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Beyond bilingual, bi-literate too

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I was chatting with Frantíšek, the vrátný (doorkeeper) at the gymnasium where my kids take gymnastics lessons the other day. While the kids practice somersaults and handstands, he batters me with questions about life in America. Our talks range from what kind of eyewear is popular in the US or the cost of laser surgery to the differences between socialized healthcare and the US system or if pensions for retirees exist in both countries. Frantíšek is curious about English culture and the language, and it’s a perfect opportunity for me to practice my conversational Czech. Recently, he took our exchanges to a new level when he brought an article from current Czech news about pumpkins in the US for me to examine. “Read it,” he insisted, pushing the paper into my hands, then paused and said, “You can read in Czech, right?”

Depending on the language, differences between oral and written comprehension are often plentiful. Despite being reputedly, one of the world’s most difficult languages to master (as many Czechs will proudly declare), by being a phonetic language Czech is actually easier to “read” than other languages I’ve studied. As long as you know the basic rules of pronunciation which are relatively straightforward, it’s possible, even for younger readers, to master quite complicated texts. When my daughter’s first grade teacher asked us to buy Já, Baryk (Frantíšek Nepil) as the children’s first collective reading endeavor, I envisioned purchasing a text with big font and few words on the page, like the “First Readers” series available in English. Instead, I was surprised to discover page after page filled with text. After reading a paragraph or two with the help of my dictionary, I gave up all intentions of “pre-reading” the book and sent it on to school with Anna hoping she’ll soon have better Czech reading skills than her mother.

Being bi-literate in Czech has been less of a priority for me over the years, than having myself and my spoken needs clearly understood. Apart from needing to understand official documents and picking up the occasional Reflex or Týden publications to pursue for pleasure, I’m not particularly bothered about whether my comprehension of written Czech is letter perfect (much to my husband’s dismay). Since the first summer I spent in Prague at Charles University’s Slavonic Summer Studies, I haven’t been in a school setting learning Czech. I got through Frantíšek’s text, but there was quite a bit of formal vocabulary that I recognized, but didn’t really understand. It was a bit discouraging. I resolved to do better.

As school has gotten underway this fall, it’s been rewarding to witness Anna Lee and her classmates learning to read simple words and make short sentences in Czech. I’ve tried to spend time helping her learn her phonics and begin reading in English as well, although we’re both a little discouraged by the differences, particularly in vowel pronunciation. She often switches “a” with “o” and “e” with “i” or uses Czech pronunciation to sound out words. At times, I’ve wondered if we should wait until her Czech reading is cemented and then turn to the idiosyncrasies of spelling and pronunciation in English. But we persevere, knowing the sooner she can master reading in English too, the broader her linguistic horizon will be.

Like many parents from international families, when I think about my children’s linguistic future, I imagine it richer and brighter than my own. Of course, our children should grow up to be bi-literate in both their “native” languages and to be able to have a broad spectrum of work or study opportunities. While having bi-literacy as a goal, making it a reality is something that requires more thought and effort. Creating an atmosphere where reading and storytelling are valuable pastimes and giving our children access to English language books are critical steps along their journey to be bi-literate. Although my own love of libraries was instilled early in childhood with regular visits to the children’s section of the library in my Virginia hometown, until now my children haven’t had a similar opportunity to discover such a variety of English language books in the Prague public library system.

Filling a long-time gap, a new, groundbreaking project called “Storybridge” sponsored by Class Acts through a grant from the US Embassy has brought a huge, diverse collection of English language books to the Korunni branch of the Prague public library system. A spring book drive led by Class Acts founder, Leah Gaffen and supported by parents in Prague’s bilingual community, spurred organizations, schools, and individuals to donate 1300 children’s books to the very enthusiastic and receptive librarians at the Korunni branch. The books were bound and cataloged and then given gracious shelf space in a section of the library now colloquially called an “English Learner’s Den.”

In keeping with the organization’s innovative undertakings, the Storybridge project draws from its founders’ belief that using stories and their dramatic elements as a bridge between cultures is a vital way to bring people together. The project is multi-faceted, my friend and project spokesperson, Leah says. “The goal of the project is primarily to contribute to the quality and resources for the teaching of English in schools, but it also aims to increase children’s awareness of multiculturalism through storytelling and bring volunteers into libraries and schools.” For years, my children have enjoyed storytellings led by Leah, with help from with Mr. Snooze and a host of other storybook characters. Now they’ll have the chance to go to the shelves and pick the types of English stories they’d like to hear read or to eventually read for themselves.

In a kick-off press conference Wednesday, 2 November, the collection was presented to the public, complete with a storytelling for Czech elementary students led by Leah. Although I wasn’t able to attend the event, when I talked with another mother friend, she confirmed that the excitement among the attendees, adults as well as children, was evident. Several representatives from the various international donors, a list that included the Prague British School, Riverside School, the International Women’s Association of Prague, the Prague Christian Library, the English International School of Prague and the Christian International School of Prague came to show their support as well as representatives from the US Embassy.

Having skirted going to the city public library for years myself, partly because I didn’t have a need and partly because I was shy to go and ask for help or recommendations, I was delighted to learn that visitors to the Korunni branch can expect to find a helpful librarian who can give them direction in making their selection. When talking about the collection, Librarian Michaela Krýslová says, “[It] is extremely diverse – picture books, early readers’ books, teenage romances, horror stories, science fiction and fantasy. Children will be able to find books by their favorite authors which they know in their Czech translations (Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson), as well as to discover other famous writers whose books have not yet been translated (Julia Donaldson, Anne Fine, Michael Morpurgo.”

Although the details of learning to read are trickier than she’d like, Anna Lee’s enthusiasm for the idea of reading is already deeply rooted. She came from school the other day with a form for the Prague city library system and insisted that we go to the local branch library in Dejvice on Saturday to get her card. I couldn’t help getting excited as well once Anna Lee, card in hand, climbed the steps to the children’s collection. Although she was delighted to find a few Czech books to check out, admittedly, I was more anxious to take her across town to the Korunni branch to see the new English books we could now borrow.

Next Wednesday, 9 November, at 4 p.m. the first of a regular series of storytelling at the Korunni branch will begin. And, as another part of the Storybridge project, a teacher training project on storytelling, intended for English teachers, parents, students and volunteers, will be held in the library 26 November.

The introduction of the new English collection in the Czech library system is an important step forward toward promoting bi-literacy and multiculturalism in the Czech Republic, and I’m particularly excited about the hundreds of new English language books we’ll now have access to. I’m thinking of asking my friend Frantíšek if he doesn’t want to visit the library himself and together we can improve own our reading skills.

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