IWTYAL 274: The nonsense of reading children’s books to learn a language

In this episode, I react to the never-ending belief that children's book are good for language learning.

In Today's Episode:

Why I'll never recommend that adults should use kids' books for language learning:

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Louise says:
17 Aug 2018 00:41

Just finished listening to the podcast. While I agree with you and I mostly steer clear of children’s books, I think there is a distinction to be made between children’s books, like fables or picture books that are generally read to children by their parents and children’s books that are written for children to read to learn to read. These graded readers are written with a focus on high frequency vocab, simple grammatical structures etc. so may be useful for language learners (although the topics may be less interesting for adults). In some languages that are less well resourced, these might be an option.

Olly Richards says:
17 Aug 2018 08:17

Yes, you’re absolutely right. Clearly, as you get to books written for older and older children, the line begins to blur between “kids books” and “normal books”. The big question, of course, is whether you would enjoy reading a book written for a 14-year-old… and in that case, why not just read a graded reader intended for adults? But as you mention, is less well-resourced languages, you often have to make do with whatever you can find! Thanks for the comment.

dandiprat says:
18 Aug 2018 04:10

LOL Olly. You’re really stirring up a hornet’s nest here. I’ve had a more positive experience with reading children’s books in Chinese. I remember after 2-3 years of somewhat intensively reading more adult stuff that I usually had to slog through looking up many words just to get through a newspaper article or a short story, I turned to reading a Chinese language version of Hans Christen Andersen Fairy Tales and I felt like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could understand almost everything and the words I didn’t know were easy to figure out. I could actually enjoy reading for pleasure. I finished the book quickly and I learned a lot about things like collocations and stuff. Then I read Grimms Fairy Tales and it was the same. I know the examples you cited in the podcast were a little difficult, but I don’t think that everything is that difficult. I also think that children don’t quite understand everything in the stories that are read to them. They just don’t get bothered by it. It’s quantity over quality. I’ve also had a little bit better experience reading sutff for children in Vietnamese, albeit a bit more limited. I do think that a lot of stuff written for children is easier than stuff written for adults although there is some specialized vocabulary that has to be learned that doesn’t occur as often in adult books.

Olly Richards says:
18 Aug 2018 10:49

Thanks for weighing in 🙂 To what extent do you think that this is a problem unique to languages like Chinese, where the barrier to reading is so high that you’re almost left with no other choice than to turn to kids books with higher-frequency characters?

dandiprat says:
18 Aug 2018 16:02

I imagine in a language that is considered easier for English speakers like Italian where much of the vocabulary and proper names are very similar to English (particularly at higher levels, I hear) it’s easier to jump into adult material.

RichardLanguage says:
19 Aug 2018 02:50

Loved this episode. My Russian level had gotten to a high enough level to where I was able to work as a (simple) medical interpreter. When I wanted to teach my kids Russian when they were 4-6 years old, I started reading fairy tales to them. As you alluded, the vocabulary is *not* simple. During my medical interpreting, I hadn’t been talking much about owls and starlings, wheelbarrows and teddy bears; even straightforward verbs like “crawl” and “climb” didn’t come naturally. So to add a caveat to what you said: read children’s books and you’ll gain a lot of obscure vocabulary.

That being said, at an advanced level, reading children’s books was helpful because I learned the “canon” of children’s literature that every Russian knows. My level of cultural knowledge went way up. But it’s not a way to start.

RichardLanguage says:
19 Aug 2018 02:50

I don’t know Chinese, but I would guess that Chinese would be easier because Chinese kids only know so many characters, and that number doesn’t correspond to the number of words they know how to say. Chinese kids can’t be expected to work through a lot of new vocabulary in writing; they’d have to spend some time memorizing first, or at least using a dictionary.

Olly Richards says:
19 Aug 2018 15:08

Hi Richard. I’ve been looking at a lot of kids books recently in Spanish, and there are times where I literally have no idea what’s going on. It’s an odd experience. Everything has its utility in the right context – cultural knowledge etc – but when you consider that we’ve been able to reach high levels in our respective langs without any need for such vocab, it speaks volumes about the role of kids books for the average adult learner.

Olly Richards says:
19 Aug 2018 15:32

Sounds like a false equivalence to me. As Richard said, langs like Chinese presumably limit complexity from the outset due to character knowledge.

I certainly agree that Latin langs make it easier at higher level due to cognates, but what bearing does that have on the accessibility of children’s literature?

Slippery snakes and dangerous dinosaurs can probably be found in all language books irrespective of the language.

I think it can be argued either way, though. Like I always say, the experienced language learner can make *anything* work as long as they understand their own learning process.

The trouble is with widespread beliefs that go unchallenged and lead to stress and confusion for inexperienced learners.

Other classic assumptions that spring to mind:
– watching movies
– kids learn fast
– how can you speak before you know the grammar?

For me, kids books fall squarely into this camp 🙂

dandiprat says:
20 Aug 2018 03:31

Actually, in reply to your and Richard’s comments a lot of children’s books in Chinese include either the bopomofo (primarily in Taiwan) or pinyin in subscript alongside the characters to help them figure out what the characters mean or at least how they’re pronounced, which they also do sometimes in Japanese, as I’m sure Olly has seen. They don’t necessarily know all the characters in these stories beforehand, although they may very well learn to recognize some as a result of reading. I don’t think they do this in Hong Kong, although I don’t know for the life of me why not.

Patrick Mc Nally says:
20 Aug 2018 00:40

Hi Olly. I see you are not a great fan of reading children’s books to learn a language.
You do admit at the beginning of the podcast that it can be useful and helpful in the right context.
Then we move on until we reach the sentence ‘ children’s books have simpler grammar and more high frequency vocabulary than adult material.
you don’t seem to agree with that.
Then you read very fluently and clearly in your native language English three extracts from the children’s stories and fairytales.
I don’t know Olly, we know you are learning Italian now, but I don’t know how you would fare if you tried to read the same stories in Italian!
Would you struggle and could you get any benefit from it and learn about your weaknesses and strengths in Italian?
One last thing Olly, do you think reading adult newspapers would be of more benefit than reading children’s books or would both be placed along side listening to movies?
All the best in your Italian learning, Patrick

RichardLanguage says:
20 Aug 2018 14:58

As one noticed in sections you read, children’s literature, for some reason, makes up words. How impossible for learning languages! One of the most common Russian kids’ books is “Dr Aybolit.” I had read the book to my kids a hundred times, but it took my friend to tell me that the name means, “Ouch! It hurts!” which is obvious once he told me, but it never even occurred to me to think of it in that way.

RichardLanguage says:
20 Aug 2018 15:02

I agree. Graded readers probably make more sense. For example, Arabic and Hebrew books for kids include all the vowels, which is a *huge* advantage for a language learner. The irony is that native speakers probably wouldn’t often suggest these books, as they tend to be so boring to native speakers.

But a graded reader for adults, as Olly mentioned, makes the most sense.

Olly Richards says:
20 Aug 2018 22:38

Hi Patrick, lots to choose from in your question! I certainly could read such books in Italian if I wanted, and with enough effort be able to understand them. It’s not that they’re not possible to read, the question is simply… “why?” If it we’re the case that kids books were a gateway to adult material, then I’d be all for it… but they’re not, as shown in my examples. In Italian, I’ve managed to progress to reading about politics and other complex topics quite quickly, without going anywhere near a goblin, elephant, or a flumflum tree! 🙂

peter b says:
20 Aug 2018 23:31

Great discussion everyone, and thanks Olly for bringing it up. First, the fastest way to learn a language is to be constantly reminded/refocused on why you are doing it, which I find from these debates.
I am currently learning German. I have found material can be a bit more difficult to come by, than say Spanish, because the written German is more formally different than spoken/informal. I’m diving in here–I am 1/2 way through Harry Potter, which you quoted–funny thing, I remember the exact paragraph you quoted, which is interesting in and of itself, as I formed the mental pictures of the paragraph from reading German, but recalled them as you read the original English version.
This points to one of the main tenets of language learning, which you often cite, that material must be interesting for best results.
The upside is that my vocabulary, and word order/groupings and comprehension tremendously, while the downside may be that I am learning way more than needed to simply communicate colloquially. But, it keeps me coming back for more, so I’ll take it.
Further, the prose parts are much more similar to everyday communication, and new words are often repeated, so it locks it in. Plus, I listen to the audiobook after I read a few pages in order to hear it spoken.

I wouldn’t use the same approach (Harry Potter) for an easier language like Spanish or Italian, as I would find it boring. But I find it a perfect fit for German, for me.


Olly Richards says:
21 Aug 2018 12:17

I’m reluctant to concede that there’s an exception here for “harder” languages, as I have had similar feelings in languages like Japanese. To me, the elephant in the room is the availability of accessible graded material intended for adults, because then there is no logical reason whatsoever to turn to kids books. The exception, of course, being if you’re actually interested in the kids books in question. One could argue that Harry Potter isn’t really a kids book in the usual sense, given the popularity of the native English version among adults.

RankkaApina says:
21 Aug 2018 23:01

I hope you read Krokodil Gena to them! That was one of the first books that I read in Russian, when I still thought children’s books were easy :p Well, that proved me wrong. But hey, it was worth it in the end 🙂 I actually learned in Russian that harlequin romances are much better: you don’t have to look stuff up, if you miss 2 pages, you can still follow the story and nothing too surprising will happen 🙂

RankkaApina says:
21 Aug 2018 23:05

I totally agree on this. Some children’s books are easy, but just because they are for children, it’s not a guarantee. And for me, who learned French in school, Le Monde was one of the easiest reading materials, because the language was so “official”. On the other hand, in French there is Le Petit Nicholas, but in addition I would recommend La Peste by Albert Camus and anything by Amélie Nothomb. For me the ideas can be complex as long as the language is simple or without too much slang/magical creatures 🙂

Luke Truman says:
22 Aug 2018 08:52

I think talking about most common vocabulary and easier grammar and all of that stuff isn’t really the most important aspect of the debate. For me the main point is, it the content interesting, well written and am I motivated to understand it. I am happy to slog through harder material if it’s more interesting.

But on a side note, I found the little prince really well written and I really enjoyed reading it in Cantonese. I really don’t think it matters what you read as long as it’s fun and you enjoy the process

RichardLanguage says:
22 Aug 2018 15:41

We read some plays in our upper-level French classes (the first time we actually got into native material). But this kind of stuff assumes an intermediate level already. It’s hard to find literature that can accommodate an advanced beginner.

RichardLanguage says:
22 Aug 2018 15:43

We watched the cartoons of Krokodil Gena. Very slow and mellow Soviet-style, about how everyone should live and work together.

Romances…that’s an interesting idea. I might be able to take advantage of that idea. When I lived in Morocco, the girls used to read and swap romance novels. For them, this would be a foreign language, since spoken Moroccan Arabic is so different from Standard. 15-16 year olds could churn through those things fast.

RankkaApina says:
23 Aug 2018 08:30

I think Le Petit Nicholas would be good for advanced beginner. It only uses passé composé and every chapter is its own little story. And every character is “reintroduced” when they are mentioned in that chapter, like there’s Alceste, who eats a lot. This means you can only read one chapter and if takes you 2 months to get to the next one, it’s ok since it’s a new story. They are for kids, but the writer is René Goscinny (the guy who wrote Asterix), so they are super funny.

I’m not sure of La Peste, because that I haven’t actually read, it’s just been recommended to me so many times that I’m confident to say the language is easy, but Amélie Nothomb writes about her life, which means the vocabulary is something you’re most likely familiar with and She also writes very short sentences, which helps, since the French often like flowery language with subclauses (is that the correct term?). So, I would say that these would be things to start from.

RichardLanguage says:
23 Aug 2018 17:42

“Petit Nicholas” sounds good. Now I remember reading “Suivez la piste,” a mystery written for foreigners. It had audio with it, too, which is something that Olly always recommends: audio + transcript. It was good.

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