A Caterpillar by Any Other Name

Kindergartners explore foreign languages through a beloved children’s book.

Poll a random group of adults about their favorite childhood book, and there’s an excellent chance someone will name The Very Hungry Caterpillar. That’s one of the reasons Zarya Navarro, who teaches the KX kindergarten class along with Denise Coffin, has been collecting copies of the story for years, in as many languages as she can find. Zarya decided to set up a special project with her students: reading Eric Carle’s classic story in as many languages as they could find.
 
“Although I’ve been collecting it for a long time, it didn’t occur to me to organize readings until much later,” Zarya says. “One day, I had a parent in my room reading another book, and I realized that he was the only person in the room who could read this particular version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar—it was in Danish.” She asked him if he would be interested in reading it to the class. And thus a new tradition was born.
 
Zarya enlists as many people from the Sidwell Friends community as she can to come in and read the story to the kindergartners in a language they haven’t yet heard. Oftentimes, these guests are the kindergartners’ parents, who come from a wide range of places. Felix’s father, for example, stopped by to read in Danish and taught the class that sommerfugl—which literally means “summer bird”—is how people in Denmark say “butterfly.”
 
But that was only the beginning of the project. The KZ students began joining the KX class in listening to all these fascinating languages, and more parents and friends began stopping by the classroom. Kabir’s mother read the book in Hindi, James’s mother read in it Chinese, Abby’s father read in Hebrew, Emilia’s mother read in Portuguese, Bic’s mother read in Vietnamese, and Ariana’s mother read in Farsi. Together, they added more butterfly words to their list: titli in Hindi, hú dié in Chinese, parpar in Hebrew, and borboleta in Portuguese.
 
“The ability to speak languages, to communicate, is really magical,” says Zarya. “It opens worlds that would otherwise be closed.”
 
Teachers and other Lower Schoolers have also gotten in on the project. The teachers include Elizabeth Bacon, who speaks French; Nedda Lewers, who speaks Arabic; Monica Sorensen, who speaks Spanish; and Liz Stoneham, who used The Very Hungry Caterpillar to talk about the differences between American and British English. A number of 4th graders also came by—Miya shared her Japanese language skills, Lia displayed her Italian, and Andrei showed off his Russian.
 
The kindergartners also learned that one language can have many different variants. For example, when Monica read The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Spanish, she explained that her own Chilean Spanish isn’t always the same as other forms of the language.
 
“At lunch, I eat with Mr. Flores, who is from Mexico, and Ms. Marleni, who is from El Salvador, and we speak in Spanish,” she told the kids. “Even though all these countries speak Spanish, sometimes the words are different. One example is the word ‘beet’—we all have different words for it!” Where Monica says bitarraga, Ms. Marleni says remolacha, and Mr. Flores says chirimoya. Thankfully, the Very Hungry Caterpillar manages to avoid beets in his search for a snack, so there was no confusion during Monica’s reading.
 
Ultimately, Zarya says, the goal of the project is to encourage curiosity about other ways of speaking—and about books themselves.
 
“Being able to read a book, make meaning, transport yourself somewhere else, and find enjoyment is essential to what we do as kindergarten teachers,” says Zarya. “All of our students are just beginning their reading lives.”
 
 

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