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DRIN - Visions for Children's Literature
Birdy words from the dill-box – Multilingualism and poetical writing for children

A picture with screen shots from translating tools
© Andrea Karimé

As part of the DRIN writers’ and illustrators workshop that is currently ongoing, Andrea Karimé offers her reflections on multilingualism and poetical writing for children. This is a transcript of her lecture.

By Andrea Karimé

It is a great honour for me to be invited to speak about my writing practice in the context of the DRIN project. I will talk about poetry and multilingualism, and I will do this in English, even though I have never been to, let alone lived in, an English-speaking country, and even though English is a language I don't often need to express myself in. So, I'm stepping out of my comfort zone and into a space of insecurity, that many people here in Germany whose mother tongue is not German are familiar with. The big difference with me is that I have a choice. I will have the choice at the end of this lecture whether I will repeat it: Reading in a language that is not my mother tongue.

I will talk about multilingualism in children's literature, although I am not multilingual in the common sense. Nevertheless, I grew up with many languages, and this shapes my writing. I don’t speak Arabic, but the language belongs to me.

Multilingualism often is a special potential of BIPoC. A lot of you speak several languages privately or work in different languages. Some of us have grown up with languages that are familiar to us but which we cannot speak. For example, when a parent speaks another language but does not pass it on to their child for a variety of reasons. This is multilingualism and a potential as well.

We all draw from what I call the dill-box.

Dill, the beautiful cucumber herb for salad, sounds like dil, which means language/tongue in Turkish. And this is a big deal for me as a poet and children’s books writer. Through the principle of the so-called "false friends", kinship is created here through sound. And an image is created. The image of a fine green growing spicy language, perhaps. Multi-lingual authors have the possibility to write from their dill-boxes. Add to that the fact that dil means heart in several languages, such as Hindi and Urdu, and our box turns into a language heart box. Or heart language box. But more later.

It is my ambition to draw attention to these potentials. It is a way to reflect the reality in diverse society and to represent more and more diverse children's realities.

Also, I strongly believe that in times when more and more discriminatory potentials of words and language are revealed, it becomes more and more important to make up new language in children’s literature. And for this, poetical writing and multilingualism can become a good companion.

In what follows, I first outline the various aspects of multilingualism as a characteristic of childhood, and then move on to concrete practices. In this context, I refer to my working techniques as well as those of other colleagues.

Let's tell multilingualism. Let's tell stories of non-colonial languages. Let's represent realities that have been excluded from children's literature.

Multilingualism 1: Growing up with wordy birds

I grew up with five languages. My Lebanese father knew four languages besides Arabic. And words from these languages flew around in my childhood like colourful mysterious magic birds. Wordy birds. Mischmaul, Türktschekonnuschuyorum, comonsawa. Et cetera. I didn't understand most of it. Our family language was German, the others were magic. That's why I started collecting. I made lists, and when my father had time, which unfortunately was not often, he translated my favourite words into 4 other languages.

But I never really learned Arabic.

Here I feel a kinship with Etel Adnan. The polyglot artist and poet, who grew up in Beirut, never learned Arabic. Back then, between the two world wars, the language

"… became a second-class language in its own country!” she wrote in her essay “Writing in a foreign language!" which is included in the wonderful collection" Storm without Wind", which gathers much of her writing and conversations.

"Gradually, a whole generation of boys and girls felt to be head and shoulders above poor children who did not go to school and spoke only Arabic. Arabic was equated with backwardness and ignominy. Years later I learned that something like this happened throughout the French colonial empire ...”

This deep devaluation, which leads to not teaching one's own child the mother tongue, is something my father also brought with him to Germany in the 1960s.

Arabic was a kind of secret language for me, a musical language in which feelings and information were conveyed that were not accessible to me, as a component of a foreignness that was part of my childhood.  I tried to imitate this language. Which was about the same as when birds imitate humans. And vice versa. They don't understand the real meaning. But what then emerges is described beautifully by Yoko Tawada, a wonderful multilingual writer from Berlin, at the end of her poetry lecture "Transformations". The appropriation of a language by the imagination.

"A bird that imitates a human language understands neither the content nor the so-called grammar of the language. Nor will humans ever be able to understand bird language. But a concentrated imitation can - like dreams - present clear images of the foreign language!"

One could also speak of a fantastic translation.

I imitated my father's bird language. But one day I discovered the magic of translingualism.

My first conscious trip to Lebanon was when I was 8 years old. I had only been there once before, but as a baby, so I have no memory of it. Shortly before, in my German grandparents' living room, my father taught me my first Arabic word. It was Sunday afternoon. The adults were talking about the upcoming trip. I listened attentively, as I was already very excited. Suddenly my father turned to me. "You should learn some Arabic!" He pointed to his glass and said something that sounded like, "Attini may!" What? "May means water!" he explained. I was baffled.

May had always been a magic word for me. It had the power to bring my birthday, and the knee socks I was finally allowed to put on after a long winter. May smelled of bells and greenery, meant euphony and well-being, in short it was a wonderful story.

From now on, my beloved word May tasted of cool entirely transparent liquid. May became the magical month of water. I discovered an Arabic German homonym. In grammar we call this “false friends”. But for me that was only a miracle, and it was the beginning of the lifelong friendship of Arabic and German words in my head.

Many years later, I set out on a journey to explore the language of my father, with whom I have long been out of contact. I attended lessons in standard Arabic (al *arabi foussha) and in Egyptian (masry) in Cairo. I learned the characters and discovered that I knew many things from my childhood trips to Lebanon. I mastered the pronunciation well because the sound still lives in my ears. I also knew all the numbers, which was an invaluable advantage in the Cairo market.

Multilingualism 2: Living in several languages

What we usually mean by multilingualism is when children grow up speaking several languages and can move around well in several languages as adults. This is enviable and great.

My children's book colleague Tayo, for example, moves back and forth between German, English and Romany with ease. Arzu Gürz writes children's books in Turkish and German, just to name two examples.

This kind of multilingualism is a feature of diversity, a characteristic of diverse children’s reality. And is just as unrepresented as other aspects of diversity in children's literature.

Children's literature in Germany, for example, claims "monolingual white childhood".

Olga Grjasnowa a German novelist thoroughly illuminates this phenomenon in her fascinating essay "The Power of Multilingualism":

There are around 7000 languages and 195 states worldwide. Multilingualism is therefore the normal situation. Monolingualism is the exception. However, it is found among a very powerful minority!

There are over 2000 languages in Africa. Children in Morocco grow up with at least three languages as a rule. This means they usually move fluidly back and forth between cultures and languages.

For poetry, this capacity opens continent-wide doors, texts that mix languages, invent new languages in this way, and thus have a poetic specificity.

The Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owour, one of my favourite authors, has impressively poetically woven multilingualism and diversity of languages into her book "The Sea of Dragonflies". It is the story of the multilingual girl Ayaana, who lives with her mother on the island of Paté off the coast of Kenya and chooses the arriving old sailor Muhidin as her father. Muhidin also becomes her teacher.

Once he asks Ayaana to recite the word "dragonfly" in four languages.

"Muhidin told Ayaana to repeat its name kereng'ende in four other languages: "Matapiojos. Libélula. Naaldekokor. Dragonfly." Ayaana intoned: "Matapiojos. Libélula. Naaldekokor. Dragonfly." She clasped her hands, squeezing them. "Why?" she asked. Muhidin whispered: "To savor its essence. To do that, you must taste at least three languages on your tongue.” [1]

I can't help thinking of my language lists that I created in my childhood. Owour refers to hidden knowledge about words that can only be accessed through translation and listening. I think that is a wonderful thought.

So again, multilingualism in all its manifestations is usually a poetic potential of Persons of Colour, people in and from Africa and the African diaspora, people in Asia and the Asian diaspora and indigenous people.

The potential and reality of multilingualism is left out of most children's books. In Germany, this is because those who tell stories for children are predominantly white and monolingual.

In my writing workshop in Cologne-Kalk, a Somali boy answered the question what he wants to tell the world: "I speak German, English, French, Spanish and Somali.”

So let's tell more stories that break through this assertion. So let's tell multilingualism. Let's tell stories of non-colonial languages. Let's represent realities that have been excluded from children's literature.

3. Multilingualism and children's books writing – about practice

There are various ways of narrating multilingualism as a characteristic of childhood. And I certainly don't know them all. Here are some examples:

3a. Bilingual books – direct narration of multilingualism

This is particularly suitable for picture books with very short texts. Susann Bee, a Black German author, lives in Düsseldorf with her daughter and her Ghanaian husband and two main languages. (She actually lives with Twi, English, German, Mandarin, French and Portuguese.) When she started writing children's books, it made sense to write stories in two languages. This is how "Zoey the Superhero: Oh no a spider”, came into being and was self-published. This is an adventure story featuring a Black superheroine. Two languages tell the story side by side.

3b Indirect narration of multilingualism

In my kids’ novel "Tea with Uncle Mustafa", Mina speaks Arabic and German. She visits her father's homeland, Lebanon, for the first time during the summer holidays. She is fascinated and irritated in equal measure. The most beautiful encounters are with her uncle Mustafa, who herds sheep and tells her stories. But then war breaks out. Worried, they all have to hurry back to Germany. Uncle Mustafa comes with them, but he doesn't like Germany at all. He becomes more and more sad and increasingly confused. One day, after school, Mina and her friend Lucy find a man sitting in front of the house.

“Mina realised she knew this man very well. It was Uncle Mustafa! He had spread his rug on the pavement in front of the house and lay there snoring. There was a teapot beside him. "Oh dear, that's my uncle! What on earth is wrong with him?" Mina knelt beside him and tried to wake him. "Uncle Mustafa, wake up!" she called out in Arabic. Lucy played with her zip. "What's wrong with him? Mina raised her shoulders. "I don't know!" Slowly, Uncle woke up and looked around. "Uncle, what are you doing here in the street? Are you not feeling well? Have you lost your key?" Again, Mina spoke in Arabic. "Of course, I'm all right. What do you think, my sweety? And what key?" Oh dear! Uncle seemed to be completely confused. "The key to the flat, uncle! Did you leave it upstairs? And what are you doing here?" "What am I supposed to be doing here? What kind of a question is that? I'm just sitting around in my thoughts. Just like always." "But it's dirty and cold on the street, Uncle Mustafa." "A shepherd must be outside. A little bit of dirt doesn't bother me. But where are all the other people? I'm bored. Is this your girlfriend? Welcome!" The uncle held out his hand to Lucy and smiled kindly at her. Lucy looked questioningly at Mina. "My uncle says 'welcome'." "Hello!" Lucy replied, shaking her uncle's hand.”

The story tells the relationship between Mina and her uncle. And it tells that Mina is a master of switching between languages without an Arabic Word.

4. Working with the poetic power of words – Several Dill - Box - Collections

Another very important work for children is playing with words. Children have a lot in common with poets: they love to play with language, to fool around with language, to construct new words. And children think figuratively. For this reason, among others, it is not surprising that children enjoy poems, and not only those written especially for them. This leads us to poetic writing. Children's texts may have language that satisfies their interest in poetry.

I will now give some examples of how multilingual potentials can be used poetically.

4a Magic language

In his wonderful book "Dikum, dakum!", the multilingual Senegalese-German children's author and storyteller Ibrahima Ndjaye tells the story of a great drought. Therefore, the animals go in search of food. With the help of the chameleon and a mysterious spell, they find a way out of their misery.
DIKUM DAKUM LAKUM DINIKUM FANKUM FANKUM BIBI SAYA was the melodious, mysterious verse, which carries the reader through the whole book.

I asked Ibo, as insiders call him, what this spell means, and my suspicion that a mixture of real languages had been created here, was confirmed. The verse is based on part of a sura from the Koran that says that the good you do God gives back to you. Bibi saya is a word in Malinke, a language of Senegal. It sings about the strength of the community.

Here the poetic potential of a multilingual author becomes clear, who draws from the fullness of many languages. Who draws of his Dill-Box. As a matter of course.

4b There is a whole story in one word

But it doesn't always have to be the magic word. You can also use single words to tell diverse realities. You can give your heroine a name that comes from another language. For my book “Nuri und der Geschichtenteppich” I chose Nuri because Nur means light in Arabic. In my radio play, the cat is called Mischmisch, which means apricot in Arabic and because the cat has an apricot coloured fur. Nomen est omen is a Latin word. And this omen is a story idea.

Sometimes it just sounds beautiful. For example, Salma from my current writing class, named her story Aduunka. The Somali word for world. The atmosphere of the story is already palpable in the title, on the one hand through the mysterious sound of the word, but also through its meaning.

In her children's novel "Pembo", Ayse Bosse replaced the comic word "bamm" with its Turkish equivalent "güm".

4c Mix of words - mix of languages

In the novel just mentioned, Ayse Bosse has invented the word Köftöffel from the Turkish meatballs Köfte and the German word Kartoffel (potato) - a migrant term for Germans. Köftatoes would maybe be the best-sounding English translation. It is the funny euphonic self-designation of the character, who has both German and Turkish roots.

And this neologism, a new word that has not existed yet, so a birdy word, points to the fact that language knows no boundaries.  Again: Language is a marvellous creature of change.

4d My Dillbox - Planetenspatzen

Single words from other languages can be starting points for rhymes, nonsense, playfulness and poetry. The mixing of languages is a phenomenon that occurs all over the world. Children of the periphery in Paris through mixing languages have invented a new secret language, Verlan. Depicting and representing these creative abilities of children is a beautiful way to show diverse children’s realities.

In my book Planetenspatzen, I collected words from the most common immigrant languages and turned them into poems, mini-stories, rhymes, and tongue twisters. This process came about through many links to my childhood.

For this lecture, I have tried to translate two poems to illustrate the infinite possibility of the pleasurable use of multilingualism in writing for children.

It is not ready, of course.

Let’s have a look at a poem about the Croatian word Mačka, means cat/Katze.


Mačka sounds squishy and slushy and splashy. I collected words that pick up the sound of Mačka and made this poem. For the English version I had to change the basic form including the rhythm.


my muchkacat
isn’t a smuchkacat
neither a cluchkacat
maybe a touchkacat
in any case such a cat
that cuts my chitchat

5. Closing (Lolo-) word

Multilingualism often is a poetic potential of BIPoC.  In other words, BIPoC often own a dill-box. I showed that the dill-box is a boundless extraordinary dilly language box in which fly or dilly-dally back and forth between languages. With which you create new words and languages.  What children love and always do. Writing with a dill-box is a way to represent multilingualism in a poetic way, and thus to tell an important – and often underestimated-potential of multilingual children.

And now I wish you many wordy birds and birdy words for your stories and let the lolobird end this lecture. Lolo means red in Romani. Lolo has two child-friendly syllables, which are siblings. You can sing it and compound nouns with lolo sound wonderful, and they are all red. Lolo-Word, Lolo-Boat, Lolo-Bird.

ein wörtchen namens lolo rot
das hört ich einst im loloboot
es war so froh und erdbeerfrisch
gesungen hats der erdbeerfisch
im roten meer und überall
wo rotes singt mit feinstem schall

once there was a lolo-word
once it met a lolo-bird
back then on a lolo-boat
the bird wore a fancy lolo-coat
they worded together loud and free
to the wild red and rumbling sea
the evergreen of the strawberry flea

Children have a lot in common with poets: they love to play with language, to fool around with language, to construct new words.



[1] Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: The dragonfly sea, 2020 New York 2019

Etel Adnan, Schreiben in einer fremden Sprache in: Sturm ohne Wind, Berlin 2019
Etel Adnan, To write in a foreign language, in Unheard voices London 1984
Ayse Bosse, Pembo, Hamburg 2020
Olga Grjasnowa, Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit, Leipzig 2021
Andrea Karimé, Tee mit Onkel Mustafa, Wien 2011 und Planetenspatzen, Wien 2022
Ibrahima Ndjaye, Dikum dakum, available in several languages via the author’s e-shop
Yoko Tawada Verwandlungen, Tübingen 2018
Yvonne Adhiambo Owour, The dragonfly sea, Vintage Reprint edition 2020