November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Digital Visual Dictionary Bridges Language Gap for Refugees

While volunteering with child refugees in Germany, Anna Karina Birkenstock found picture books a bridge to grasping a new language. But, as any librarian can attest, books can be difficult to acquire in large numbers without an adequate budget. Luckily, Birkenstock and her husband, Caspar Armster, both publishers, were uniquely positioned to help, and “DAS Wilkommens-ABC” (ArsEdition, 2015) was born.

The 35-page digital visual dictionary is their English-German language project, which went live last year. With clear, charming illustrations, more than 150 words are decoded from simple vocabulary, such as apple and bed, to those that go beyond a child’s primer, including Internet and vaccination.


Birkenstock, along with 25 other illustrators, created all the imagery in the book, which exists solely online, free to download as a pdf or epub3 file. There’s also an Apple iBook and Android app for computers, smartphones, and tablets—although the Apple’s U.S. store noted the book was not available, and thus can’t be downloaded. Yet those who are able to download the digital versions, presumably in Germany, have access to an audio component. Unlike standard print books, audio files enable students of any age to hear a new word, crucial to not just understanding an unfamiliar language but to adopting it as well.

The project has already met with success, according to volunteers who work with immigrants and organizations throughout Germany, says Birkenstock, by email.

Stiftung Lesen (the largest foundation to support reading abilities in Germany) has printed it as an addition to their ‘children book boxes’ they give out in reception centers, and also the Bavarian teacher association has printed 20,000 for Bavarian primary schools,” she writes. Birkenstock also notes that many volunteers have mentioned it is “a great start for first steps in German” for adults as well as children.

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany topped more than one million people in 2015 — many from war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn fire, even from within her own country, for her policies welcoming refugees.

Regardless of the politics, experts agree that the people coming into the country need assistance. Helping them to understand the language of their adopted home, whether temporary or not, can be the first step.

The Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, a nonpartisan policy group, underscored that point in its 2015 annual report, emphasizing that “the acquisition of German language skills must be promoted from an early age, in order that children—irrespective of their citizenship and migration background—are not disadvantaged when starting school,” according to the report.

While there are multiple languages peppered among arrivals, Birkenstock says they chose to produce the book in English and German as a launching point. English is a language familiar, at least in small part, to a fair percentage of immigrants. The visual format of the picture dictionary makes fluency in English less essential than it otherwise would be.

While Birkenstock and her husband have no plans to expand the project themselves, she is working with PubCoder, a digital publishing app, to allow other language versions to be created “to spread the idea through Europe,” she says. “We hope to get illustrators from other countries to join in and make their own version of the book/ebook.”

Multilanguage material is difficult for librarians to find, as SLJ reported from its own May 2015 survey. Even when found, many school librarians lack the budget to pay for these books. A free publication is certainly worth noting—particularly one that can be available on Android and Apple devices. Birkenstock says she has also heard of public libraries printing the PDF themselves to have available in children’s sections.


Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at