Opening minds: Multilingual reading with children

The festival is now over, and we are left to contemplate the many varied experiences we all had. For my part, the outstanding moment of the festival was the multilingual reading of “A Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. To standing room only, the crowd composed not only of parents and children but also interested adults, 13 readers took the stage and moved the audience with their versions of the iconic children’s story. One by one, starting with Dutch and finishing with Filipino, by way of Turkish, Dutch Sign Language, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, German, English, Azeri, Frisian, Arabic and Chinese, we learned new words, heard new sounds, and listened, carefully, to words that were not familiar to us. The children listened, played, and even slept, and participated as the readers asked them to speak or act. I don’t know what languages were spoken by the children who attended, but most of them listened to one or maybe two languages they were familiar with, and many they were not. Yet they remained, for the most part, attentive and interested. They did not, as we adults so often do, feel threatened by the newness and lack of understanding (How many of us have felt uncomfortable around people speaking another language, for fear that they are “talking about us”?).
My take-away point from the day is that if you are a parent who is lucky enough to speak a language other than the school language of your children, go to the teacher, and offer to come in and read a story in *your* language – to all the children. Help them understand the story in the myriad of ways that children can understand without words, and help them all learn a little about a new language, and a new way of interacting. It’s truly amazing to watch children being read to in languages they do not understand, and it is something that everyone should have the chance to experience.

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