When the sun finally reappeared late last week, I walked over to The Big Hammock, a 33-foot-long public art installation on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, for story time. There Antonia Better-Wirz, a former preschool teacher from Connecticut, was reading aloud “Children All Over the World Enjoy Hammocks,” a multilingual book that she wrote. In the process, she was modeling the kinds of interactions that promote language development in young children and lay the foundation for later literacy and other skills.
“The hammock is soft. The hammock is rough,” Better-Wirz read aloud to Susan Webb of West Roxbury and her 3½-year-old granddaughter, Maddie. Then Better-Wirz reached down to the rope made of recycled water bottles that her niece Hansy Better Barraza had used to construct the giant hammock. “Can you touch the hammock?” Better-Wirz asked Maddie. “I bet your shorts are soft.”
Better-Wirz, a native of Colombia, wrote her book in English and Spanish and had it translated into Chinese. On each page, the story unfolds in three languages. Here, too, research supports Better-Wirz’s message. Families can best help their children develop their oral language by talking to them in the language in which they are most comfortable. The reason is simple: Young children acquire critical language skills and vocabulary by engaging in the kind of rich conversation that is not possible if the adult is struggling in English.
“It doesn’t’ matter what language you’re reading in as long as you’re reading and bringing the cognitive part to the children,” Better-Wirz said. “When it has to do with literature, you have to have the children compare the book with what they’re seeing in their surroundings. It’s not just about reading. It will develop their brain and their language.”
Soon a young woman and the 2-year-old girl in her care joined Better-Wirz on the hammock. This time Better-Wirz read “Los Ninos de Todo El Mundo Disfrutan De Las Hamacas” in Spanish. Boston Asian Youth Essential Service provided readers in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Here is the first page of Better-Wirz’s book, in English and in Spanish:
The hammock is full of children.
La hamaca esta llena de ninos.