Children's Books: Passport to the Bilingual Life

My Thai teacher realized it was time for a radical intervention.

"Put away your textbook, and try this instead," she said, handing me the Thai translation of The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff.

I'd read that book about twelve times by the time I was six, way before I knew about politerary incorrectness — phrase coined by self, I think. My parents even have an old cassette recording of a wee version of me reading it when we lived in London, my British accent intact. (Note: I was interested to read in Alison Lurie's December 16, 2004 article in The New York Review of Books, The Royal Family, that "Laurent de Brunhoff has regretted his early drawings of African 'savages'; he decided years ago that Babar's Picnic will never be reprinted.")

By the end of Babar's story in Thai, my meager store of memorized vocabulary had quadrupled. I was starting to get the language — the way sentences were formed, the rhythm of conversation, the subtleties of Thai humor. Best of all, I was questioning my conviction about being a dunderhead when it came to learning another language as an adult.

If you want to get to the next step in a second language, why not try this yourself? Find one of your favorite children's books, one that you know because you've re-read it so many times, and read the translation. Here, for example, are Harry Potter's adventures in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. (Note: these would also be great to add to a library collection serving bilingual immigrant kids.)