“What Are You Reading For?”: Why I Read to My Bilingual Child

“What Are You Reading For?”: Why I Read to My Bilingual Child

Stephen Greene argues that his experiences with raising his bilingual son in Brazil have reinforced the importance of making time to read together every night.

For more information on the #DadsRead campaign and how YOU can participate, click HERE.


The late, great, Bill Hicks had a particularly funny riff in his stand-up routine where he’s asked by a waitress in a waffle house what he is reading for. He is initially stumped for an answer as he realises that it is a question he has never been asked. He had been asked about what he was reading, but not what he was reading for.

Thanks to Bill Hicks (and if you want to see his answer, check out this video, but be warned, this is Bill Hicks, so there is plenty of swearing), I have had time to formulate my own answer this question. When my son was born almost three years ago, I then had to change the question somewhat to “What are you reading to your son for?”

There are many answers that I could give to this question. Perhaps the five most important answers for me are:

1. I hope to instil a love of reading which will serve my son well culturally, academically, and economically for the rest of his life.
2. By reading to my son at night, I have an excellent bonding opportunity and it provides a great way for him to relax and get ready for sleep.
3. It is a way to light the fires of his imagination.
4. Reading provides a window onto different cultures both past and present.
5. Readers usually have a far wider vocabulary than people who rarely read.

Minority Language

The last two points are of particular importance to me because I am British, but I live in Brazil and, along with my Brazilian wife, we are bringing up our son to be bilingual in Portuguese and English. Portuguese is the majority language because we encounter it all the time—at school, on the street, with friends and family.

English, on the other hand, is the minority language because we almost never encounter it in the community. According to some estimates, a child needs up to 30% of their language exposure to be in the minority language if they are to become fluent in it, so you can see that we have to be very proactive in finding opportunities to expose him to as much English as possible.

And so, when I read to my son at bedtime, not only am I doing all of the above points, but I am also helping him to learn a language he might otherwise have more difficulties with. All of the rhythms, rhyme, alliteration, and vocabulary that are important for any child are doubly so for mine because he just wouldn’t hear it at from any other source. At his pre-school, the teacher reads to him, but in Portuguese. His vovó (granny) reads to him in Portuguese. When we go to storytelling afternoons at bookshops around the city, it is always in Portuguese.

His daddy is the one who reads to him in English.

Minority Culture

But it isn’t just a language that he is picking up. The books that I read, or had read to me, as a child have formed part of my cultural identity. Books like The Famous Five and Danny the Champion of the World and Asterix and Obelix thrilled and entertained me, as well as plugging me into the British/European culture of my age. Just as you can tell the age of a person by the kids’ programmes they watched, so too can you have a good guess about where and when an adult came from by having a conversation about the books they read as kids.

Since he was born, we have been reading The Gruffalo to our son so that now he can almost recite the whole story by heart. I am convinced that in the future there will be references to “purple prickles all over his back” in songs or comedies or in conversations down the pub that only somebody who has read the book a million times is going to get. And the same goes for the Harry Potter books, or whatever new publishing phenomenon springs up to take its place for the next generation.

Bill Hicks couldn’t find an answer to the question “What are you reading for?” in his lifetime. I hope my son will one day be able to give an answer in two languages.


Credit: Image–Bell and Jeff/Flickr

About Stephen Greene

Stephen lives in Curitiba in the south of Brazil with his wife and son. He is an English teacher, teacher trainer, and author of English learning materials. He blogs about being a dad to a bilingual family in Brazil at headoftheheard.com and about teaching English at tmenglish.org. You can also find him on Twitter @hoftheh


  1. Excellent reasons to read to your son and what a great campaign #DadsRead is! Reading is such a great way to fill in the gaps our bilingual children might have in their vocabularies – I read to my 8-year old daughter on a daily basis (which she continues to enjoy even if she’s half way her first Harry Potter), it is, as you so well say, an excellent bonding opportunity!

    • Hi Annika, and thanks for leaving your comment.

      I am glad you appreciate the importance of this project, and I am also glad that you and your daughter are able to bond while reading. Unfortunately, I am going to have to wait a few years yet before I can start with Harry Potter, but I’m sure we’ll find some other excellent stuff in the meantime.

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