English Language Learners

12 Books About Bridging Language Barriers

These picture books feature characters who find ways to communicate with older relatives or with each other, even when they don’t share a common language.

November 2, 2023
JohnnyGreig / iStock

Have you ever played Pictionary? How about charades? The general premise of these games is that you have to convey information nonverbally to your partner(s) so they can say a specific phrase or the name of something. While many people enjoy improvisational games such as these, if you were suddenly forced to communicate all of your needs and wants this way, all day, every day, it would be limiting and frankly exhausting.

The games above suggest two strategies for compensating for a language barrier: drawing and gesturing. For most adults, a sudden language barrier would be inconvenient but manageable; for a young child entering a new classroom where they don’t know the primary classroom language, a language barrier can make the school day experience seem overwhelming, frustrating, and interminable. 

Fortunately, there are picture books available that feature the theme of language barriers. Perhaps more important, they also suggest nonverbal language “bridging” activities for young children to consider. Activities such as drawing, dancing, cooking, and building a snowman are some of the collaborative activities featured in the 12 books below. 

Reading the picture books below allows young children, regardless of their primary language, to see, listen, and consider the activities in each book and formulate their own nonverbal communication strategies to add to their ever-growing relationship-building tool kit to benefit each child in a classroom.

12 picture books featuring activities that serve as language bridges

Amy Wu and the Warm Welcome, by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua. Lin is a new student in Amy Wu’s class who doesn’t speak English. Amy uses her powers of observation and creativity to formulate assorted school and home plans to make Lin feel included and welcome. Author Kat Zhang reads her book in this video. Corresponding teacher resources are available on the publisher’s website and featured at the end of the book. (Preschool–grade 3)

Drawn Together, by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat. A grandchild and grandfather speak different languages but soon discover that they have a special way of communicating through their mutual love of drawing. A corresponding Reading Guide is available on the Reading Is Fundamental website. Author Minh Lê reads his book in this video, and illustrator Dan Santat shares his inspiration and technique here. (Preschool–kindergarten)

Gibberish, by Young Vo. Dat is a young boy who has recently undertaken a big voyage to move away from one home and arrive at another, where everything is different. He finds it especially challenging to navigate his way through a school day attempting to understand a language that sounds to him like “gibberish.” Author-illustrator Young Vo shares the inspiration for his book in this video. (Preschool–grade 3)

Luli and the Language of Tea, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Hyewon Yum. While their parents attend an English class, a group of young children gather to play in a playroom next door. A young girl named Luli addresses the problem of uniting this group of children who each speak a different language by hosting a celebratory tea party in the playroom. A corresponding educator’s guide is available on the publisher’s website. (Preschool–grade 2)

Mariana and Her Familia, by Mónica Mancillas, illustrated by Erika Meza. Mariana and her mother drive to Abuelita’s for a family reunion. Mariana is anxious because she doesn’t speak Spanish and she doesn’t know these family members. Abuelita and Mariana ultimately lovingly communicate via looking at picture books, cooking, and sharing hugs. There are corresponding student activities on Mónica Mancillas’s website, and the author introduces her book in this video. (Preschool–grade 3)

Mustafa, by Marie-Louise Gay. Mustafa has recently moved from far away to a place where he now searches for what is familiar. While playing in the park, he meets a girl named Maria. Although their languages are different, they manage to communicate through the outdoor activities that they can do together in the park. A corresponding teacher’s guide is available on the publisher’s website. Author-illustrator Marie-Louise Gay reads her book here. (Kindergarten–grade 3)

My Words Flew Away Like Birds, by Debora Pearson, illustrated by Shrija Jain. A young girl reflects on the comforts of her familiar old home and the challenges of her new home. Will she ultimately find something that feels familiar in this new place? Yes! Ultimately it’s making a friend that helps the little girl feel at home. (Preschool–grade 3)                      

Next Door, by Deborah Kerbel, illustrated by Isaac Liang. This wordless picture book features two young children who become new neighbors. One child speaks only Arabic and the other child communicates using American Sign Language. They use gestures, drawing, and sharing food to communicate and ultimately initiate a friendship. (Preschool–grade 2)

Quiet Time With My Seeya, by Dinalie Dabarera. A little girl and her grandfather may speak different languages, but they communicate perfectly through activities such as playing dress-up, cooking, and going on nature walks. (Preschool–grade 1)

A Thousand White Butterflies, by Jessica Betancourt-Perez and Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Gina Maldonado. A little girl in the United States looks out her window on a winter day and sadly thinks about her father and friends in Colombia. She will be starting school in January, but what she anticipates will be her first day of school in America winds up being her first snow day. She is initially disappointed but then plays in the snow with a neighbor, who coincidentally is also a future classmate. A corresponding Teacher’s Guide is available on coauthor Karen Lynn Williams’s website. (Kindergarten–grade 3)

We Laugh Alike/Juntos nos reímos, by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez. This book features two groups of children with two languages to navigate on one playground. All of the children soon discover that their similarities transcend their differences as they identify and learn games, songs, and dances that unite them in play. (Kindergarten–grade 3)

Words to Make a Friend: A Story in Japanese and English, by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Naoko Stoop. Two little girls meet on a snowy day to exchange banter in English and Japanese, and together they build one monstrous snow creature. (Preschool–grade 3)

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
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  • K-2 Primary

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