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Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!

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