Children’s Content for Language Learning: Is it Really Useful?

(In this post, in saying children’s content, I am referring to content for children 11 or under)

Foreign language children’s content is not an uncommon subject among language learners, especially those looking to get into native language content. I remember when I first showed interest in wanting to start reading in Chinese, the most common suggestion I received was to ‘read children’s books’. I got the same kind of advice from different people when I was getting started with Chinese TV shows. The reasoning behind the suggestion is understandable; children’s content tends to be linguistically and thematically simpler compared to adult content, so it’s perceived as the best content to start with.

But, for me, children’s content was discouraging and I found myself quickly steering away from it. So I wanted to share my experience to see if any other learners may feel the same.

My Personal Issues with Children’s Content

All the issues I have with children’s content basically boil down to one main point; it’s not made for me. It’s made with native children in mind; I am not a native speaker nor am I a child. Children’s media is proposed to language learners because the expectation is that it will be simpler and easier to digest, and while that is mostly true, the vocabulary most children first learn and the vocabulary most learners first learn are very different so the content can end up being just as difficult and riddled with unknown words as content for those of an older demographic. As for the subject matter, this relies more on personal taste, but I found that the stories I was consuming did not motivate me to continue consuming and push through any difficulty I encountered.

Adding the expectation of simplicity to these two reasons was a quick recipe for discouragement. I wasn’t enjoying the content and I wasn’t able to keep up with it linguistically, but I thought I had nowhere else to turn because it was supposed to be the simplest native content I had access to. Thankfully, I quickly discovered that that wasn’t the case.

Some alternatives I recommend

If, like me, you struggle with children’s content, but you still think most native content is too difficult, I think more advanced learner content is a better stepping stone than children’s content.

Podcasts

For listening, I would recommend looking for podcasts made for learners that are recorded mostly if not exclusively in your target language. Listening comprehension isn’t just about the vocabulary you know, you need to get used to understanding a constant stream of expression and hearing vocabulary expressed in a variety of ways to reduce the areas of difficulty when you eventually decide to jump into native content.

Graded Readers

For reading, graded readers are a great place to start. These are books created with natives in mind, so they’re most likely exactly what you’re looking for. Just like listening, reading is a skill of its own, so allowing yourself to practice reading prose with vocabulary that is familiar to you will make the transition to reading native content much smoother.

(If you’re looking for some graded readers to get started, you can join the I’m Learning Mandarin Summer Raffle for a chance to win some graded readers.)

However, if you’re like me and you want to get straight into native content, there are ways to do it that soften the initial blow.

Rewatching TV Shows/Movies

For listening, you can use native audiovisual content, specifically content that you’re already familiar with. The visual aspect of the medium aids with comprehension and the former knowledge of it allows you to concentrate more on the language being used than the story being told. This method comes with the prerequisite of watching and understanding series you would be willing to eventually rewatch, but I found it to be really helpful.

Comics

The method of indulging in familiar content can be applied to reading too, but I find that comics are a better gateway to native reading content. Comics lack the descriptive vocabulary and prose that one would need to be familiar with to eventually read a novel, but they make up for it with the native use of vocabulary and sentence construction. They were my personal gateway to reading novels since I hadn’t been very familiar with graded readers yet. Eventually, by finding novels of a similar genre to the comics I was reading, I was able to work my way into native novel reading with minor difficulty.

Final Thoughts

I think whether children’s content is useful for language learning is really up to the learner. I’ve presented my reasons for why it didn’t work for me, but it seems I may be in the minority.

A small scale poll from my Twitter

I’ve heard a few language learners say that Chinese children’s content is generally harder than children’s content in other languages, especially in reference to books. My only experience is with Mandarin so I have no clue. Whether you’re learning Mandarin or not, I would still suggest giving children’s content a try, it may be a more enjoyable and more helpful experience than it turned out to be for me.

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