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Friday, 24 August 2012

Children’s books are not only for children! Especially if you’re learning a new language!

As you know, my mother is bilingual. She learned English when she was 8 (in the ISH in the Hague, no less), studied and worked in English-speaking countries.

As a child, I had English at preschool. However, I got to the point where I could name the colours in English, and basically, that was it. Horrified by the poor state of my English, my mother decided to take action. And she did it in a way that is the most brilliant way to teach a child a language. Rather than enrolling me in English language classes, she decided to do it all by herself. We started with a simple grammar book. 

This was hard. The differences between Polish and English grammar are profound. As a Polish person, I couldn’t care less whether something happened before or after or during something else happened (had happened, was happening). English grammar is crazy. So, after we finished this book, I wasn’t any smarter than before. But, here’s where the next step comes in.

Knowing my passion for reading, my mother chose “Winnie the Pooh”, the best children’s book there is. It’s not very simple, but I had already read in in Polish a million times, and knew it by heart.

“Winnie the Pooh” is a brilliant book. It’s funny, and heart-warming, and touching, and sad. The Polish edition is a little gem of translation art, making it as good, or even better than the original.

And so, my mother made me read to her. At first, it was, to put it mildly, a struggle. While I knew the story very well, how could I tell that “ate” is the past tense of the verb “to eat”, or “went” is the past tense of the verb “to go”? It doesn’t make sense. These words are not even similar!

But soon something in my head went “click”. I was suddenly able to understand the words that just days ago sounded so hollow, and free of any meaning. I was able to make sense of sentences, and they suddenly worked together to make up a story. Soon, it became fun.

When we finished “Winnie the Pooh”, we read through “the House on Pooh Corner”, and then the classic poems “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six”. When we were done with that, it was “Alice in Wonderland” and the next part, “Through the Looking Glass”, both of them books that are not at all meant for children!

We then made a big step. We started reading ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. But at that point reading aloud became extremely difficult, because my eyes were faster than my mouth. So I continued reading alone. ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” first, then the slightly easier “Animal Farm”. I’ve been reading in English ever since, and I never stopped. I also went through English classes- many of them- but this is how it started.

My mother couldn’t have had a better idea to get me started learning and loving the English language. Also, it had a great benefit of allowing me to spend some time with her on activity that was just for me! While I learned English when I was a child, I still do this when I learn a new language- I did it with French, and I am planning to do the same thing with Dutch.

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  1. It's good to know that it's possible to learn so much of another language this way! As an adult, I have joined a French book club, so I now read 2 books a month in French. It is still quite slow-going, although faster on the Kindle, since I can look up words without running to the dictionary! Hopefully it will make a difference to my French after a while, though I think it's best to do all these things as a child :-)

    1. Yes, it's good- with books you get quite a wider vocabulary than with "just" speaking. But yes, it takes longer, and it's not easy. It wasn't easy for me as a child, either. I love the Kindle, too- with it's automatic Thesaurus function. It won't be easier for a child, I think because adults have a much wider vocabulary and can make connections between languages. It also depends on the language- I remember my father telling me that you need much more vocabulary to speak French- and I think I agree- French children's book already required a very good knowledge of words, and the sentences were much longer than with children's books in other languages.

  2. We just decided to take a similar approach with teaching some Latvian to Daniel and bought a comic book and a couple of Disney cartoons with Latvian sound. Let's see it it works better than those boring, thick grammar books! On the up side we'll surely be able to reuse them once we have kids :)

    1. Brilliant idea! And taking good children's books, and comics will make learning fun! And to tell the truth, grammar books never really worked for me. I had to learn to use the language to understand it, so it always took me longer to learn, but once I did I could use it pretty well while other children were stuck in thinking 'now I should use this tense because..." And the children factor is important as well- if you're planning to raise bilingual children- and I think you will!

  3. I did the same when I learned dutch (in my late 30ies) by reading the children's books to my son. I also listened to the radio, TV and began to talk quite soon. In my opinion, to teach preschool children (or even children up to 8 years) using a grammar is useless because they don't have - in most cases - the necessary notions to understand and they don't reflect about grammar in a metalinguistic way (as adults sometimes do when learning a new language). I learned french when I was 6 (and already spoke german and italian) and the approach was "learning by talking", building up the vocabulary in a very natural way. This worked for me then and still does now.

    1. Ute, I totally agree- children learn grammar by listening and repeating rather than by rules. I still learn languages that way- and knowing a language already similar to the one you're learning (like German and Dutch). I had 2 years of Dutch classes, and now I am able to have a conversation, and basically communicate whatever I want. However, I want to start reading in Dutch- and since I already know German I don't have to start with children's books. The one you linked to on your profile was pretty interesting- I guess I can read it in Dutch.


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