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New Books Cast Cinderella, Other Fairy Tale Stars as Language Teachers

Guest host Mike O'Sullivan talks with an author (familiar to our longtime listeners) whose newest books use 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.

DAVID BURKE: "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."

ENGLISH-MANDARIN INSTRUCTION: "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.

ENGLISH-SPANISH INSTRUCTION: "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.

DAVID BURKE: "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."

Burke says he has a series of comic books planned for teenagers.

DAVID BURKE: "That will have all the words they've learned in the series, plus more words we'll keep introducing. We'll also talk about events that pertain to teenagers. So it will be in their context, but in the language that they've been learning."

He says as parents and children read the books, both will benefit.

DAVID BURKE: "Under their radar, the kids are going to be learning foreign languages, and their parents too."

Burke says students often think of language learning as dull, but it doesn't have to be.

DAVID BURKE: "What I always hear from students is, ugh, I've got to go take French class, I've got to take Spanish class. And that really is painful."

Working with an illustrator, he designed his books with colorful cartoon-like illustrations that capture the young reader's imagination.

DAVID BURKE: "In 'Goldilocks,' of course, Goldilocks gets tired and she yawns. 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), fatiguee (in French), she's stanca, Italian."

He says foreign language learning can become a daily habit.

DAVID BURKE: "When it's bedtime, time for storytelling, the parents can pop on the CD, open the book, and actually learn the foreign language with the child."

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.

DAVID BURKE: "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.

And that's Wordmaster for this week. Archives are online at and our e-mail address is

I'm Mike O'Sullivan in Los Angeles.