Multilingual students help kids ride the road to reading

3-year-old Omar Aierken reads a bilingual book with text in English and Uighur, his native language.

Thanks to multilingual Cornell students, 500 Ithaca-area children learning English as a second language each have a new book personalized just for them, with the English text translated into their native language.

Students translated “The Bus for Us” by Suzanne Bloom into 17 languages, from Arabic to Korean, Russian, Thai and Spanish. Labels with the translated text were laminated onto each page, so the children and their families can read the book in both English and their native language.

It’s the first book in English and Uighur, a Turkic language spoken mostly in Western China, that Omar Aierken, age 3 1/2, has ever seen. “He definitely likes the book,” said his mother, Sophie Aierken ’18, who did the Uighur translation for the project. Omar, whose first language is Uighur, often reads next to her as she does her schoolwork, she said. “It’s very exciting to me having a book with two languages that I would like my son to learn.”

The project, called One Book Welcome, is the brainchild of the Children’s Reading Connection, a new national nonprofit based in Ithaca that creates a culture in which all families read to their children as part of everyday life. As a pilot project the Reading Connection plans to launch nationwide, it gave books as gifts to kids enrolled in the Ithaca City School District’s prekindergarten program and in Tompkins Community Action’s Head Start program, said Brigid Hubberman, CEO of the Children’s Reading Connection.

“It’s not enough that you can borrow books from the library; families need to own books,” she said. “What’s unusual about this nonprofit is we work at the community level to change culture and weave reading throughout every activity, just like you feed and clothe your children.”

The book is a great vehicle for kids learning English as a second language, she said, because it’s about an experience that needs no translation: waiting for the bus.

As two children wait for their school bus, different vehicles drive by – from a taxi to a tow truck to a fire truck. As each approaches Tess asks, “Is this the bus for us, Gus?” He patiently answers, “No, Tess, this is a garbage truck,” and “No, Tess, this is an ice cream truck.” One by one, more kids join the line and play together. When the bus finally comes, Gus says, “Yes, this is the bus for us! Let’s go!”

To find translators, Hubberman reached out to Cornell’s International Students and Scholars Office, Cornell’s Translator Interpreter Program, and a program teaching adults English as a second language at Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (TST-BOCES). Those organizations sent the request to their email lists detailing the languages needing translation.

Aierken was surprised to see Uighur on the list. A native of China, she is the only Cornell undergraduate who speaks the language. “So, I thought, Ok, let me help them, as I know nobody speaks the language here,” said Aierken, who also speaks Manadarin. “I felt like it was my responsibility.”

The book is especially important to her, given that Uighur is not taught in schools; the policy is part of China’s effort to assimilate ethnic minorities. Many Uighur are illiterate in their own language, she said.

“Our cultural identity is being threatened, especially in terms of language,” she said. “I was really excited to do the translation, thinking about where I come from and all the changes there. The language is a deep part of me.”

The students’ translations were “essential” to One Book Welcome’s success, Hubberman said. “We couldn’t have done it without them. Yes, we could have given the book in just English, but the translations made the book’s impact that much richer and stronger and more powerful.”

Several Cornell students from Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed community service fraternity, also served up pizza and ice cream and interacted with kids Dec. 2 at a celebration for “The Bus for Us” at Boynton Middle School in Ithaca.

The event featured real vehicles from the book parked outside, art and translation activities, and a construction paper “road” on which kids dressed as vehicles and book characters could walk or run. “Welcome” signs in all 17 languages greeted the children and families as they entered.

“Literacy happens in the context of families,” Hubberman said. “If we can have families know that, we really can change the world.”

The Children’s Reading Connection is a member of Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, a business incubator supported by Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub