Learning the Desi tongue with a Videshi touch

It’s about learning a new language and a peek into the cultural aspects too! Welcome to the world of bilingual books that help children overseas to know more about Indian culture through language learning with the help of English. Janani Rajeswari. S finds out more.

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Supriya Cherian (Children’s author, Gaps & Letters, Australia), Persis Naumann (Creator and editor, Kelir Books, Pennsylvania, PhD scholar and professor at Duquesne University, US) and Priya Gupta (publisher-author of bilingual Hindi-English books, Hindi Kay Bol Connecticut, US), maybe from different professional backgrounds, but they are Indian mothers who wished to introduce their kids to their roots in their respective mother tongues. Here’s more.

AABP: Why did you go for bilingual books?

Supriya: In 2010, I started writing articles for health magazines about speech and hearing disorders. After moving to Australia, I began writing stories. However, my writing found a purpose when I noticed my three-year-old daughter was curious about her cultural identity. Even though we speak Malayalam at home, Adriel (my daughter) was predominantly speaking English. So, I wanted bilingual books, which make learning easy for an English speaker. There were bilingual books with English and Malayalam text, but they were not facilitating independent language learning. That’s why I came up with transliteration along with translations, thus bringing both the languages together in a single book.

Persis: Using my educational and inter-personal knowledge, skills, and experiences I wanted to use Kelir for representation, diversity, and inclusion. Our name Kelir comes from the famous Tamil saying “??????????????????????” (Yaadhum oorey, yaavarum kelir) written by Kaniyan Poongunranar, a Tamil philosopher from the Sangam age from around 6th century BCE. The phrase means ‘To us all towns are our own, everyone is our kin’, perfectly representing the diaspora of Tamil people living globally – all connected by one thing – the language.

So, I teamed up with Peniel Prabakaran, co-creator and author to produce the first two titles “????????” (Dum Dum Dum Bogi) and “??????????“ (Ulu Pongal) of the four-book series on the four days of Pongal. Peniel was raised in Chennai in a full-immersion Tamil home and learnt English in school. She has travelled and lived amidst different cultures. She understands how hard it can be to stay rooted and connected while navigating the nuances in our cross-cultural lives.

On the other hand, as (mother) to my two-year-old (now four) inter-racial ponnu (daughter), I identified a huge gap in the market for Tamil language and cultural resources, particularly, bilingual Tamil language children’s books. These books are representative and inclusive of different kinds of Tamil children – particularly Tamils living around the globe from inter-racial, mixed cultural, and non-Tamil-speaking families.

Priya: I chose bilingual books because there are not many resources that teach Hindi through English. My writing journey began with creating a teaching group for my neighbourhood kids. This soon evolved into a passion for creating meaningful books that teach Hindi as a second language, under my publishing company Hindi Kay Bol.

AABP: What were the challenges involved?

Supriya: The main challenge is having three scripts for every sentence: Malayalam text, English transliterations of the text (we call it Manglish in Malayalam) and the English translation. So, ensuring the text is concise and avoiding overcrowded sentences is the biggest challenge. The other challenge is modifying the sentence to suit the aesthetics of the story. Also, while translating between two languages, word-to-word translation may not make any sense in some context of the story. So, making sure it’s still enjoyable reading the translation is equally important. Unfortunately, awareness about these books is not much. This is yet another challenge I’m facing in terms of marketing. As I do this out of my passion, from writing the story, finding an editor, hiring an illustrator and translator, designing websites and updating social media, I think my energy levels are less spent in marketing, which is something I should look into next.

Persis: One of the challenges is that when you write in two languages, you have to think from the world view and framework of those individual languages rather than it being translation. So, I had to switch my brain to thinking from a Tamil framework and perspective in terms of the rhythm, the words that we use, the rhyming, and the tone. And with the translation, I had to switch my brain back to writing in English, so it fits that language. This was to basically ensure that bilingual books aren’t just a poorly translated representation of heritage languages.

Priya: The biggest challenge is reaching your target audience worldwide. Distributors play a major role in this and it’s hard for independent publishers like me to find funding for offset printing or the right distributors in different geographies. I have been trying to connect with mentors and organisations like IBPA in the US. The connections I have made with other publishers in the same space are also invaluable. Coming from a tech background, it has been a steep learning curve for me, but persistence is the key.

AABP: What are the advantages of bilingual books over other books?

Supriya: More than learning an additional language and cognitive benefits, our kids feel represented through these books. The Malayalam culture is preserved in new generation Malayali children growing in different parts of the world and at the same time it’s shared with a wider audience who wouldn’t have heard about us otherwise. Because, India in most people’s hearts in the outside world is limited to Bollywood, Taj Mahal and butter chicken.

Priya: Through bilingual books, kids can appreciate the same story twice as much. Introducing the script visually to a toddler is as important as the spoken word. It helps them connect sounds to letters and pave the way for a future reader. I think we do a great injustice to our kids by restricting them to just the spoken dialect, especially outside of India. In addition, bilingual books are just as precious for the American audience. They can enjoy the books in English and learn a new language. They are a window into an ancient culture and heritage.

AABP: What sets your books apart from others?

Supriya: The transliterations of the Malayalam text in our books is a huge advantage for anyone, not just Malayalis. The first book was a board book with lift-the-flaps which is the first-of-its-kind in Malayalam.

Persis: Our books are an example of how inclusive we want the literature space to be: Our 4-in-one books include Tamil, English transliteration, English translation and audiobook format. The full story is repeated twice in every book: first in Tamil (with English transliteration) followed by English. For bilingual families, this reinforces reading and listening primarily in Tamil and ensures that Tamil does not get usurped by the English language. The Tamil edition also includes English transliteration in small print to help adults who cannot read or write in Tamil. The second half tells the story in English so kids can also develop English literacy but through a Tamil worldview and in their cultural lens. Additionally, it promotes the language and culture to non-Tamil speakers and non-Tamils.

Also, we represent multicultural families, interfaith and inter caste cultural expressions. Our resources are representative and inclusive of these complexities of mixed and hybrid cultural identity in today’s world.

Our five avatars featured in our books: Theo, K, Puvi, Zoya, and Aadhi, represent something as individuals and as a collective. They have diverse names, different shades of brown, and different religions and ethnic makeup. But each have a story and we cannot wait for them to continue to share that with the Kelir world. Kelir, although in its conception started with one character, quickly realised that it is impossible to reduce the nuances of cultural diversity and accurately represent all kind of Tamil people through a single character.

Priya: Our book ‘Preposition Series’ is a perfect example that deconstructs Hindi grammar into bite-size pieces and explains the concept of ‘kaarak’ through short stories. ‘Mai hoon kaun’ is a collection of contemporary riddles in Hindi, with a key to difficult words in English. It provides just enough guidance in English required by a non-native reader. However, I do not have any audio books as yet. I think audio-visual appeals more to the young audience. My first love is clearly the fresh scent of paper, and the bonding time families create around the books held in hands.

AABP: What is the market for bilingual books and what has been the response from parents?

Supriya: It’s hard to answer with less than two years of experience in the publishing industry. However, I am connected to South Asian Kidlit authors via social media and I see more and more bilingual books are getting published than before.

Persis: There are over 2,38,699 Tamil speakers in the United States alone. Never before in our history have we been displaced around the world like today. We have more cross-cultural marriages, children with parents from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. The multiracial population has increased from 6.8 million in 2000 to nearly 33.8 million (+24.8 million) in 2020. So, children face the complexities of cultural identity more in today’s world. However, parents also increasingly want to integrate Tamil language and culture in their children’s life but are unable to find resources that are context specific. We have adults buying our books too, as it’s a great resource for them to reconnect with their heritage language or learn the language.

Priya: When I started out three years ago, there were barely any bilingual titles. I have seen many new authors and publishers diving into this untapped market. Most of these are moms driven by the desire to create something unique for their own kids and in the process, change the landscape of the publishing industry.

AABP: Why are bilingual books not so popular in India?

Supriya: Most people are unaware of the benefits of book reading at a young age, ignoring the disadvantages of screen time for children under five years.Also, regional languages are less accepted. From the response from childcare centres and resellers in Kerala, it was evident that people prefer English books over Malayalam books.

Persis: I think it is because of the misconception that when the language is more accessible, the need for such resources is not as imperative. For example, people in other countries have very little options (although it is improving now). So, bilingual books are more appreciated in those environments. But the truth is, in India our education system, media and even work systems are now in English medium. Kids and even adults are slowly losing the skill to read, write, and in some ways even speak their regional languages. On the other hand, kids who study in Tamil medium schools or adults who grew up with no access to formal English training, struggle with the ability and confidence to speak, read, or write in English – which in some contexts disadvantages them. So, taking the language politics out of this, this is not an either/or problem, it is a both/and one. Imagine how by normalising bilingual books, we could address these massive problems on both fronts.

Also, bilingual does not always mean English + heritage language, it could also mean two heritage languages, it could be German and Tamil or Hindi and Arabic, or Spanish and Telugu. The opportunities and possibilities are endless.

Priya: India’s kid literature has picked up a lot in the last few years. Until recently, reading was textbook-driven and usually not for fun. With parents looking for more subjects and languages, these books are bound to make an impact in India too.

AABP: What is the response of bilingual books from non-Indians?

Supriya: We got very good response. In fact, non-Indian parents are more excited to see the bilingual books as they can introduce their children to a new language and culture. The childcare centres here invite me to read books for the children as well.

Persis: As Indians and Tamils, our people love to proudly share our language, culture, celebrations, and food with the world. I think people from different cultures love being a part of this exchange. So many of our customers are non-Indians who want to experience these stories and teach their kids to learn about and celebrate other cultures. Some of our favourite moments have been watching these kids try and read Tamil words (using our transliteration guide) – they fumble, they giggle, but overall, they are thrilled and even proud of themselves when they read the whole story in a foreign language. They have also just learnt something new about another culture in an engaging and self-led way. I do not think we know yet the impact of these moments in their development and growth. It is priceless and heartwarming.

Priya: The books are very well received by non-Indian families. Spanish is the most popular second language in the US, but Indian languages are being recognized by more and more school districts. Books in Indian languages not just teach language, but also new thought patterns about our belief system and values.

AABP: What are your future plans?

Supriya: Writing and publishing more and more Malayalam English bilingual books. I want our new generation Malayali children to feel represented and to be proud of who they are and their culture.

Persis: Continue building our @wearetamiltoo too online community that connects different kinds of Tamil people. We are looking at improving and innovating bilingual books for children that highlight stories, which in turn, inspire, educate, and connect communities and some secret projects are in the pipeline.

Priya: It has been a very rewarding journey so far with six books under my belt, and two upcoming books next year. I plan to introduce more authors, creators, local artists to the publishing world through Hindi Kay Bol, whose work is still unnoticed and underrepresented. I want to reach out to every library and school system in the US through my books. This would help kids find their voice, not just in English, but also their heritage language.

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