What kinds of books are best for encouraging multi-lingual kids?

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Märchenbuch - German language book of children's fairy tales 1919 My husband speaks German as a mother tongue and we’re planning on him speaking in German to the future kids. While not pregnant yet, we’re on a tight budget so we’d love to stock up on books slowly so we have one less expense when the time comes. Since we can’t find children’s books in German in libraries here, we’re looking at Amazon.de, but everything I like seems to be for older ages (years 3-5).

What type of books should I buy? Right now we’re thinking books in German with one or two sentences on a page will be great for awhile — especially since their dad will be reading them. At what age did you start reading books in a second language to your child? — Maria

Did you introduce your child to more than one language because a parent speaks it? Have you incorporated books into your child’s learning of the language?

Comments on What kinds of books are best for encouraging multi-lingual kids?

  1. If your plan is for one parent to exclusively speak German, I would think that parent should read to the child in German just as the other does in English. I would look for the same kinds of picture books you would read to your baby or toddler in English or even books in translation. There has to be a German translation of “Goodnight, Moon,” right?

    • I am German, living in the US, and will marry a Hungarian, so we may end up with tri-lingual children…

      My parents kept all my early 80s childhood books (and my six year younger sister’s), so some recommendations below. Since you seem to have time to stock up, I recommend you buy things if you have a chance to visit Germany, or buy from German ebay sellers. Or ask someone in Germany to collect books for you, if you have connections there.

      One of my favorite picture book was “Pony, Bär und Apfelbaum” ( http://www.amazon.de/Pony-B%C3%A4r-Apfelbaum-Sigrid-Heuck/dp/3522414209/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1315583519&sr=8-1 ). It’s a whole series of books. Part of the words are replaced by drawings, so even very small children can contribute, and learn single German words and the illustrations are cute. It’s available from US amazon resellers at an exorbitant price, but I think you could find it on German Ebay cheaper. You could also get the English version and supply the German translation yourself? That would also be possible for any non-word book, especially before the children are able to read.

      When I was little I loved all the detailed “search books”. This would give you an opportunity to let the child find interesting items and tell them the German word, and it would be a nice book to have even if you are not actively teaching another language. The advantage of getting a book from a European illustrator would be that they get to see what a European city/farm/etc looks like. When I moved to the US I was amazed how many things (hydrants, windows, etc) I thought were only found in cartoons.

      “The ever hungry caterpillar” is lovely, too. http://www.amazon.de/Die-kleine-Raupe-Nimmersatt-Spielbilderbuch/dp/3836941368/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1315583889&sr=1-1 It is not too sentence heavy, and you can learn the German words for food stuffs.

      Apart from books I would also stock up on German children songs CDS or mp3s. Listening to the right sounds, even if you don’t understand the language will at least train the ears.

      Sorry for the long post (and any double advice since a lot of replies were added while I was writing this comment), I hope you will find it helpful, and good luck with everything!

  2. Look on a site like Instructables for ideas about making your own children’s books. You can draw, collage, or sew a book together for very little money and it lets you tailor the book to your home and child.

  3. Start early! It’s easier to start with words that you use everyday while taking care of your baby. Words like bottle, diaper, food, etc. Say them in English, then in the foreign language. If you think about it, we don’t learn English by reading grammar books during infancy, so how could we learn a foreign language like that? By using everyday words, babies normally pick up a second language without a problem. For kids that are learning to read I’ve found it helpful to label things with the foreign name/translation. I also think it’s helpful to connect with other mom/dads and their children who are learning or already speak the language. Many daycares in my area teach Spanish only so its really hard to find groups of friends who speak European Languages. Making your child bilingual really depends on integrating the second language into everyday life, not just at certain times as if it were a lesson.
    As for books, if you have friends or family in Germany, see if they will send you some books!! I’m pretty sure you can buy sheets of Tyvek that un-rippable, un-wettable “paper” they make baby books out of. That way you could make your own

  4. My mother is German and one way that helped integrate the language was that she always sang to us in German. At bedtime, lullabies were always in German, and even during the day she would sometimes sing while she was cooking/cleaning/sewing etc. Also, making your own books is an easy way to introduce simple words. Take pictures and compile them into books with the words beneath, that way you can personalize it as well.

  5. a quick amazon search for german childrens books includes
    Der Kleine Prinz (the little prince)
    Di Kleine Raupe Nimmersatt (hungry caterpillar)
    Mausi Spielt (Masie)
    and quite a few bilingual books too

  6. They aren’t toddler books, but I love the Pauli series by Brigitte Weninger. Just search for the author on amazon.de. Really cute stories and illustrations.

  7. I’m not a parent, but my mother is German, and I was raised bilingual. One of the things that might help to understand is that Germans traditionally don’t have the same kind of baby books as Americans (e.g., books with mostly pictures and a few words pointing things out). German children’s books – even for the very young – are much more likely to be story-focused and even a bit dark. I remember being read Max und Moritz (about two very naughty boys that bad things happen to), Die Kleine Hexe (about a witch who occasionally did bad things), and of course, Grimm’s Fairy Tales (I think you get the point). I think the relevant thing here is that learning a language is about more than learning the vocabulary and grammar, but understanding the cultural context of the language as well. In German, that tends to be somewhat severe and never sugar-coated, and if you’re uncomfortable with that kind of thing being communicated to your kids, you might be better off just sending them to language classes starting around toddler age and/or just having your husband speak German in everyday language and/or songs. The songs are awesome and I have a bazillion children’s song books in German 🙂

    Also, I know this may seem difficult, but my family gave up being a dual-language household when it became clear my dad didn’t want to try and keep up in German. It’s really hard for the rest of the family to communicate with each other in a language if they feel like someone is being left out. If you want to encourage your kids to feel comfortable speaking both English and German at home, you may want to consider going to language classes on your own.

    • Not all of this is a reply, but I wanted to say it all at once so here are some general rec stuff and some thoughts.

      Actually German’s have lots and lots of picture books. And lots and lots of great childrens books for all ages. The cultural content IS going to be a bit different, but the ones you named are actually older books, so the cultural context in them is older too. Max und Moritz (and Der Struwelpeter, which was actually the first book ever actally aimed at children) can be quite violent and reflect an authoritarian perspective on childraising (and what kind of messages childrens books should have) that is definitely outdated. Of course many kids are still going to end up with them, because they are books that many people know and will buy without actually considering the message. Parents will have to decide what to read to their kids and what to say about it, like always.
      These are just a very few examples of old “traditional” books though (and I’d include the whole fairy tale genre in that area) most kids are going to end up with many more modern books and those aren’t in my experience severe.

      So, as I said, there are lots of books available for all ages. Some with just pictures, which is of course poitless for language related purposes, but also ones with one or few words per page about the usual topics (animals, vehicles, farms, places, objects, etc.).
      Books with flaps and textures and so on.

      I’ll rec “Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt” for small kids who can begin to follow a story. It’s about a caterpillar that eats through many different things and then turns into a butterfly on the last page. There are different versions, some paper, some cardboard with actual holes where the caterpillar ate through stuff, etc.. This one most people in Germany will know.

      A book series that’s quite popular is “Petterson and Findus” about an old man and his cat. It’s originally Skandinavian (Swedish I think). It’s for kids ages around 3 (maybe 4) and up and has wonderful pictures and stories.

      Then I always need to rec books by Cornelia Funke. Her books are for a bit older kids, not picture books, but she’s worth keeping in mind for later. Some of the books can be read to 5 year olds, some are aimed at ages 11/12 and a bit older. (Some of her books have been translated into English, I loved Drachenreiter/Dragonrider, Tintenherz/Inkheart is newer and more people have heard of it, esp. because there’s also an international movie (there are some more German movies based on her books).)

  8. I would LOVE some suggestions on books or resources on teaching your kids a second (or more) language when you only know 1. My fiance and I only know English and while we both took French in school, I don’t know if we know it fluently enough to teach it as well. Any advice?

    • my husband, an American of Albanian descent, and i watched this ted talk – http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html – and immediately enlisted a native Albanian speaker to come over for a few hours a week to play and talk with baby. we are also creating a “language and culture basket” for our daughter which will contain a photo book from our trip to Albania and Kosovo, a few Albanian children’s books and a set of Albanian language flash cards. the most important thing i learned watching that ted talk is that language acquisition needs face to face interaction. your baby will not learn french if you plug in the iPod and play her rosetta stone tapes on repeat. there has to be personal interaction. good luck!

  9. My favourite German “kids” book is Der Struwwelpeter… hee hee.

    However, you don’t need German books to teach the German language. Have your partner tell the story of the book by using the picture. This will still help your children learn narrative skills. Someone also posted about making your own books – this is a great idea for getting kids to be interested in books, especially if the pictures in the books are of the child him/herself!

    Lastly, a successful way to teach a 2nd language is the “one parent, one language” strategy. You would speak English to the child and your partner would speak German. The child would then grown up learning 2 languages simultaneously.

    Yeah bilingualism!!

  10. I was raised binational and bilingual (french/USenglish), and learned a 3rd language as an adult.

    Specifically concerning books, one thing that i think was really effective, and that i remember loooooving as a 5 yr old kid, is my mother teaching me to read in my “2nd” language (the one not spoken in the country we lived in)

    She used this book which is in english http://tinyurl.com/43q9awn
    I’m sure something equivalent exists in other languages.

    I think that while i already spoke a lot of english, learning how to read it really “solidified” my knowledge of it : it made me really practice vocab and pronunciation (in a fun and rewarding process), and allowed me to quickly become an autonomous reader. That made a huge difference later, as a kid and teenager.

    Not to mention when i started primary school i basically knew how to read and very quickly figured out that reading in english and reading in french is basically the same thing. That’s when i started understanding the perks of native bilingualism and the coolness of school…

    re Kendra : I also think this could work for parents and kids who want to learn a foreign language together.
    This one for french has great reviews http://tinyurl.com/3b8xq2p

  11. I think you will want to read to your child in both languages from birth. You can read anything, even the news off your laptop, and if your partner needs to brush up on his German literacy this time is a great opportunity for that. When the baby is a bit bigger books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar will probably be available in both languages, but if your child wants your partner to read a very simple storybook that happens to be written in English, then couldn’t he translate as he went along? I believe that until a child is almost ready to learn to read it is not important to read books exactly as written. I’ve often abridged longer stories when reading to younger kids and they love it.

  12. I was brought up speaking mostly English with a smattering of Irish. My parents just bought whatever Irish books were available for young kids at the time — which was apparently a pretty random selection. I had cute little picture books about squirrels, and also Russian communist propaganda translated into Irish (for what must have been the tiniest niche market ever).

    I think you’re probably best just getting German versions of the kind of thing you’d buy your kids in English — so start off with board books and then get whatever picture books are popular.

    For the record, babies seem to enjoy board books at a surprisingly young age; my daughter is seven months old and has liked them since she was about five months, which amazed me! At the moment she only has English-language ones but I’m going to get some Irish ones as soon as I can, to get her used to the sounds of both languages.

  13. I was a toddler in Germany, and I had a whole mess of books that I loved. I don’t remember the names of them now, unfortunately, and the only one that survived is about two little pigs who go to the museum. They were story-based, but we read them when I was really small and I did get a lot out of them.

  14. We do language as much as possible in our house. As far as books go I have found that having one to one pairings has been harder for my daughter than having a variety of books; when she reads “Goodnight, Moon” in Spanish she is looking for the exact translation of things from the English, and language doesn’t work that way. I think your best bet is to start looking for things that are colorful and easy for you to read. I would scour the clearance racks of your independent book shops and also yardsales. Depending on where you live you might also be able to reach out to local mother-land social clubs that encourage cultural education.

    Also, use as much of your multilingualism as you can and encourage others when they have the opportunity to spend time with your future kiddo. My daughter knows a few nursery rhymes and songs in Finnish after spending a lot of time with my best friend this summer while she was in the states for a few months. We also have a couple that we trade parents-night-out with and they are from Uraguay and Puerto Rico, when our kiddo is with them she speaks almost exclusively Spanish and comes back every time with new words under her belt.

    We also just speak as much as possible. My husband is an English-only speaker (but most of his family speaks Spanish) and I am partially fluent in Spanish, so we use as much as we each can to talk to our daughter. For us the focus is more on the brain benefits of being multilingual than making sure our daughter is fluent, a strange Germ-glish might not be up your alley, but we have a lot of success introducing new vocabulary when we use our Spanglish.

    Back to books though, other than “Rainbowfish” we love anything my Marcus Pfister. I am fairly certain all of his books have been translated to German.

  15. eric carle (author of the very hungry caterpillar) has german grandparents, if I remember correctly! i would rercommend all his books – all availiable in german as well. my one year old is very much into the caterpillar right now.
    if there´s any chance for your partner to visit germany before the kids arrive, there´s tons of childrens books waiting in second hand stores, book stores or flea markets.
    very hot at the moment are rotraut susanne berners books – a series of five books, every one showing the same pictures of a city – once in spring, once in summer, autumn, winter and once at night. they are without text, just for exploring the many details – but that could be perfect for bilingual kids! (google “wimmelbücher”)

  16. I say start from birth. My hubby is American and I am Australian but we live in China. So we have a good selection of American books, Australian books and we are building our Chinese collection. We’ve a lot of board books with a picture of an animal/food and the name in Chinese character/pin yin and some have the English translation too. I was also really excited to find Dr. Suess in Chinese translation (although only hubs can read them — it’s too advanced for me! And I don’t think it makes a lot of sense in Chinese but whatever), Spot by Eric Hill, Thomas the Tank Engine (not my fav. but I’m familiar with him so it helps me read), Elmer the Patchwork Elephant (which I LOVE!) and a few others. My bub is only 10 months so a lot of those are a bit over his head but we still read them occasionally to get him used to hearing the sounds. His understanding is really good and he shows no problems with the fact some stories are in Chinese and some are in English. I wish we had some Spanish books too as my hubby speaks a little Spanish but I’ll have to keep my eye out for those. Welcome to the world of bilingual children! It’s a lot of fun!

  17. Oh by the way, I was thinking for German products/books, you could try looking up the local Waldorf schools in your area and asking them about age appropriate books etc. Or just look look up Waldorf online and see what you find.

  18. I’ve taught English as a foreign language for most of the past decade, and I’d recommend you start right at the beginning – when you start reading your child books in English, start with the German at the same time. It’s also good if one parent speaks one language a lot of the time, and one parent speaks the other. Another idea could be picture books, so you can talk about the pictures in English and your husband could discuss them in German. I’ve got a few bilingual friends who were really concerned that this would confuse their kiddies, but somehow it just doesn’t!

  19. My mother is German and I always remind her to speak in German to my son (perhaps her need to constantly be reminded is why she never got around to teaching me the language). When she went home to visit recently, she bought him a set of beginning concepts board books in German. You know, opposites, colors, ABC, 123, etc. So we read those at home. I have a Richard Scarry book for when he is a little older, and Die Kleine Prinz for storytimes. I think you’ll have a much easier time of it since you’ve got a native speaker in da house. It won’t help with the reading of German, but for the speaking, I’m sure he can read any ol’ kids book auf Deutsch!

  20. I’ve read some of the literature on language acquisition in the minority context, like for immigrants to another country or for indigenous languages that are dying out. (I’m a big nerd). Anyway they have some interesting things to say.

    A lot of kids living in north america tend to end up as passive speakers- that is they understand the language (say, German) but will respond back in English. Because they feel too shy and feel like they will say the wrong thing they might never say a word in German but will understand it completely.

    There are two things that are (according to the literature) key for learning a new language in a context where the main language of society is something else. The first is that there need to be clear rules for when to speak German. In a case where the parents don’t both speak the minority langauge its best for the parent that does to always 100% speak German with the child when they are talking directly to each other (if the other parent is around you can switch). Or you can make a rule that you only speak German within the home and when you go outside you speak English. Or even that wednesday, thrusday and friday are “german days” and only german is spoken then. Basically you need to create a fully immersive environment, even if its only some of the time, when only German is allowed. You can’t allow the child to speak English back at those times but pretend not to understand it.

    The other thing that’s important is that the child needs to see that hte language is important outside the home. Children reject languages that they don’t see other people speaking. That’s why when you try to raise a kid speaking Klingon or Elvish or something when they are about 5 they reject it and are like “i’m not speaking this nonsense”. This happens with real languages too if they aren’t exposed to other people speaking it. So its important to have reading materials, movies, play dates with other kids who speak german, trips to germany, german social clubs where lots of people speak it, that kind of thing. This will help the child be fully fluent in German. (its true that tapes and stuff in the background don’t help by themselves, but they help if there is interactive learning elsewhere)

    You don’t need to worry about English, English is everywhere they will pick it up. Kids who are born in North America learn English fine unless say (with spanish this happens sometimes) the entire community around them, other kids, friends from school, people at the store, everyone is speaking the other language. this won’t happen with German for sure.

    Anyway, that’s my nerdy say on the topic. You should check out some of the academic literature on raising children in two (or more) languages, the stuff on indigenous languages is really relevant as well to minority languages in north america.

  21. I am American, but lived in Germany as a child. German children’s books actually frightened me! I’m sure lots has changed since then. 🙂

    I made books for my daughter, and it was a joyous thing for both of us. She is now 7, and still refuses to part with them. They are simple, mostly handmade books that I wrote about our family, our pets, our home, and other things that related to our lives. I also made up stories based on things I knew she loved and that would excite her. She is now tri-lingual, and an excellent reader.

  22. I’m working on introducing Japanese to our son, even though he is only a few weeks old. Sounds and rhythm are some of the first things a baby will pick up on to identify people and things around them, and even though I’m not fluent by any means, practicing it is good for both of us.
    I have a few books that are for older kids, some language study, and an English/Japanese electronic alphabet board that I’ve already started using in front of him. I will just keep plowing on!

  23. Being German I love your comments. I had the books already mentioned (I loved the Maulwurf Pauli!) I recommend the Benjamin Bluemchen and Bibi Blocksberg series. Those days we had them on tape; guess they are available on CD/MP3/DVD nowadays. In case you like to add some ‘visual education’ seach for ‘Sendung mit der Maus’ or ‘Peter Lustig Loewenzahn’ online. These are kids-science shows that explain the world =)

  24. Wow. I just skimmed the kinderbucher section of amazon.de and I saw more books in English or Spanish than I saw in German. Maybe because of my IP address. I did, however, find a place that will waive shipping to the US if you spend at least 75E (http://www.globalbooks.de/). They have a big selection and they also seem to have German kids videos, which can give dad a break from being the only German speaker.

    Neither of my parents are Russian but they both speak (well, spoke) it nearly fluently

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