyska.

2. Try reading the same story in two languages

There are some brilliant translations of popular stories and I thought it would be fun to read a book in two languages. We’re big fans of Lucy Cousins and we’ve been reading her stories alternately in Polish and English. Our favourites are: Maisie on the Farm and Maisie at Nursery. When I was a little older than the girls are now, I used to love reading Goscinny and Sempé’s Little Nicholas. The original is in French but I read the Polish translation (Goscinny is of Polish origin and is most famous for his Asterix comics). It would be amazing to read the series with the girls in English, Polish and French in the future.

3. Dive into a legend

Legends are magnificent! They’re not only brilliant stories, but they often help to build a real sense of culture and place. We’ve enjoyed reading both Polish and English legends, and the girls always ask questions about where the stories are set. That’s when I take out a map and show them where the different countries and cities are. Now that they’re familiar with several legends, I sometimes ask them to come up with their own alternative endings, which is always a lot of fun. We’ve recently read ‘George and The Dragon’ and ‘The Loch Ness Monster’ in English and ‘The Dragon of Wawel Castle’ and ‘The Basilisk’ in Polish. 

There’s so much to discover!

I think the key is always to show how many wonderful books there are to discover in both languages and to talk about them as portals into so many different, amazing places.

Our girls now prepare books for the next two nights – one in Polish, one in English. That way, there’s always something to look forward to at the end of the day, and bedtimes are a little easier (sometimes).

Ewa Jozefkowicz is the author of mystery stories for 8-12 year olds. Her latest book, The Dragon In The Bookshop, which features the Polish legend about The Dragon of Wawel Castle, is out now.

We'd love to hear your own experiences of reading with bilingual children! Share with us on Twitter @BookTrust or in the comment box below.

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