On Languages, Lives, and Libraries
Dr Sabine Little from the University of Sheffield on the links between language and identity, valuing multilingual families, and the new multilingual children's section at Sheffield Libraries
When I was a child, I remember reading about an international school where all children were taught in six languages. Most importantly, nobody was allowed to take the subject of History in their main language, because it was deemed important that every child should experience their national history through the eyes of another country. It was probably the first time that I realised how language and culture hang together, and how our language experiences shape our identity – little did I know then that the links between language and identity would one day become my field of research.
The American novelist William Styron said that we live several lives by reading. If we combine this with the Czech proverb which says that you live multiple lives if you speak multiple languages, then, by deduction, if you read in multiple languages, you get the best of both worlds.
However, accessing books in multiple languages is not always easy, and many multilingual families realise this sooner rather than later. In my research, sharing books in the heritage language remains one of the core ways for parents to introduce children to both language and culture, and families often have built intricate and complex networks to support their children’s reading, seeking to maintain a book supply through trips abroad, birthdays, regular shipments from caring relatives, and subscriptions. However, keeping up a steady stream of reading material can be a costly affair (especially if families try to support multiple languages in the home). The library has long taken the financial strain of supplying a steady stream of books to reading-hungry adults and children alike. As far back as the 1960s, some libraries sought to offer books for speakers of other languages, however, others supported the view that providing such books would hinder integration, and subscribed to an English-only policy. Thankfully, these days are behind us, but access to high-quality children’s books in languages other than English is still very limited, often restricted to bilingual picture books.
Having books accessible in all the languages a child speaks is important for more than language acquisition – it sends an important message, of status, of value, and of representation.
In a country where the curriculum mainly regards multilingual children from a deficit perspective (of particular interest only until sufficient levels of English have been attained), finding opportunities to value multilingualism need to be celebrated, and having books available in public libraries, and hearing your family language/s spoken in public spaces, sends a strong message to children and their families.
Multilingual libraries for children
At Sheffield Libraries, a new multilingual children’s section has been set up to send exactly this message (see image above). Sheffield is home to people speaking over 150 different languages, and has a vibrant language community, including 20+ heritage language schools which offer language classes to children, typically on weekends. The multilingual children’s section started life innocuously, with a multilingual storytelling event I organised to share my research on reading in multilingual families. We set up a pop-up multilingual bookshelf, organised storytelling in six different languages, and hoped people would come and enjoy it. The event was held in the Winter Gardens, and was such a success that it was repeated a few weeks later in the main Children’s Library. Here, with support from Sheffield’s heritage language schools and the general public, we managed 11 languages throughout the day, including several impromptu readings from multilingual customers in the library. The feedback was glowing, from multilingual and monolingual Sheffielders alike – for some, it was the first time their children had heard the family language in a public space. For others, it was an opportunity to explore other languages, sounds, and worlds.
There was obviously a need to support multilingual reading, and Sheffield Libraries supported the idea of a multilingual children’s section. With library cuts rampant, however, supporting a whole new collection was simply not within the budget, so the library was stocked with donated books from authors, illustrators, publishers, translators, and the general public. Cataloguing these books was a challenge in and of itself, with the library contributing significant staffing hours to get the collection going. A grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Other Worlds Research Initiative supported research connected to the first year of the library’s life, including reading passports and graphics supporting a reading scheme. The library section launched in November 2018, and has been going from strength to strength.
Working on one multilingual library means you find out about others, and I was fortunate enough to visit both the Multilingual Library set up by the Kittiwake Trust in Newcastle, and the Kinderbücherei der Weltsprachen [Children’s Library of World Languages] in Vienna, Austria. While the Kittiwake Trust library is run completely by volunteers (and includes an adult multilingual section, too), the children’s library in Vienna is fully embedded into the library system, and has run in its current form since 2015. Each model has its own issues, challenges, and advantages, but all make a point of improving access for multilingual children to books they can read in their multiple languages, and thus raising the status of these languages. The work is not going unnoticed, and Sheffield’s multilingual children’s library has recently been awarded the Brenda Eastwood Award for Diversity and Inclusion, awarded by the UK Literacy Association.
While the work at such over-arching levels may not be easily duplicated, we can all do our share to encourage multilingual reading, and help children to find representation and acknowledgment in the books they read. Teachers can encourage multilingual children to draw on all their languages when reading at home, schools can ask for book donations from families in languages other than English, and slowly build a multilingual section for their own libraries and book corners over time. Creating an environment where multilingualism is celebrated and given status – regardless of what languages are involved - are just some ways we can help children develop their full linguistic repertoire, and ensure that they truly are able to live all the lives that the proverbs and quotes around books and multilingualism suggest.
Dr Sabine Little is a lecturer in Languages Education at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on links between language, belonging, and identity, exploring emotional and pragmatic attitudes towards heritage language learning. She convenes the Multilingualism and Literacy Special Interest Group for the UK Literacy Association. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org