My friend, Naoko, once told me that she learned to speak English well from watching soap operas.
I might have been surprised, except that I knew my own Japanese language skills improved thanks to the Japanese dramas that I watched. Hearing native speaker use language in a context you can understand is a great way to learn.
The soap opera equivalent for kids is a cartoon. The kids don't have to understand everything that’s said to have fun watching, and it's great exposure to natural language and culture.
Nowadays, it’s easy to find kids' cartoons from around the world on the web. Here are eight of my favorites to watch in their original language.
French: Caillou and Trotro
Adapted from the books of the same name, Caillou is a series about a little guy who loves exploring both the real and imaginary world. It started out as a French series in Canada aimed at preschoolers, and is now available in English and Spanish, too. Watch Caillou on Youtube or find on Amazon.com in French, English, and Spanish.
Trotro is another fun one, this time from France. These three-minute shorts star a sweet little donkey named Trotro in his everyday life at home and with his friends. There are many Trotro videos on Youtube. Trotro is also available in French on Amazon.com, but be cautious of whether your DVD player can play Region 2 formatted (European) DVDs.
Recommended ages: Caillou and Trotro are both aimed at preschoolers in their home markets. They're also good for older language learners, though.
Spanish: Pocoyo and Telmo y Tula
If your kids like to cook, then I recommend trying the cartoon cooking show, Telmo y Tula. The two girls make simple breakfasts, sandwiches and desserts. Watch in Spanish on Youtube. There’s an English version available in case you get stuck.
Recommended ages: Pocoyo is aimed at preschoolers in its home market (squeaky clean!) Telmo y Tula is a cooking/crafts show, so aimed a little older, at kids who are ready to help in the kitchen.
Mandarin: Elmo and Xi Yang Yang
For older kids, Xi Yang Yang (or Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf) is the biggest current hit among school kids in China. A bunch of cute goats are trying to get even with the wolf that wants to eat them. Find videos in Mandarin on Youtube. Also available on Amazon.com for those with DVD players that can play Region 6 formatted DVDs.
Recommended ages: Elmo is squeaky clean. XiYangYang is for elementary school kids. There's some cartoon violence between the lambs and wolves.
A Japanese classic, Anpanman has been on the air continuously for 25 years. How can you resist a super hero made from a bun stuffed with red-bean paste? His friends include a curry bun, a tempura prawn and a dog named Cheese. The enemy, Bacteria Man, is also quite cute in his own way. Watch on Youtube or find on Amazon, but be cautious of DVDs not noted to be in Region 1 format. You may need a special DVD player for these.
Recommended ages: It’s aimed at preschoolers through elementary in its home market. The protagonists do fight the "bad guys." But the characters are all foods -- so the good curry donut might squirt its curry at Bacteria Man.
Hindi (and English): Chhota Bheem
The most popular kids’ character in India today is Bheem from the cartoon series Chhota Bheem. He’s a brave 9-year old boy who gets his super strength from eating ladoos, an Indian sweet. After seeing this show, we made a special trip to an Indian bakery to see if it would work for my boys. Clips from the show are available in Hindi and in English, and there are now movies, comic books and online games, too.
Recommended ages: The target age group for this in India is 3–9 year-olds. Again, the young protagonists are superheroes and there's an emphasis on good deed and good qualities winning over the bad guys. But there are some “bad guys” in this one, so parents of sensitive younger ones may want to check it first. (My little guy read the comic books and saw it on TV at 5, and it was fine.)