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US Writer Teaches Language Through Fairy Tales

In our global world, writer David Burke says, Americans must improve their language skills, and should start at an early age. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan spoke with the author, who has taught American slang to foreign English learners, and is now using fairy tales to teach foreign languages to American children.

David Burke is known as Slangman, and in his earlier books, he translated the language of American teenagers for an older generation, and deciphered American idioms for English-language learners overseas.

His latest effort targets American children who know little of foreign languages. He has written a series of books based on the observation that fairy tales are widely known across cultures.

"So I got this idea. What if I took a fairy tale, Cinderella? We start it in the native language of the reader. So, let's say in English for the American market. So we start in English, and as the reader moves forward, the story starts to morph into another language."

INSTRUCTION CD: "Once upon a time, there lived a poor girl - nuhaizi - named Cinderella who was very pretty - pioaliang. The nuhaizi, who was very piaoliang, lived in a small house - fangzi…."

Burke has compiled books of fairy tales with accompanying CDs in Mandarin Chinese, French, Italian, German, Hebrew, Japanese and Spanish.

INSTRUCTION CD: "Once upon a time, there lived a poor girl - muchacha - named Cinderella who was very pretty - bonita,"

A separate Spanish-language version helps teach English to Latin American youngsters.

Young readers learn about 20 words at each level, then move to the next level as they read a different fairy tale.

"For example, I've taken the story of Goldilocks, and I bring back all the words the kids have learned in Cinderella, and I add 20 more. And level three is Beauty and the Beast. I bring back all the words from level one, level two, and add 20 more words. So by the end of the entire series, which will be level nine, that will be 100 percent in the target language," he explained.

Burke says students often think of language learning as dull, but it doesn't have to be. Working with an illustrator, he designed his books with colorful cartoon-like illustrations that capture the young reader's imagination.

"In Goldilocks, of course, Goldilocks gets tired and she yawns," he explained. "And in the book when she yawns, her mouth is as big as big can possibly be. So what we see, she's tired. She's cansada [in Spanish], she's fatiguee [in French], she's stanca, Italian."

He says many Europeans are known for their facility with languages, and people in other parts of the world often speak at least two. Americans have a different reputation.

"There's a joke in the linguistic world that's painful, and funny. It's 'what do you call a person who speaks three languages?' 'Trilingual.' 'And what do you call a person who speaks two languages?' 'Bilingual.' 'And what do you call a person who speaks one language?' American.'"

Not all Americans are monolingual, of course. The country's many immigrants bring languages and cultures from all parts of the world. But Burke says too many Americans are fluent only in English, and he is working to change that.