Multilingual Children’s Books
Alphabet Soup at Kindergarten

Children should come into contact with a number of different languages as early on as possible.
Children should come into contact with a number of different languages as early on as possible. | Photo: Selin Yurdakul © iStockphoto

A little wolf hides at a kindergarten and comes out at night to play with their toys. It knocks down building blocks, paints and looks at picture books. And it cooks alphabet soup on the doll’s kitchen stove for the dolls and cuddly toys.

This children’s story by Silvia Hüsler is called Besuch vom kleinen Wolf. Or La visite du petit loup, La visita del piccolo lupo, Vizitё nga ujku i vogёl or Kücük kurdun ziyareti. You can read the story in eight languages, from A for Albanian and F for French to T for Tamil, and you only need to pick up one book. The story is also available to download from the publisher’s website in another twenty languages.

Educated rather than everyday language

Nowadays, there is wide agreement among education, linguistics and political experts that children should come into contact with a number of different languages as early on as possible. While every child benefits from learning a foreign language at an early age, supporting children from immigrant families in using their native languages plays a particularly important role. Books and stories in which these languages are used have a special function. “Books use an educated language that differs from everyday language,” says Hamburg educationalist Professor Ursula Neumann. “The children find words they did not previously know or familiar words in unfamiliar contexts. They can also extend their linguistic skills in the areas of grammar and phonetics.”

Learning languages and enhancing a sense of self

Reading aloud also provides a good opportunity for adults and children to engage in conversation in which the children can use the words they have learnt right away. And reading by themselves also promotes children’s linguistic competence. Neumann believes that for the development of children’s personalities it is important for the children’s native languages to be represented in books at kindergarten and school and in libraries. “If children grow up with two languages, that is part of their personality.” Books in the original language and multilingual books are used at intercultural events and readings. At such events, immigrants, such as parents or grandparents, are often involved as readers or narrators.

German-speaking children, too can benefit from books that are written completely or partly in a different language. “Everyone should have an opportunity to hold and look at a book in Arabic, for example. You have to open it “from the back”, you read it the other way around! And the writing looks completely different!” says Hildegard Pohl. The bookseller responded to this need for original-language and multilingual children’s books more than ten years by setting up an international children’s bookshop.

Opening up a new market

“Besuch vom kleinen Wolf“ by Silvia Hüsler “Besuch vom kleinen Wolf“ by Silvia Hüsler | Photo: © Brigg Pädagogik Verlag GmbH “In the late seventies and early eighties, more and more foreign children who did not speak German were coming to kindergarten,” recalls Silvia Hüsler, who was training kindergarten teachers at the time. “But subjects relating to intercultural coexistence were addressed in children’s books in a way that was very questionable, if at all. For example, there was a story about a poor Turkish boy whose mother did not speak any German and who only impressed the others by saving a girl from drowning.” Hüsler was one of the first authors writing in German who decided to write books using the family languages of children with a migration background in which intercultural coexistence is presented not as problematical but as beneficial.

Many writers and publishers now take the same approach, producing multilingual children’s books. “Sales of these books have increased greatly in recent years,” says bookseller Hildegard Pohl, who meanwhile sells reading material in some fifty languages. “Smaller publishers, too, place their books with wholesalers, enabling them to find their way into the bookshops, and the larger publishers also publish some original-language, bilingual and multilingual titles.” Some, like Hüsler, set out to produce books that use a number of different languages, while others translate successful foreign books. According to Pohl, the market for books in German and English and German and Turkish is saturated. However, the books available in Eastern European languages, Greek, Kurdish, Albanian, Persian and Arabic, as well as in the foreign languages taught at school - Spanish, French and Italian - do not yet meet the demand.

The Lesespass (Enjoy Reading) Initiative was set up in September 2010 by the Goethe-Institut, Stiftung Lesen and Bertelsmann AG to promote linguistic and multilingual competence. Over a period of two years, training sessions for kindergarten and primary school teachers, theatre projects and other activities are being held in Gütersloh with the aim of improving the reading ability of children and teenagers from families that do not encourage reading. The experience gained in the initiative is also to benefit other cities and Länder.


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Fremde Welten in Kinder- und Jugendbüchern – die Empfehlungen des Kinderbuchfonds Baobab (2010/2011)