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Fun and Engaging Language Learning with Children’s Picture Books

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?


While my book tour continues, I'm happy to welcome another guest post about a concept in language learning we've all looked into at one time or another – using children's books to learn foreign languages! Let's see what Tim Johnson has to say on this!


There are a several language learning methods that allow us to simulate immersion in one way or another, and are much easier to achieve compared to actually going to the country (which isn't all that great).  Using video conferencing, which is getting easier everyday and generally very cost effective, it’s not difficult to put yourself across the table from a native speaker (as Benny illustrates for us here).

In addition to that, video lessons are becoming more and more accessible and are a brilliant way to effectively immerse yourself in a language, at least for short stints.

Simulated Immersion Language Learning

Skype or video conferencing lessons, being a multi-sensory experience including sight, sound, speech and social and conversational elements is at the top of the list of “virtual immersion” techniques, followed closely by video lessons, but there are other methods that can put us in a good, immersive mindset as well. Foreign language radio programming and television allow us to hear native speakers speaking clearly and communicating effectively and naturally.  

This can be good practice for your ears in getting accustomed to the sounds and cadence of the language, however, for beginners this is generally too fast and too complex to comprehend.  I've struggled with this method and found that my attention begins to wane as my brain tells itself the words are nonsensical, and while I realize that having the sound on in the background is probably beneficial, my brain (again) tells me it didn't see concrete results and wasn’t productive enough to warrant doing it often.

Foreign language novels can also lend a unique learning experience in that they allow us to witness dialog, descriptions, narratives and written language all within the cozy and comfortable context of a story.  Here again, for beginners, this is not a great approach due to complexity and would undoubtedly lead to discouragement and abandonment.  

I can also admit to first hand experience with this type of failed study method. After several very fatiguing reading sessions, I’m not seeing enough repeat words to let me know what’s going on or give me any bearing on the story.

Children’s Dual-Language Picture Books

Thinking strategically about the next logical step, I chose to explore children’s picture books. This proved to be a very interesting and engaging method of study.  Like Kerstin from Fluent Language states in her post on Benny’s blog, “Any source of a new word is fair game.”  There are a lot of benefits to children’s books even beyond TV and radio, and the fact that I could come back to the book and re-read it gave me an approachable self-guided study tool that didn’t judge me (like some software learning methods I know…).  

A Fun Learning Language Method

I believe wholeheartedly in a concept that Benny discussed in his TEDx talk; he mentions: “Adults tend to be studying dusty old grammar books and doing boring exercises, whereas children are playing in the language, they’re having fun with it.”  

When you can enjoy what you are doing and be entertained by the process of learning, retention comes much easier and the entire learning process is exponentially more effective than if you treat it like a chore.  Children are generally thought to be “better” language learners than adults, but if we take inspiration from them and play while we learn we can work to shift that paradigm and give adult language learning the credit of its full potential.

A Multi-Sensory Experience

Reading a children’s book gave me the multi-sensory experience I was looking for which allowed me to relate any new words I learned to a specific illustration or situation.  This provides immediate feedback as to whether you are interpreting the words correctly. The particular book I used was not a rhyming book, and was not necessarily poetic, however there was a certain cadence to the words which allowed me to hear the flow of the phrasing and sentences.

Simple Concepts & Vocabulary

Of course, there was a fuzzy, friendly character I could easily understand and had no problem relating to, even with a limited understanding of the language.  His persona, of course, was not complex, it’s a children’s book so they quite literally spell out everything you need to know as the reader.  

Since complex concepts within the content of a language lesson can be discouraging, children’s books are a great medium that does not present these barriers. Similarly, children’s books fall in line with a very simple set of vocabulary, often times words are repeated; sentences are short and lack advanced grammar making it an achievable goal for a beginner, and therefore a rewarding experience.

Contextual Learning

Attempting to recall vocabulary from rote memorization can be a tall order. Generally, word associations or other recollection triggers come into play, if only subconsciously.  The video of the Law and Order episode recreated by chickens using only clucks demonstrates very clearly the power and clarity of context even if you’re a complete beginner in a language.  

Having such unique characters and vivid imagery as is provided by a children's story book could be just the mental queue necessary to retain words and expressions in your long-term memory.  By providing unique and memorable story content, these short books make it possible to commit the entire story to memory if you so desire.

How Can They Really be Used to Learn?

Now that we have realized the power and potential of utilizing children’s picture books, let’s look deeper into the actual implementation of the tool as a learning methodology.  Of course, a hammer is only as effective as the person wielding it.

1.) Sounding-Out Single Words

With a basic understanding of the sounds and alphabet of a language, one can begin to slowly sound out words on a page.  With a children’s book that may only have 10-20 words on a whole page, it can be very satisfying to have sounded out a few complete pages of a book.  Simply sounding words out one at a time, even without knowing what’s going on in the story can be very useful practice to a beginner to establish familiarity with common words, cadence and written language in general.

2.) Associating Vocab Words

As you become more familiar with some of the basic words, you will begin to make connections between the subjects of the story and the illustrations depicting these subjects.  Even if subconsciously, you’ll begin to make word associations between nouns and illustrations.  Next, you should try to identify some of the common verbs used in the story and begin to associate them with the actions taking place on each page.  Conveniently, in many children’s books, there is only one action taking place on each page, making this quite effective.

3.) Identifying Word Pairs and Phrasing

The language bear

Begin establishing your familiarity with certain word pairs, such as “went to”, “played with”, “very small” or other relevant pairs that include conjunctions and adjectives in the target language.  Subsequently, phrases will begin to reveal themselves such as “bears love honey” or “Harold grabbed his crayon”.

4.) Dual-Language Comparisons

Many children’s book offer a dual-language version which includes both English and a second language on the same page.  With this format it can be incredibly useful to read the book line-by-line, foreign language first, then the English, then the foreign line again.  

This will:

  1. put the foreign words into your short term memory,
  2. help you draw conclusions about the meaning of the sentence by reading the translation, and then
  3. repeating the foreign sentence to further embed the vocabulary into long-term memory.

5.) Implement Your Learnings

When possible, take what you have learned from the book and implement them into your daily practice.  Whether it is an inner dialog about a relevant subject or reviewing the memorized portions of the book in your head or actually putting the phrases into practice during conversations.  Implementation of foreign language knowledge is ultimately where the knowledge is solidified and retained.

Tim Johnson is the self-published author of a growing series of dual language children's books entitled, “The Adventures of Bosley Bear”, which have sold thousands of copies worldwide and are used by children and adult language learners as well as parents, teachers and educational institutes.  Tim’s books are specifically designed to teach language using simple repeat words and phrases, line-by-line translations, highlighted vocab words and labelled illustrations.  Say hi to Tim (and Bosley Bear) on Facebook , Google+ or Twitter or at his website: www.theLanguageBear.com

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