Have you ever wondered how I learned English? It’s all thanks to my mother and children’s books. My mother is bilingual. She learned English when she was 8 (at the International School of the Hague, no less), studied and worked in English-speaking countries.
As a child, I had English at preschool. However, I got to the point where I could name the colors in English, and basically, that was it. Horrified by the poor state of my English, my mother decided to take action. And she did it in a way that is the most brilliant way to teach a child a language. Rather than enrolling me in English language classes, she decided to do it all by herself. We started with a simple grammar book.
This was hard. The differences between Polish and English grammar are profound. As a Polish person, I couldn’t care less whether something happened before or after or during something else happened (had happened, was happening). Polish tenses are not that complex. We have one tense for the present, two for the future and two for the past. That’s it. To me, English grammar seemed crazy. So, after we finished this book, I wasn’t any smarter than before. But, here’s where the next step comes in.
Knowing my passion for reading, my mother chose “Winnie the Pooh”, the best children’s book there is. It’s not very simple, but I had already read in in Polish a million times, and knew it by heart.
“Winnie the Pooh” is a brilliant book. It’s funny, and heart-warming, and touching, and sad. The Polish edition is a little gem of translation art, making it as good, or even better than the original.
And so, my mother made me read to her. At first, it was, to put it mildly, a struggle. While I knew the story very well, how could I tell that “ate” is the past tense of the verb “to eat”, or “went” is the past tense of the verb “to go”? It doesn’t make sense. These words are not even similar!
But soon something in my head went “click”. I was suddenly able to understand the words that just days ago sounded so hollow, and free of any meaning. I was able to make sense of sentences, and they suddenly worked together to make up a story. Soon, it became fun.
When we finished “Winnie the Pooh”, we read through “the House on Pooh Corner”, and then the classic poems “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six”. When we were done with that, it was “Alice in Wonderland” and the next part, “Through the Looking Glass”, both of them books that are not at all meant for children!
We then made a big step. We started reading ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. But at that point reading aloud became extremely difficult, because my eyes were faster than my mouth. So I continued reading alone. ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” came first, then the slightly easier “Animal Farm”, and I mean that linguistically speaking, not plot-wise. I’ve been reading in English ever since, and I never stopped. I also went through English classes- many of them- but this is how it started.
My mother couldn’t have had a better idea to get me started learning and loving the English language. Also, it had a great benefit of allowing me to spend some time with her on activity that was just for me! While I learned English when I was a child, I still do this when I learn a new language- I did it with French, and I am planning to do the same thing with Dutch.
In fact, I have already read three books in Dutch and it makes me very proud to be able to experience these great writers through their own language.
All in all, there are many ways to learn a new language. Reading children’s books is not one that immediately comes to mind. It may feel weird to have to start at a child’s level, especially if you are already an accomplished adult. But I can tell you that there are many great children’s books that are a pleasure to kids and adults alike!
Want to read more about how I learned English from my mom? Buy Only Trollops Shave Above the Knee, the crazy, brilliant and unforgettable lessons we’ve learned from our moms!