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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!

The Houses of Parliament, the seat of British politics

Politics is good for you (and your language learning!)

We’ve all had enough of politics, right? Well, a bit of it might be good for you, if you’re learning a foreign language.

One of the biggest advantages of following politics in your target language is not just in new vocabulary learnt. It’s about the polemic – the skill of explaining and arguing a point. The skill of using language for argument and persuasion – rhetoric – is fundamental if you’re preparing for spoken exams that require you to discuss an issue, for example.

In fact, it’s a vital skill even if you’re not aiming for A-level oral exam stardom. Learning a language truly to communicate means being able to discuss, and not simply state facts. And if politics is anything, it’s an arena for (sometimes very heated) discussion. Introducing some politics into your language learning can provide a communicative dynamic that other topics struggle to ignite.

A new picture – or the wider picture?

So with so much politics about these days, why should we go after even more? Well, if you’re sick of politics in your own country, overseas political scuffles can be a welcome distraction. On the other hand, you can gain a fuller picture of your home country issues by following how they are perceived abroad. It’s truly fascinating as a British learner to see how political parties in other countries approach topics like Brexit. You can gain a unique perspective on your own country that the home media will never provide.

Following overseas political developments pays off in other ways, too. Through widening your own political lens, you appreciate much more the interconnectedness of the world. As linguists, we’re already great at seeing beyond borders. But bringing an explicitly political slant into your learning really plugs you into this global aspect of humanity.

Where to start

As with all authentic materials, the best place to start is personal interest. There’s little fun in only following a kind of politics that you don’t subscribe to in your home country. So begin with the political party / parties you support, and find their analogues in the target language country.

Doing this is as simple as googling “political parties in [your target language country here]”. You should get plenty of results, with Wikipedia articles being amongst the most useful. The following table from Wikipedia, for example, shows not only the current parliamentary parties in Norway, but also lists their ideologies. Great for matching your own politics to a target language party!

Politics in Norway - parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Politics in Norway – parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Once you’ve found a party / parties you’re have an interest in, take to social media to find out more. Major parties will invariably have a Facebook and Twitter account to follow. Their websites may also have blogs or news feeds, which you can add to your news reader if you have one (Feedly is quite good).

It’s always a good idea to follow target language accounts in your daily social media feeds. For one thing, it means that you’ll regularly be exposed to snippets of language, even when you’re not in ‘learning mode’. It helps to maintain a degree of language immersion in your day-to-day, which ultimately will lead to greater fluency.

Politics : the perfect package for new language

Once subscribed, the format of the language can be ideal for learning. Political language on social media is packaged perfectly for this purpose – possibly for all the wrong reasons! For one thing, it regularly consists of largely superficial soundbites. However, these represent concise, condensed nuggets of vocabulary and structure, and can be very easy to memorise. Consequently, you can work them into your own conversations or discussions in the language without too much effort.

Additionally, the format of some social media platforms is perfect for presenting language to learners. Twitter, with its character limit, forces the author to make snappy, impactful arguments in just a few words. Logical argument and rhetoric can often become keener under these circumstances, when the ‘fluff’ is pared down.

Twitter feed of the German SPD

Twitter feed of the German SPD

There is, of course, the danger of the ‘filter bubble’ or ‘echo chamber’. If you only follow parties you broadly agree with, you will lack a challenge to your argument. If you can stomach it – and are a real sucker for political punishment – it can be useful to follow some opponent organisations too.

Alternatively, to supplement all this you can also follow political news on target language news sites. In German, for example, I find that Spiegel.de and the Frankfurter Allgemeine sites are superb for political news and commentary. Their advantage is (at least in theory) being non-partisan with a more balanced overview. The disadvantage is that they contain much weightier, wordier texts – a far cry from the soundbites and slogans of political feeds.

Control the flow and reap the benefits

As with all things, moderation is important. I’ve written an earlier post on the importance of detoxifying your social media feeds. Politics can be frustrating and exhausting to follow. But if you make it work for you as a linguist, it can be a real boon to your language (and wider) learning.