A Minneapolis library's story time taps into world languages as it encourages parents and children to pick up a book together.
Mohamed Hassanqaac, wearing a gray cardigan and with children gathered around his chair, looked more like a grandfather than a library volunteer as he turned the well-worn pages of a book during a recent Somali language story time at Sumner Community Library in Minneapolis.
In the folk tale "Hungry but Free," two clever donkeys plot their escape from an angry farmer. Hassanqaac read the Somali text written across the top of the page, then the children took turns reading the English translation beneath the illustrations. He praised their reading skills, asked them questions about the story and gently tapped the knee of a wiggly 7-year-old girl, reminding her to pay attention.
Hassanqaac said that even though children who regularly attend the weekly story time cannot read in their native language, most understand it when they hear it spoken.
"Even though the kids are integrating into the English language, I encourage Somali parents to read to their children in Somali," said Hassanqaac, a Hennepin County library volunteer for 11 years. "It is good for them to hear it."
The Hennepin library system regularly offers World Language Storytimes for babies, toddlers, preschoolers and families in Somali, Spanish and Hmong at several of its branch locations. This month the Brookdale Library will also offer a story time in Korean.
Reading offers lessons
Listening to stories in their native language can give children's learning potential a big boost, said Susan Glenn, principal librarian for youth services for Hennepin County.
"Research has shown that giving very young children the opportunity to hear stories and songs in their native language is the most effective way to prepare them to develop literacy skills in English," said Glenn.
Many immigrant parents had no free public libraries in their native countries. For this reason, the library wants to help introduce parents and children alike to the pleasures of leisurely reading and the opportunity to pursue their interests and talents, said Renée Reed, Hennepin County's principal librarian for adult services and immigrant resources supervisor.
The St. Paul Public Library is also expanding language offerings and just launched a Sunday afternoon Hmong story time at the Rice Street Library. Rebecca Ryan, a project manager, said the library is hoping to add Spanish and Somali story hours later this spring at times such as Sunday afternoons, when it's easier for the entire family to attend.
"We do hear from parents that sometimes it is hard for them to preserve their native language with their young children," said Ryan. "It is important for them to maintain that cultural connection and important to hear their language spoken in a public place like the library."
A limited collection
One challenge for librarians is to find books written in native languages. In the case of Hmong and Somali languages, for example, the oral storytelling tradition means that books are not readily available.
"We've been experimenting with using wordless picture books and then telling the story in a native language, and also with translating existing books from English," said Ryan, adding that all world-language story times will be led by native language speakers.
Reed believes the library's multicultural programming can benefit others as well as the native language speakers.
"Listening to stories in another language is an opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the wisdom of stories that might be unfamiliar, but have such a richness, especially when it comes to the telling of myths and folk tales," she said. "By exposing children to other cultures when they are young, it can do away with negative feelings and help them embrace many cultures with joy."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
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