Multilingual Storytimes: A Beginner’s Guide

Way back in February we celebrated International Mother Language Day round these parts. And because I work at a branch that has materials for kids in six different languages I felt it was my duty to try out some of these languages in storytime. Now it’s May which means February was basically last week and I’m finally getting around to writing it up. I thought it might be more useful to talk about how I went about planning it rather than just tell you all what I did,  hope you agree! (Though if you’re all about the storytime outline our pal Danielle and her colleague Shanshan Hui published an awesome Mandarin/English storytime in Winter 2013 YAACing.) Still with me? Ok, onto the planning!

VPL's tweet
Was I nervous!? No…

Know Thy Crowd. Know Thyself.

When I decided to put together a multilingual storytime I had been with my storytime crowd for a couple months. I’d had a chance to suss out which languages families were speaking at home and therefore might lend a vocal hand during a program- I don’t think there’s any shame in being strategic. I also had to think about my capabilities: I love trying out new languages but I mostly limp by with English and some French. The nice thing is though when you share your own culture (even haltingly) it invites the crowd to stay awhile and play with language.

Alli's Tweet
Know thy Twitter friends too. Brave @alli_librarian sings in Japanese!

Songs and Rhymes

My favourite place to look for songs and rhymes in other languages  is Burnaby Public Library’s Embracing Diversity Project which features words and videos in fifteen languages. They even have the option for people to upload their own which makes their Vimeo Channel beyond awesome. The songs which I ended up choosing were Paa, Tuhod, Balikat, Ulo (Feet, Knees, Shoulders, Head) in Tagalog or Filipino and Liăng Zhī Lăo Hŭ  (Two Tigers) in Mandarin. Our colleague Jon Scop shared this last song at our Guerrilla Storytime as one he uses to draw distant or chatty caregivers back into his programs, because they know ALL the words. For my hello and goodbye song I used  Clap Everybody and Say Hello/Nihao to get us warmed up and trying out some Mandarin. You can find even more multilingual songs and rhymes at CLEL StoryBlocks and Mama Lisa’s World.

Choosing Books

In my search for books I first thought about using books like Chris Raschka’s Yo! Yes? or Ah Ha! by Jeff Mack or even one of my favourite wordless books to talk about the universality of sounds and language. I also wondered about bilingual books but found it difficult to find ones which worked in storytime on such short notice. I did however come across this amazing post all about bilingual storytimes which has great tips for sharing texts in more than one language and given more time I’d love to give it a try. In the end I admittedly chose books which I knew and loved and asked questions as we went along like “how do you say alligator in your language?” and “what sound do they make?”  You can also check out our Bilingual Storytime Guide for tons of resources.

Yo! Yes? By Chris Raschka Ah Ha! By Jeff Mack

So there you have it, a whirlwind tour of my brain while planning a multilingual storytime. Because this was only my first I would love to hear what resources you use to plan multilingual storytimes and also your favourite jams in other languages!


14 thoughts on “Multilingual Storytimes: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. Thanks so much for sharing! I’m in the process of re-vamping one of my storytimes to be more friendly for ESL families, so it’s helpful for me to see how others are planning. (Especially those of us who are not bilingual.)

    Someone suggested to me that I include more sing-alongs in the place of books, and I’m beginning to see the value of that. My Chinese and Vietnamese families learn the songs long before they really follow the books. I’m also including more traditional stories and nursery rhymes to help them learn more about our cultural norms here. I figure a child who can sing BINGO will feel a little more normal in school, even if they haven’t completely mastered English.

    1. Brytani, thank you so much for your comment! I think you’ve totally captured the balance we’re trying to strike between inviting families in with content in their own language while also gently supporting English language learning. I, too have seen some amazing singalong programs but feel like I need to work on my uke skills or vocal stamina a bit before I’d be confident giving it a try 🙂 Like you say though they are an easier entry to English language and culture and lots of fun. Keep us posted on the results of the revamping- we’d love to hear how things turn out!

  2. CLEL Storyblocks are also a great resource for songs in (six) different languages. Thanks for the helpful post, I am gathering as much info as possible right now for Spanish and ASL bilingual storytimes 🙂

      1. Hi Rachel- we <3 CLEL's Storyblocks so I don't know how I missed this. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi, I really enjoy your blog and videos. I deliver Bilingual(English/Mandarin) Babytimes in Christchurch City Libraries. It’s fun to see how other people present it,too.

    1. Do you have any favourite resources for English/Mandarin babytimes? I have huge Mandarin speaking community and would love to know what your storytime looks like.

  4. Thanks for the post. I find it very helpful. I’m a Chinese speaker and I recently started to run Chinese/English bilingual storytimes at my library. I do find that searching for appropriate books and songs/rhymes can be hard. And I’m still trying to figure out how I read my stories, translate whole book or whole page or only few words. Here are two rhymes I used in my storytimes that I like:
    1. Bread and Butter Ni Hao (Chinese)/Annyong (Korean) or change to whatever language you presenting with.
    Bread and butter, Marmalade and jam
    Let’s say ni hao/annyong 你好/안녕
    As slowly as we can, …as fast as we can,
    … as loudly as we can, … as quietly as we can
    2. Popcorn Kernels 爆米花啊 (great with scarves)
    Popcorn kernels, popcorn kernels, In the pot, in the pot
    Shake them x6, Up they pop, up they pop!
    Bao mi hua a, bao mi hua a, 爆米花啊,爆米花啊
    Zai guo li, zai guo li, 在锅里,在锅里
    Yao a x6, 摇啊 x6
    Tiao chu lai, tiao chu lai, 跳出来, 跳出来

    1. Thank you so much, Emily! I might try these when my library reopens as I have a large Mandarin speaking community.

    2. Thank you so much Emily, and thanks Lindsey for the great post! I am a non-Chinese speaking librarian who just started a job where I need to do Chinese bilingual storytime, and this post is a total lifesaver <3

    1. That looks like an amazing, resource! I will add it to this post, thank you Jennifer.

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