A little mouse walks into the Lost & Found, but can only speak Spanish. How will Mr and Mrs Frog figure out what the mouse is missing…? We speak to author Mark Pallis about ‘The Fabulous Lost and Found’ and how these bilingual story books can teach you and your children 50 words and phrases in a second language.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp: Where did the idea for the first book come from? What’s your background/interest in language teaching or language acquisition?
Mark Pallis: When I was 21, I set up a legal aid clinic for refugees. Sitting in my office in Cairo, I’d meet people from Sierra Leone, Congo, Iraq and Sudan. They’d tell me why they’d fled and I would prepare their cases. But to get to a point where they were willing to share those painful stories, we had to build a relationship of trust. I asked myself, How do I do that: form a bond, show respect, and yet break the ice with a stranger? For me, it was to talk to them in their own language. ‘Aw Di bodi?’ I would ask clients from Sierra Leone. They’d smile, taken aback, and reply in Krio, ‘Di Bodi fayn.’ Then I’d apologise for my language skills: ‘Ah no sabi tok Krio fayn fayn.’ And we’d share a chuckle. Somehow just that simple gesture of wanting to engage, of being seen to be making an effort to make them feel at home was enough to set us off. I’ve been like that my whole life. I now speak Italian, French and German and can tell jokes or sing a little song in Tagalog, Greek, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Krio and Kupsabiny (a Ugandan language). I can’t imagine my life without it.
Today, like never before, I feel we need more of that empathy between people from different countries. This book is an engaging story that I hope kids will love in its own right. But it’s also my way of helping the youngest children, my own included, engage with a foreign language, learn to empathise with strangers and ultimately build a love of languages. The possibility that after a few reads, kids will be able to go up to a native speaker and tell them in their own language: ‘I’ve lost my hat,’ fills me with joy. Imagine the reaction! Think of how proud the child will feel. So whether you come to the book because your family has a deliciously mixed international heritage, like mine (English, Greek, Italian and French) , or simply for the fun of it, the simple fact of engaging with another language is going to an enriching experience for everyone.
RAK: And how did you come to work with the illustrator Peter Baynton?
MP: Peter is an old friend. We have been saying for years that we should do something together but our schedules never aligned. Until now! I’m so excited to be working with him. He has a very rare talent for imbuing real character to the creatures that he draws, Plus I just love his style!
RAK: What made you realise there was a gap in the market for this kind of interactive bilingual book?
MP: Publishers tend to concentrate their resources developing books for languages where there are lots of speakers, like Spanish or French. And that means that important, but less commonly spoken languages, are not so well served. I think that’s a shame. Why shouldn’t everyone to be able to have an enjoyable way to introduce a child to their favourite language? Until recently. it wouldn’t have been possible, simply because of the economics of printing and distributing the books. However, advances in technology mean that we can now print books for readers on demand and have them delivered the very next day! So I decided to help provide really high quality resources for all kinds of under-served languages.
And secondly, I feel like the current books on the market don’t cut it. There’s basically three options: picture dictionaries, that often look wonderful but fail to provide any context or narrative (much as adults wouldn’t actually read a dictionary, kids don’t either!); second is books that are 100% in the new language. This is OK for board books for the youngest kids, but when children get to two years old or more, they need story to keep them engaged. And when you’re introducing a new language to someone who doesn’t speak it at all, if that child has no points of reference the story, they can be overwhelmed and lose interest. The final option is dual language stories, where the text is shown in two languages at once. For me, these suffer because when you switch to the new language, you don’t take the child with you, you’re just talking ‘at’ them and it can be hard for them to follow. There had to be a way to make it more fun, and more engaging. So I reached out to language experts who helped me get up to speed with all the latest research. I used everything I knew from my time working in Kids TV and advertising, then workshopped with parents and teachers until finally we had it just right: the Story-Powered Language Learning Method.
RAK: Tell us about the ‘Story-powered Language Learning Method’. How does it work and how did you come across the idea?
MP: I invented it! The Story-powered Language Learning Method taps into a child’s natural abilities and is an effective way to learn and build confidence. How my learning method works: We create an emotionally engaging and funny story for children and adults to enjoy together, just like any other picture book. Studies show that social interaction, like enjoying a book together, is critical in language learning. Through the story, we introduce a relatable character who speaks only in the new language. This helps build empathy and a positive attitude towards people who speak different languages. These are both important aspects in laying the foundations for lasting language acquisition in a child’s life. As the story progresses, the child naturally works with the characters to discover the meanings of a wide range of fun new words. Strategic use of humour ensures that this subconscious learning is rewarded with laughter; the child feels good and the first seeds of a lifelong love of language are sown.
RAK: Why did you choose to approach language learning in this way?
MP: Our audience is kids aged 2 to 7. Research has shown that the time between a child’s birth and their sixth or seventh birthday is a ‘golden period’ when they are most receptive to new languages. That’s because they have an in-built ability to distinguish the sounds they hear, and make sense of them. It’s also well known that children learn best when they feel secure, happy, valued and listened to.
RAK: How have you dealt with the challenge of commissioning translations into so many other languages? Have there been difficulties with anything, for instance the fonts or layout with any languages?
MP: I want every book to be authentic and genuine, and so the mouse’s simple sentences are first translated by one translator, then checked by another, and then finally workshopped by a native speaker just to make sure that everything is correct and feels very natural. It’s certainly a time intensive approach, but it’s worth it. I feel that each book really stands on its own and doesn’t feel like a copy and paste ‘google translate’ type thing. For Arabic and Hebrew I had to get to grips with combining left to right and left to right text, but that was pretty quickly overcome. Otherwise, it’s been pretty fun seeing how similar words are in different languages. I’ve really enjoyed the process.
RAK: What sort of feedback have you had from teachers or families reading these books with their children? Has anything surprised you about the reception?
MP: It’s been so wonderful. I’ve had emails and tweets and instagrams. People have sent me videos of their kids speaking the words in the new language for the first time. I’m so so happy about how it’s gone. It really warms the heart and makes all the hard work worthwhile. The one surprise has been how well it’s gone down with older and grown-up readers. I imagined it as a kids’ book but I’ve had some lovely feedback from people who’ve told me that it’s been a fun way for them to help build their vocabulary.
RAK: What’s next for you, the illustrator and translators? Will there be others in the series? Do you have any other bilingual scenarios up your sleeve?
MP: Lots more! The next book is written and Peter is playing with the cover at the moment. We are hoping to have it out in time for Christmas next year. And I’m going to be introducing a new set of stories, with new characters and a new illustrator. So it’s all go at Neu Westend Press.
Thank you, Mark and good luck with the launch of the new translations and new stories!
Mark Pallis is a lifelong lover of language. He wrote episodes for the Daytime Emmy winning Tales of Peter Rabbit and sitting on the Executive Committee of the Children’s Media Foundation. He is represented by the BKS Agency and his first children’s book ‘Crab and Whale’ has been translated into five languages. He lives with his wife and two young children.
Peter Baynton is an animator, director and illustrator based in London. He was the Animation Director of the UK’s Channel 4’s 2019 Christmas film, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, adapted from Judith Kerr’s classic book. He has been directing short films, music videos and commercials for twelve years, picking up over 25 awards at film festivals around the world along the way. He was enchanted by Mark’s manuscript for The Fabulous Lost and Found.
The Fabulous Lost and Found is published by Neu Westend Press