ALIX NORMAN discovers why something we do naturally on this island is the basis of language learning, and an important aspect of children’s books

In Cyprus, everyone speaks at least two languages. Well, almost everyone…

According to a recent study, 90 per cent of the island speaks two tongues – one of the highest percentages on the continent, and well above the EU average of 65 per cent bilingualism.

Many of us speak even more. Greek, English and Turkish are the obvious three. But the 2011 census suggests a significant number of residents are fluent in Russian, Romanian and Bulgarian, closely followed by Arabic, Filipino and Sri Lankan.

The 2021 data having not yet been released, this may well have changed in the last decade. But still, it makes you wonder about the languages we learnt in school, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I certainly wasn’t taught Tagalog in the classroom, useful though it might have been. Instead, I did the usual: French, German, and Spanish – not tongues you hear much on this island.

But I could be wrong – according to the Eurobarometer, 11 per cent of us can speak French, five per cent German, and two per cent Spanish. And these three are still considered amongst the most useful languages to know – especially now we’re all on the worldwide web.

French is the second-most widely spoken language in Europe, and more people speak French outside France than in it. And that’s not just Canada: of the top five fastest-growing African economies, French is the official language in three, while in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Vietnam, and Cambodia, French rather than English is the lingua franca.

Over 100 million people surf the net in French, and (according to Forbes) by 2050, there will be 750 million French speakers around the world. 

“French is the language of fashion and the arts, of culture,” says lawyer and children’s author Elena Joannides, who speaks the language, along with English, Greek and Spanish. “And not only is it spoken around the world, but it’s also one of the most frequently studied second languages.”

Then there’s Spanish, which has over 500 million native speakers – 600 million if you include second-language speakers. The official tongue of over 20 nations, Spanish is the fourth most-spoken language after English, Mandarin, and Hindustani, as well as the world’s most widely spoken Romance language.

It’s also, says Kevin Brown a fellow children’s author, one of the easiest languages to learn. “The Spanish alphabet is phonetic, so it’s easy to read. The vocabulary is similar to that of French, Italian and Portuguese – which means you can quickly gain a basic understanding of all four. And Spanish gives you huge access to a massive community; it unlocks a door to the world.”

Both Elena and Kevin are devotees of language learning. Both of them are passing on their love to their children, recognising that the more languages you know nowadays, the more opportunities await. But both have also gone one step a further in their efforts, turning what began as bedtime stories for their kids into bilingual contextual storybooks.

Browse any bookshop and you’ll find multiple two-language books – tales with the English text on one page and Greek on the next; or German at the start and Italian at the end. But what Kevin and Elena have done is something different – their books actually insert foreign words into the text so that they can be understood from context. Hence, bilingual contextual.

Elena Joannides, author of ‘Meli and Mac, Rendez-vous with a Flamingo’

“This is called code switching,” says Kevin, who has a Master’s in Education. “It’s what we consider authentic communication, the basis of language learning.

“You hear this everywhere in Cyprus,” he adds. “Someone will say ‘ti kanis; everything okay?’ or tell you they’re ‘off to the periptero for ice’. When you insert foreign words into context, they become much easier to absorb and learn.”

This is wholly different, he explains, from the way languages used to be taught. “Nobody sits around conjugating the second person plural! We all communicate authentically, through conversation – and that’s how best to learn a new language.”

Both Elena and Kevin’s children’s books do exactly that: inserting foreign words into English sentences in a way that makes them easily understood and remembered.

Elena’s ‘Meli & Mac: Rendez-vous with a Flamingo’ sees our young protagonists help a French-speaking flamingo find his way to the Shrimp Extravaganza at Larnaca Salt Lake as we learn phrases such as ‘Je m’appelle’ and ‘Je suis perdu’ – all cleverly inserted into context.

And Kevin’s rhyming ‘Gato, Pato & the very Small Mouse’ takes us on a whimsical journey through America (visiting el mar, before heading down to Texas and then sur into the desert), as we learn from context and illustration what each new word means.

Both books stem from their authors’ love of language, and their desire to offer children the opportunities inherent in speaking multiple languages. And both agree this is a process that should be natural and enjoyable.

Rendez-vous with a Flamingo is just the beginning,” says Elena, noting that her characters will soon be heading out on new adventures that take in Italian, Spanish and Greek.

“Greek may be a bit more challenging given that the alphabet is different. But I’m passionate about encouraging children to engage with the outside world, use their imagination and learn something new through beautifully illustrated adventures. And as the series develops, I’m hoping all my readers – young and old – both learn from and enjoy the books.”

Kevin agrees. “Language learning is not supposed to be a punishment,” he concludes. “It’s meant to be fun; to open doors to a whole new culture.”

‘Gato, Pato & the Very Small Mouse’ is also the first of many, though Kevin intends to focus primarily on Spanish.

“This book, which will be the first in a series, began as a way to celebrate my heritage and introduce my four-year-old daughter to her roots. Because, in this global world, multiple languages equal multiple opportunities. And I think that’s something we all want for our kids, isn’t it?”

For more details on ‘Gato, Pato & the Very Small Mouse’ visit the Instagram account @minabocks

For more details on ‘Meli & Mac’, visit

Age range for both is roughly from three to eleven