Children's Books: Passport to the Bilingual Life

My Thai teacher realized it was time for a radical intervention.

"Put away your textbook, and try this instead," she said, handing me the Thai translation of The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff.

I'd read that book about twelve times by the time I was six, way before I knew about politerary incorrectness — phrase coined by self, I think. My parents even have an old cassette recording of a wee version of me reading it when we lived in London, my British accent intact. (Note: I was interested to read in Alison Lurie's December 16, 2004 article in The New York Review of Books, The Royal Family, that "Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African 'savages'; he decided years ago that Babar's Picnic will never be reprinted.")

By the end of Babar's story in Thai, my meager store of memorized vocabulary had quadrupled. I was starting to get the language — the way sentences were formed, the rhythm of conversation, the subtleties of Thai humor. Best of all, I was questioning my conviction about being a dunderhead when it came to learning another language as an adult.

If you want to get to the next step in a second language, why not try this yourself? Find one of your favorite children's books, one that you know because you've re-read it so many times, and read the translation. Here, for example, are Harry Potter's adventures in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. (Note: these would also be great to add to a library collection serving bilingual immigrant kids.)


zandria said…
I've heard that before, about reading children's books in a foreign language (unfortunately, I don't speak any other languages). It makes sense because when you're first starting out, your level of comprehension in that new language is just like a child's. Interesting stuff. :)

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Emmaco said…
Hi Mitali - I'm here via Jen Robinson.

I'll second the idea of reading children's books to help learn another language. I found Tin Tin great in Spanish and have progressed to Harry Potter (no helpful pictures but at least I know the basic story). Although I'm still not anywhere near fluent it's been a great help learning new words - and not just ones like magic wand!
a. fortis said…
Great post. I completely agree with you, Mitali! I can personally vouch for that myself. I like to read middle grade and YA books in Welsh, which I've been learning (at a very slow rate) for a number of years, and they're great because of A) the shorter length, B) the less advanced vocab, and C) they get me accustomed to more colloquial language. And yes, I have Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harri Potter a Maen yr Athronydd), but the made-up words make that one a bit difficult... :)
Jennifer said…
What an interesting concept! I think that it probably would help one become truly conversational to read it in a book, especially if you don't have much access to native speakers. Hmmm.
Genevieve said…
I've done this (not always with children's books, but always with books I know very well). Before I went to Spain, I read The Secret Garden and Pride and Prejudice in Spanish.

I got my son some Boynton books in Spanish -- much easier than his usual reads, but he knew exactly what they meant, which helped raise his confidence.