Books by my bedside 2017/09/14

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books-2017-08-2x-1-e1503620159745.jpg

Non-Fiction

History, Politics & Social Science

Anti-Education by Nietzsche, Friedrich

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Gracián, Baltasar

Churchill & Orwell: The fight for freedom by Ricks, Thomas E.

College Disrupted:The great unbundling of higher education by Craig , Ryan

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Goodman, Matthew

Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries, Stuart

Margaret Fuller: Bluestocking, romantic, revolutionary by Wilson, Ellen

Walden by Thoreau, Henry D.

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur Spanish I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics by Schmidt, Stanley F.

 Books Math Life of Fred Prealgebra

Fiction

Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen

Edge of Evil by Jance, J.A.

Finding Her Way (YA title) by Faigen, Anne

M.C. Higgins the Great by (YA title) by Hamilton, Virginia

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland (YA title) by Rebekah Crane*

Reading Notes:

I’ve been reading a fair amount for two disparate reasons. Continue reading

Books by my bedside 2017/08/12

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Kidneys by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Liver by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Mineshaft by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Fractions by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Decimals and Percents by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Memoir

Casting Lots : creating a family in a beautiful, broken world by Silverman, Susan

Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Backman, Fredrik

Books 2017.08.12 fiction - 1

Reading Notes:

I haven’t been feeling very well for a week or so (not interesting to talk about), but one happy consequence of spending hours on the couch is that I’ve had more time for casual reading.

US History of White Trash

After two weeks of grumpy interactions with Isenberg’s White Trash, I let it go when my digital library loan expired and I don’t intend to finish it. There’s some interesting history here, but I found myself annoyed by what felt like intentional misunderstandings by the author more often than I gained insight into America’s past.

Typical example: stating that Thomas Jefferson was failing to enact political change while describing an episode of gradual political change. I think the author meant that Jefferson should have done more, and more quickly, but I quickly tired of watching the author grind her axe.

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Now here’s a book I couldn’t return to the library before completion.

To me, Timbuktu means “the ends of the Earth.” Timbuktu is synonymous with exotic foreign locales. Timbuktu is a place I knew by name before this book but with little understanding of its unique place in the history of learning and culture.

Bad-ass Librarians was written by a journalist, and it sometimes reads like a series of articles glued together to make a book. It’s worth reading anyway.

The provocative title aside, this is the story of ordinary (and extraordinary) people in Mali fighting back against a jihadist invasion of the region around Timbuktu. This book celebrates the thinking person’s ability to triumph over willful ignorance and wanton violence.

Here’s a rare celebration of centuries of African scholarship as glimpsed by the West. The threat to its tangible artifacts—a treasure trove of rare, priceless manuscripts—by Islamist extremists made my heart pound. I’m left with a yearning to see some of these documents for myself, and a renewed interest in learning some Arabic.

I can think of no better way for me, personally, to express my wish for peace in this world than through the cross-cultural sharing of books.

Adoption & Jewish motherhood in Casting Lots

Casting Lots came to me by way of a philanthropical organization that sends free books to Jewish families. Usually, it’s the kids who get the loot, but this month, there was a gift for me.

I am familiar with comedienne Sarah Silverman. I was intrigued to read that the author—her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman—is considered “the funny sister.” There’s certainly a family resemblance, including some of the crude punchlines that I most associate with Sarah.

In spite of that (because I get why potty humor is funny, but it’s not my first choice for entertainment), I enjoyed most of the time I spent with Casting Lots. It is, at its core, an engaging personal story. Silverman would be someone interesting to have a cup of coffee with.

The subject of international adoption is one I’ve considered for myself and observed through friends and family, and it is genuinely moving to follow her along this path to parenthood.

Her take on Judaism in general resonates less with me, and I see this story as a readable tale that happens to be written by a Jewish woman, not a Jewish parenting book, per se.

Mathematics textbooks, specifically, the Life of Fred

I wrote about this the other day, but I’m brushing up on my pre-algebra terms and presentation in preparation for working with the child* of a friend as a math tutor.

Life of Fred is a nontraditional approach to teaching math. Author Stanley F. Schmidt, PhD, presents the subject from elementary arithmetic up through college level courses in Linear Algebra and Real Analysis, all told through the lens of a 5 ½ year old professor named Fred at fictional KITTENS University.

Yeah, most of it really is as wacky as it sounds.

And yet: my younger son has read many of these books for fun, and more than once. He’s begging me to buy the Life of Fred: Calculus textbook so he can finally learn Fred’s origin story.

I’m in no rush to get my elementary schooler into calculus, but I’m impressed by a math book that promotes such a devoted following in a child who regularly declares himself averse to “being taught” anything.

We’ve had the elementary and intermediate arithmetic series for years, but I’ve just ordered the three volume pre-algebra series (Pre-Algebra 0 with PhysicsPre-Algebra 1 with Biology, and Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics) and Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra Expanded Edition.

I can’t speak to using this collection as a stand-alone mathematics curriculum, because that isn’t how I chose to use these books with my home educated child.

I do think that the method employed—every math problem to be solved is presented in the context of a character’s real life and search for solutions—might be exactly the right remediation for a child who has internalized the notion that learning math means memorizing occult procedures.

I spent the better part of two days perusing all of my current mathematics texts, then more hours compiling lists and ordering next year’s curricula in this and other subjects for DS1 and The Scholar.

The math curriculum I did use extensively with DS1 is also pictured above. (Beast Academy, by Art of Problem Solving.) Because I’m so familiar with them, I only picked out chapters and exercises for The Scholar to begin with; I didn’t read extensively from any of these. I mention them now because I can wholeheartedly recommend BA as a complete home school curriculum. They are also suitable as enrichment for a weak classroom program, or a student who needs a challenge.

*I’ve dubbed her The Scholar

Books by my bedside 2017/07/22

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books 2017.07.22 - 1

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

Dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s : three men, five great wines, and the evening that changed America by Cerami, Charles

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

The Little Schemer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Memoir

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Kamkwanba, William

True Crime

In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences by Capote, Truman

Fiction

 

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places by Begler, Peter

 

Reading Notes:

Do you have a logical mind? Do you enjoy mental puzzles and games? Maybe you do, but you’ve never tried any computer programming? Or you know something about programming, but haven’t read this book?

books 2017.07.22 - 2Consider picking up a copy of The Little Schemer.

Your library might have The Little LISPer instead. It’s the same thing, just an older edition. Consider them equally good reads unless you have a specific need to learn the Scheme dialect of the language, LISP.

Though the first edition of The Little LISPer is as old as I am, I didn’t read it in college, where I majored in Computer Science. I picked it up a year ago for fun.

The Little Schemer is one of the most mind-stretching things I’ve ever read.

You don’t need a special application or even a computer to learn from this book. A pencil and paper or text editor will do. For an intellect that revels in a certain kind of logical thought, it is well worth the effort to give it a whirl.

This isn’t about learning a piece of technological equipment. It’s strength training for your mind.

 

Books by my bedside 2017/07/06

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Fiction

Airman (audiobook, read by John Keating) by Colfer, Eoin.

Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

Lost in Arcadia: A Novel* by Gandert, Sean

The Murder of Mary Russell by King, Laurie R.

A Small Revolution* by Han, Jimin

The Things We Wish Were True* by Whalen, Marybeth Mayhew

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague Brooks, Geraldine

Reading Notes:

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you may notice a radical reduction in non-fiction titles this week. I’ll attribute that to a few factors:

  1. I avoid traveling with library books because I’m afraid I’ll lose them or return them late. I borrow most of my non-fiction books.
  2. One week of my three week trip was spent in a full immersion language learning environment which required lots of mental energy and all of my waking hours to be dedicated to a language other than English. I can’t read very interesting books in my target language; I’m not fluent enough!
  3. During week two, I caught a cold and my physical energy plummeted, too, leaving me mentally lazy and searching for pleasant distractions (i.e., novels!)
  4. I drove about 3450 miles/54 hours over the past three weeks, about 2/3 of it as the only adult in the car. I didn’t have as much time to read as I usually do, and we didn’t listen to as many audiobooks as I thought we would.

RoadTrip round trip map

Speaking of audiobooks…

Airman made a good family listen-aloud story. Eoin Colfer is better known for his Artemis Fowl series, but this book stands alone. It’s historical fiction (appeals to me), vaguely steampunk with several in its cast of characters dreaming of inventing airplanes (appeals to DS1), and has a plot that clips along fast enough to keep DS2 fully engaged.

There is one stretch about 25-30% into the story where the protagonist’s idyllic childhood is destroyed in an instant that I feared this novel would become too dark for my enjoyment. There are murders of beloved characters, sadistic prison guards, and evildoers wielding power in Airman. I’d suggest it for older elementary kids and up, not little or sensitive listeners.

In general, however, audiobooks, usually the primary form of entertainment on our family road trips, weren’t as popular on this one. In addition to Airman, which we finished, I’d loaded our hard drive with:

  • Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
  • Skullduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy,
  • Der kleine Prinz (German) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Science Fair by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
audiobooks Skullduggery Airman - 1

I buy used audiobooks for road trips; usually former library copies like these

Blame it on the good company of the other kids we brought to camp, or the availability of electronic devices for more personalized diversions, but there didn’t seem to be enough time to hear more audiobooks.

We did also listen to two or three recorded language learning lessons daily for the first 26 hours of travel, which spent 1 – 1½ hours per day. Plus, warning four kids about upcoming rest stops, getting four kids in and out of the van at the dozen or so daily rest stops, and suggesting snacks other than chips and candy filled most of the rest of the day. Or, at least, it seemed to.

Having the time and energy to curl up and read every evening—in my big, comfy bed, no less!—has been one of the greatest pleasures of returning home from this particular trip.

The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

Mysteries are my brain candy. I purchased Laurie R. King’s latest entry into the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series back in March, and have been saving it to savor during my summer travels. King is a fabulous novelist, and this series in particular hits exactly in my escapism sweet spot.

Historical fiction? Strong female lead? True love (non-smarmy) between a pair of great intellects? Check, check, and check!

Book cover Murder of Mary Russell King

I’ve never been disappointed by a piece of fiction written by Laurie R. King. The Murder of Mary Russell is meeting that standard thus far, though I am reading it slowly to make it last.

*A book given to me for free because of my Amazon Prime membership

Learning language as a gift to people we may meet

“I want to go everywhere and understand everyone. I never will, but it does motivate me.

It’s amazing how people respond when you [as a visitor] use even a little of their language, though. Like you’re offering a gift. And, I suppose, we [language learners] are: that of our time and attention.”

This post started as a reply to a comment left by Torazakana, a Japanese language learner whose efforts and accomplishments leave mine in the dust.

I include “living 3+ months in a foreign country with a different language” on my bucket list, but the longest I’ve stayed abroad yet was three weeks in Europe after finishing college. That was fun, but emphatically a tourist experience, not one of cultural or linguistic immersion.Beach sunset - 1

I don’t expect to be admired or congratulated for the work I do on foreign languages. I enjoy the challenge, the mental stimulation, and the sense of accomplishment from doing something more useful than binge watching Netflix. I like setting an example for my kids of lifelong learning and self improvement.

But I really love the light that comes into the eye of a friendly native speaker when I make an effort to communicate in their tongue, according to their terms. I love to give this gift. I revel in the return offering of goodwill and appreciation.

Even more than my (sometimes laughable) attempts at, say, Icelandic and its multitude of challenging sounds, or Catalan that tricks me repeatedly with its brushes against both Spanish and French concealing a reality of total independence, more than any speech itself, the international interpersonal connection is in the attempt. It is the reaching out that bridges the divide.

Language itself is just walking across the bridge that sincere effort built.

Books by my bedside 2017/06/09

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Pimsleur

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Fiction

Echoes in Death (In Death Series, Book 44) by Robb, J. D.

The Great Passage written by Miura, Shion, translated by Carpenter, Juliet Winters (note: this was a freebie from Amazon for being a Prime member)

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

Reading Notes:

Great Passage coverI finished The Great Passage last night. It was a novel I read at a slower pace; not urgently, but in a concerted and thoughtful way. That fits neatly with the book’s narrative about the team of employees at a publishing house working—for years!—on the publication of a new dictionary of the Japanese language.

It wasn’t what I’d consider a quotable book until the very end. I highlighted these two passages that I liked very much, which might help you decide whether this is a novel you’d enjoy reading.

“A dictionary is a repository of human wisdom not because it contains an accumulation of words but because it embodies true hope, wrought over time by indomitable spirits.”

(page 193)

and

Human beings had created words to communicate with the dead, and with those yet unborn.

(page 200)

The book does a beautiful job of shining a light on a subject that could easily be overlooked: the creation of a dictionary.

What kind of person commits to such an endeavor? What is the work like? Why does it matter, to them and to you?

For me, it also presents a lovely view into a very different culture. I could see evidence of differences I’d read about. I also learned many new things about the Japanese language and office culture in Japan.

The Great Passage is a well-translated foreign book that made for peaceful, but contemplative, bedtime reading. I would gladly delve into works by this author—and this translator—again.

Spit it out! Memorizing phrases & the parroting process for improving foreign language fluency

Rote memorization won’t make you a fluent speaker of a new language, but it can be a powerful tool for increasing your foreign language fluency.Pimsleur

You often resort to routine phrases in your native language

Imagine this common scenario.

You’re hurrying into a familiar place, surrounded by people you know. Someone asks casually, “Hi! How are you today?

Most likely, you answer without a thought:

Fine, thanks.”

You answered with a learned response. You weren’t engaging the higher functions of your complex brain and its multiple intelligences. You went by instinct. That’s rote.

This kind of verbalization isn’t going to make you a master public speaker. It isn’t the rich, nuanced stuff of great oratory or literature. But words and phrases like these make up a huge proportion of the words spoken every day.

If you cultivate your knowledge of simple, canned responses to common questions and scenarios in a target language, you can really accelerate your comfort with speaking and your eventual progress toward fluency.

Fluency only comes if you actively use the language

I’ve always been a good student. The strength of my short term memory and my classroom skills made it fairly easy for me to get good grades in high school and university classes in Spanish and German. In spite of this, even after years of study, I was nowhere near fluent in Spanish, though I could read written materials fairly well.

By contrast, in only one semester of purely spoken Japanese taught by an immersion method, I learned a handful of phrases that stick with me in their entirety (and at full speed) to this day.

After that course, I never studied a language the same way again.

Do you intend to read, write, or converse in your target language?

Before Japanese, I improved primarily in the area of language my classes tested: reading and writing.

Sure, the students in my classes engaged in dialogues, but these were a small fraction of the time spent, and conversational skills were almost never on the test. With 15 pairs of high schools students talking to each other simultaneously, ostensibly in Spanish, there was no way for the lone teacher to notice—let alone correct—errors, omissions, or even a total failure to complete the assigned dialogue.

If your interest in acquiring a new language is to read, say, Descartes in his native French, or Don Quixote in the original Spanish, the American classroom experience may serve you well. For everyone else, read on! Continue reading

6 more German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular und Grammatik

Because my children haven’t been embarrassed enough by my enthusiastic sing-alongs, here are six more pop songs that I’m using to improve my German language skills.

Added to my playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) Leider Geil

By Deichkind; I had to pay $12 from Amazon USA for the CD as it wasn’t on iTunes, but you can easily find and view the video online to check it out for free.

Possibly explicit. Anyone fluent in German care to enlighten me about this song’s degree of rudeness? Please share in the comments if you know.

If you’ve ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you’re well on your way to imagining the music video for Leider Geil. Familiarity with the “watching people do moronic stuff” genre will also help you understand why my young teen son found this song so appealing. This is the only foreign language track he asks to hear.

This song definitely has some mature content (coarse language and references to a one night stand), but, if my translation is accurate, I would allow my teen to listen to an equivalent track in English after some commentary from me about content.

Leider geil translates as “unfortunately awesome,” but geil also means “horny.” My German isn’t good enough to know just how risqué the language is, but it’s awfully catchy. It has a modern, slacker-esque, rhythmic edge that reminds me of the relationship between the Beastie Boys and pop music back when I was a teen. As far as I can tell, the wordplay seems clever in translation.

Are these guys cool? Are they male chauvinists? I have no idea, but I’m enjoying the tune.

I won’t ever forget how to say “unfortunately awesome” now that this song is in my head. I might accidentally deploy the phrase in polite company and embarrass myself. Oops! Leider geil!

2) Männer

From iTunes, I bought a cover version by “Partysingers” of this Herbert Grönemeyer hit.

Here’s an anthem for the men’s movement. Musically, this song is so retro 1980’s, which makes sense since it came out in 1984. It isn’t my favorite track in the playlist, but it’s a good resource for opposite adjectives with lyrics like:

Men have it hard, take it easy,
Outwardly hard, but inside all soft…

3) Tage wie diese

Available on iTunes, by Die Toten Hosen (yup, that means The Dead Pants.)

4) Wir trafen uns in einem Garten

Available on iTunes, by 2raunwohnung.

I’m listing these two songs together because both fall under the umbrella of “songs that sound like the kind of music I might listen to casually in my own language.” Neither has an unforgettable hook of the sort I can’t get out of my mind. Both fit reasonably well into my music library of alternative music, most of it from the late 1990’s and early aughts.

With lyrics in hand, a language learner can easily follow along with the words. The trick, for me at least, is to keep concentrating on them for the purpose of studying; I tend to get distracted by other things because these songs are a little too easy for my mind to transform into background music.

Comfort and familiarity may not be such a good thing when trying to pay close attention and learn.

5) Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Available on iTunes, by the Brazilian Girls.

The Brazilian Girls are apparently not Brazilian, and there’s only one female member in the band. She’s the one singing this pop interpretation of a classic German folk song that translates as Thoughts are Free.

And I am locked in a dark dungeon
I scorn the pain and human works
For my thoughts break the bounds and the walls,
Thoughts are free!

I learned of these lyrics from the lovely children’s book, From Anna, which I’ve previously reviewed. Searching for the full text—which brought me to tears reading the excerpt in the novel—led me to this quirky modern interpretation. I quite like its combination of funky rhythm, lightly overlaid electronics, a pretty, feminine vocal sound, and the traditional protest/progressive lyrics.

6) Da Da Da

As with 99 Luftballons in my first post about catchy German pop songs, this one was already in my music library. Unlike Nena’s really obvious hit, I had forgotten completely that there were German lyrics in Da Da Da. After all, da is the Russian word for yes.

You might remember this song from an old Volkswagen commercial (circa 1997.) If you do recall it, you might hate it. It’s a fairly goofy, very repetitive song with minimal lyrics, but some of them are in German. If you like this kind of electronic sound, you can learn to say “I do not love you, you do not love me” auf Deutsch. I hope that doesn’t come in handy!

If you enjoy Da Da Da, you’ll definitely want to check out Eisbär from my earlier German song post.

Happy listening!

Play your way to foreign language learning with puzzles and games

Even the most dedicated autodidact has an off day when she doesn’t feel like cracking a book or applying herself to her chosen course of study. These are days for a more creative approach. Consider it stealth education; it’s the scholarly equivalent of hiding puréed vegetables in the kids’ pasta sauce.

Equate it those school days when your teacher played a film instead of giving a lecture. You probably enjoyed the change of pace as much as he did.

To this day, when I hear the word superlative, my mind snaps right to The Superlative Horse. My class watched this movie in elementary school. I think it was based upon this book. I can’t recall the storyline, or whether we even read the book, but my memory clings fast to this particular title. I’ve relished the artful deployment of the vocabulary word ever since!

On a grumpy day—maybe due to too little sleep, aching joints, or a general case of the blahs—I could skip my scheduled 30 minutes of language practice. Sometimes, to be honest, I do. But, like most good habits, the trick is commitment, and the solution to malaise can be a lightening of the load without a free pass.

I’ve already posted about adding foreign language pop songs to my study routine. Typically, I read along with the lyrics while I listen to the songs. I sing along, too.

Is it a hardcore intellectual workout? No!

Is this a task I can fit into the busiest day, or prod myself into undertaking at my laziest? Yes!

Along similar lines, consider adding puzzles and games to your own self-guided study routine. It matters less what kind of material you introduce and more that you are tempted by the format.

I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles. The trick is to find one that has legible text in your target language. A world map puzzle was a good choice to meet this condition, and also provided an introduction to vocabulary (country names) I might otherwise not see in German.

German world puzzle deutsch

I found this Schmidt Spiele jigsaw puzzle for $10 on Amazon

It helps that, culturally speaking, Germany is a country known for high quality games and puzzles. They are exported worldwide, and brands like Ravensburger are readily available in many countries and languages, including English for the US market.

The trickiest part, when choosing games, is finding one that uses enough of the target language to be a challenge, but not so much that there’s no fun in the playing. The difficulty of picking a suitable game increases exponentially when you introduce more players with differing levels of language acquisition.

For example, German Scrabble requires significantly more language skill than German Monopoly. In the former, you’re forced to dredge up and correctly spell words from memory. Allowing free access to a target language dictionary can bring the level of difficulty back to manageable for beginners.

As a parent educating my child at home, I go out of my way to provide varied learning resources for my son. Enjoyable activities that complement or duplicate subject matter increase the odds that knowledge will be retained. It seems obvious that, by reinforcing a subject through different media, the learning will also be deeper as we experience it through more of our senses and engage different parts of the brain.

Why not provide myself with the same advantages?

It’s easy for geographically isolated Americans to forget that there’s more to learning a foreign language than books and instructional CDs, videos and lessons. The reality of language acquisition is that it must reflect multiplicities of experience to be meaningful.

What else is our language ability for, if not for use as a tool in living a full life?

Have you used any less-conventional tools for learning a language? Please share in the comments.

5 picture books to read aloud with melodramatic zeal, especially if you love world languages

I’ve hinted at this in my posts about learning foreign languages, but I like to get a little silly when my mind is the most engaged. It makes tasks that might be onerous into a bit of fun, and it keeps my sometimes whiffly energy levels from flagging in mid-effort.

My own two kids are big enough to read on their own now, but ours is a household of almost constant excited interruptions to share some great, new sentence, paragraph, or page of written work. In fact, I wooed my husband by reading an entire (admittedly short) novel* to him one afternoon at the beach.

I’ve read and re-read a few top favorites aloud to my boys even at advanced ages well past the “tell me a story” years; I think I’ve read these books to most of the younger friends we know, too. I’m that adult who always has time to read to a child. Some stories are too delicious not to share.

Two of my favorites are very popular and well-known American picture books I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere:

Bear Snores On (Karma Wilson)

Click Clack Moo (Doreen Cronin)

You can’t go wrong with either of these. If you’re like me, and you read them a few times, you may memorize most or all of the text! It’s hard not to when the rhyme and rhythm of the stories flow like song lyrics with every reading. This was a great help when the middle of our stapled paper Cheerios box freebie edition of Click Clack Moo lost a page. We closed our eyes and imagined those illustrations as I recited from memory.

Two other wonderful read-alouds were gifts to our family from the PJ Library program, a non-profit that strives to provide Jewish books to all interested Jewish or interfaith families with kids aged six months to eight years.

Something from Nothing (Phoebe Gilman)

The least obviously rhyming text on the list shows up in Something from Nothing, but the writing still has a poetic quality. There is a regular rhythm, both visual and verbal, to the way each new page spread builds upon the last as the story moves ahead. This one also happens to have a beautiful message about favorite things “wearing out” and being lost, whether you see it as primarily ecological (using something up completely without waste) or self-reliant (making the best of what you have) or some combination thereof.

Something from Nothing depicts a lovely inter-generational relationship between grandfather and grandson. It has the most detailed artwork of any book on this list. The wonderful, whimsical pictures, drawn by the author herself, include an entire silent second storyline hidden beneath the illustrated floorboards. Pre-readers might particularly enjoy poring over this aspect on their own.

Beautiful Yetta (Daniel Pinkwater)

My absolute favorite book to read to children, I’ve given Beautiful Yetta as a gift several times. This book is amusing—telling the tale of a valiant hen who “will not be sold. She will not be soup… She is free”—and includes the great fun of combining English, Yiddish, and Spanish in the text. Don’t worry, there are phonetic transliterations so you don’t need to read Hebrew letters or know either Yiddish or Spanish to share this book. You can also try on your Brooklyn accent when the rat tells Yetta to “Get lost!” This one is less obviously moralistic than some children’s books, but certainly carries on lightly with themes of self-reliance, serving others, and loving yourself and your friends as you are and in spite of your differences.

Except cats who try to eat you. Those, you scare away with confident words and wide-spread wings.Book Beautiful Yetta excerpt

ΡΕΠΚΑ (translation: Turnip; pronounced “Ryep-kuh”)

Not every reader will be able to share this story with their kids, but if you are even a beginning student of Russian, the frequent repetition makes this a great confidence builder for deciphering Cyrillic characters and the cadence of the story makes it so much fun to read aloud. In our family, where the kids heard Russian from native speaking grandparents from birth, this served all of us well.

Book Repka cover

When I said these stories were delicious read-alouds, I meant literally, and not in the modern sense where literally now officially means figuratively. DS2 chewed off that missing corner.

Hopefully the text is pretty classic, because my edition isn’t available on Amazon in the US, but here’s a link to a bilingual Russian-English version. We own two versions of this story, and this little red book (©2002, ISBN: 5-7865-0003-9) definitely tells it better as far as enjoyable read-aloud cadence goes. Not being fluent in Russian, I can’t say if the language itself is any more refined.

If you know of other wonderfully rhythmic read alouds that shouldn’t be missed—especially if they include foreign content in German, Spanish, or Russian while being accessible to a language learner—please share the titles in the comments!

*The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, haunting, and lyrical even in translation; it’s one of my all time favorite books