Leaving a window open: reading a second language

A couple years ago, I got into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I spent most of a summer with the second book propped open, reading at night. The story was fairly gothic, set in rainy Barcelona. I learned to pleasure-read Spanish by gist rather than by letter, so the feeling of reading by dreaming was heightened. I found that I couldn’t leave the book open overnight; I had the same feeling as if I’d left a window open, letting rain blow in.

I mention a “grownup” book to begin a children’s lit blog post for a couple of reasons. First is that I have always wished I could remember learning how to read–what it felt like to figure out that written words meant something and could make me feel vicariously. Like Lily and Luna I’ve retained a fascination with the alphabet, and am continually awed at the ways words can be combined in writing to accomplish things that ordinary speech can’t. But as far as that initial flash of meaning, the only time I came close to reliving it was learning Spanish as a teen and adult. “Immersion” was almost totally through print, which is slower but worthwhile. When I finished the book that summer, I felt fiercely glad for a moment, grateful that the language had stories in it and I could read them–thanks to good teachers and good books.

Learning another language also underlines the importance of good children’s books, I think. Often people who are learning English will read picture books or graphic novels like Tintin or Bone to get a visual reinforcement of their vocabulary and grammar. If the student is an adult, it helps if the story is engaging. Sometimes lately I’m inclined to recommend the snarky or offbeat, depending on the person’s taste and reading level.

Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, for example. The story on its face is exactly what the cover says: a disgruntled bear is interrogating various forest animals about the whereabouts of his missing hat. The print is large and the sentences fairly simple, but a sly twist ending makes the story pretty sophisticated. (See also: This Is Not My Hat.)

For people who want to test out what they’ve already learned, it’s fun to find a novel in your language of choice and compare it with the translation. You can’t do better than Harry Potter for variety: Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian, German, and Chinese.

So, if you want to eventually immerse yourself in another language, a good children’s book can be a great way to start, and leads to more and longer stories later. Just don’t let the rain in.

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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