By Dr Nicola Daly
Often when we hear someone speak, we start making inferences about the characteristics and personality of the person.
There is a considerable body of research concerning language attitudes which shows, for example, that when we hear a person speaking with a Received Pronunciation or RP British English accent (also known as the Queen’s English, or BBC English), we assume that the speaker is educated and has high status; whereas when we hear someone speaking with a more regional accent, we assume they are more friendly and have a good sense of humour. Essentially these attitudes often reflect the stereotypes associated with the people using them.
How do these attitudes develop?
There are a myriad of influencing factors, and one of these is the language(s) presented in children’s literature. The message sent to children about the relative value of languages in bilingual book, for example, is subtle and lasting. Over the last few years I have the opportunity to examine the relative status of languages in bilingual English-Spanish picturebooks in the Marantz Picturebook Collection in Kent, Ohio, USA, and multilingual picturebooks featuring more than two languages at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. I use a framework called the Linguistic Landscape, previously used to examine the relative presence of and status of languages in the visible signage in the public domain.
My research indicates that one language is nearly always privileged, often by the size of font, and the range of information presented by that language. Minority and Indigenous languages nearly always receive less space than former colonial languages such as English in the linguistic landscapes of the books I have examined. I was starting to think that maybe my expectations of the possibility of equality of languages in a bilingual book were either unachievable, or at least unrealised.
Poemes du Soir
However, while working at the International Youth Library in Munich I was introduced to one picturebook that doesn’t favour one language over another. Poemes du Soir (Evening Poems, Heredia & Dentan, 2016) is a collection of 9 poems presented in both French (in Latin script) and Arabic (in Arabic script). Poemes du Soir is part of the 2017 White Raven’s catalogue published by the International Youth Library in Munich. The publisher, La Port a Jauni , established in 2015, is based in Marseilles where there is a large Arabic-speaking population and it describes itself as specialising in producing French-Arabic bilingual books.
The publisher’s website explains that their books are designed “to play with the double meaning of reading in French and in Arabic” (La Port a Jauni, 2017). When you hold this book of poetry in your hands, ready to read from left to right as is usually done with Latin-orthography books, the cover facing you is all in French using Latin script. And you can read the whole book in this left to right manner. But if you hold the book as you would for an Arabic book, that front cover is all in Arabic using Arabic script, and you can read the book from right to left as well. In the body of the book on each full page spread a poem is presented in two languages back-to-back (almost looking like a butterfly) with French on the right and Arabic on the left.
This is an interesting decision. Given that the Latin script reads left to right and Arabic right to left, you may have expected the opposite order of presentation (i.e., French on left and Arabic on right). But when you consider that Latin script is justified to the left and Arabic to the right, the straight line between the two starting places makes the chosen order the perfect choice, and creates the visually pleasing butterfly shape of text. The Arabic/French bilingual picturebook Poèmes du Soir exemplifies the possibilities of creating a book where equal status is afforded both languages.
The symmetrically opposed orientations of the two orthographies, Latin for English and Arabic for Arabic, provides a design opportunity which is exploited fully to create an all but completely equal linguistic landscape. However, it is also possible to achieve a similar effect with two Latin orthographies, as is shown in the English/te reo Māori dual language picturebook Te Tiriti o te whare rākau/The Tree Hut Treaty (Grace & Potter, 2006), presented in tête-bêche format.
I would suggest that all that is needed is awareness of the importance of the relative status afforded two languages in a bilingual picturebooks, and the will to find a way to ensure children do not grow up thinking some languages are more important than others.
Dr. Nicola Daly is a sociolinguist at the University of Waikato, working as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education (but she occasionally lectures for the linguistics programme too). She has been spending a lot of her time studying the language of New Zealand picture books and has been travelling the world (quite literally) to learn more. See her website on this topic for the lowdown on the most loved NZ pictures books.