Two ways to tell a tale

15th June 2001 at 01:00
For refugee children surrounded by the strange language of an unfamiliar new world, the sight of a simple book in their own language must be manna from heaven. Literate and intelligent pupils in Kosovo, perhaps, they can only demonstrate their intelligence properly at school in Britain once they have grasped the language of their adopted country.

A copy of Samira's Eid by Nasreen Aktar illustrated by Enebor Attard (Mantra, pound;6.99, big book pound;19.99), with text in Albanian and English, to read during literacy hour, would not only reunite them with their mother tongue, but also reassure them that they have come to live in a multicultural country where Ramadan and Eid are familiar to all. A classmate reading the same book with Urdu script might offer the chance to chat and encourage the pair to tell "their" story to the rest of the class.

There is a richness about dual-language books which makes them instantly attractive to children of all ages. Covering an immense range of languages, their aim is not to teach language, but to raise the profile of the words, letters, scripts and sounds of different countries, many of which are represented in Britain today.

Professor Viv Edwards of the Reading and Language Information Centre at Reading University talks of the ongoing process of "sensibilisation" for children who take a share in dual-language books. "There are as many different ways of approaching books as there are children," she says.

She stresses the value of taking books in unfamiliar languages to monolingual children who have no specific social or cultural need to learn a language such as Somali, Bengali or Vietnamese. "Children love just looking at the structure and patterning of language," she says.

Seeing how Urdu is writen right to left, for example, presents a new challenge. This is given an interesting perspective in Asian Nursery Rhymes (Mantra, pound;7.99, cassette pound;3.99 + VAT), in which Urdu rhymes run from the back of the book and their Bengali, Punjabi and Gujarati counterparts start at the front.

With the joint purpose of heightening language awareness and imbuing a sense of mutual linguistic respect in children, publishers have taken different approaches to their material. Now into its 10th year of publishing, Mantra was the first to publish dual-language books. Its list combines traditional folk tales, such as the Bengali story Buri and the Marrow by Henriette Barkow illustrated by Lizzie Finlay (pound;6.99) with translated versions of well-known English-language stories such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Mishti Chatterji, the managing director of Mantra, is passionate about the importance of all children being exposed to language in all its broadest forms. "Even if they only look at the forms of the letters and the pictures, children can still learn so much," she says.

Learning Design also published its first dual-language books wit traditional stories. Its director, Eddie McParland, says that Somali folk tales, originally translated into English by a Swede and retranslated and "poeticised" by himself, led the way for a list which now covers 17 languages, including Albanian, Amharic, Ibo and Yoruba.

At Milet Press, on the other hand, there is less emphasis on the traditional. The co-director Patricia Billings says she is keen to bring familiar and popular fictional figures into other languages. Charismatic characters such as Daisy the duck now communicate in Albanian and seven other languages, while Elmer the elephant speaks Spanish as well as six Asian languages.

Patricia Billings says Milet is keen to produce new literature in its own right which can be translated and adapted. Stressing the importance of artwork and design, she comments that she also sees value in commissioning a writer and an artist from two different ethnic origins to add diversity to one book.

For the most part, dual-language publishers agree that transliteration is not essential for children to gain benefit from stories in other languages. While some have the benefit of a native-speaker teacher or classroom assistant, many pupils must simply concentrate on an appreciation of the written word without its verbalisation.

However, Patricia Billings says some schools are now inviting native-speaker readers to co-read a story with the English-speaking teacher, to hear the spoken form of the language. Viv Edwards says, "transliteration can be an unsatisfactory compromise, since there are so many nuances of language".

Even the written word, she says, is so varied it is inevitably open to criticism from native speakers of the language.

Transliteration is an integral part of b small publishing's series of colourful picture and story books in French, Spanish and German and is staunchly defended by its director, Catherine Bruzzone, as being a "good general guide" for parents and teachers. The bilingual books, which are bought mostly for the home market, have accompanying tapes which give clearer guides to pronunciation.

Dual-language books have a secure place in the book corners of most city schools and are quietly securing a foothold throughout the country. A move towards dual language software is now well under way and will ensure that the European Year of Languages is correctly defined as a year in which Europe considers the diversity of languages spoken both within and beyond its boundaries.

Mantra Publishing 6 Alexandra Grove London N12 8NU Tel: 020 8445 5123 www.mantrapublishing.com

Milet Publishing Ltd 19 North End Parade London W14 0SJ Tel: 020 7603 5477 www.milet.com

Learning Design English Street London E3 4TA Tel: 020 8983 1944 www.learningdesign.org

b small publishing 3A Coombe Ridings Kingston upon Thames KT2 7JT Tel: 020 8974 6851 www.bsmall.co.uk


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