Even as some members of her audience wandered off to play with an array of colorful toys or were ferried in and out of the room by watchful parents, Luise Mahler kept reading to the small group of toddlers huddled at her feet.
Perched on a small chair in the middle of Book Culture’s child reading room Thursday afternoon, Mahler read from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” a common choice if not for one detail—the book was in German.
The reading was part of an expansion of Book Culture’s foreign language reading program for children, which also includes volunteer-taught classes in Spanish and French. Mahler, a Berlin native who now lives in Morningside Heights and studies art history at Hunter College, said the program would bolster the young readers’ foreign language skills.
“It’s a fantastic resource for the neighborhood because with weather like this, it’s difficult to keep kids indoors,” she said. “And it’s good for their development to be with children of other age groups and get exposure to other languages.”
Although many of the children were too young to speak a second language, Mahler tried to engage her audience as well as she could, drawing laughter when she used monster voices to describe how the creatures in Sendak’s story threatened to “fressen”—German for devour or gorge—the book’s main character.
Mahler, who also brought her two-year-old daughter to the reading, volunteered to take charge of the German session after attending similar foreign language programs with friends a few months ago. In addition to Sendak’s book, she read a popular German children’s book that used the story of Noah’s Ark to teach the alphabet and part of another book written by German author Cornelia Funke.
Many of the parents in attendance said they did not expect their children to immediately pick up the language they were hearing. Instead, they were interested in the intellectual stimulation of exposing their children to other languages, even if they could not speak or understand them.
Parent Martha Wilkie said she brought her three-year-old-son because she wanted to expose him to the language she had never learned from her own German parents.
“I think it’s just about hearing a different language and different styles,” Wilkie said. “And the concept of just knowing that there are different languages in the first place is very important.”
Some parents said they were drawn to the event more by the atmosphere than by the language itself. Monica Canetta, who speaks Italian, said she would consider volunteering to run an Italian session if there was enough demand for one but that she was drawn by the idea of having a place where her one-year-old daughter could play.
“They really open it up to kids, so they can play with toys and get to know each other,” she said. “And it’s good to get them exposed to other languages.”