Photo by Jessica Keller: Bilingual Books Inc. owner Kristine Kershul sits next to a desk featuring various language products she has developed with her team over the last 40 years, including audio cd programs and easy-to-carry language maps.
Photo by Jessica Keller: Bilingual Books Inc. owner Kristine Kershul sits next to a desk featuring various language products she has developed with her team over the last 40 years, including audio cd programs and easy-to-carry language maps.

Kristine Kershul was in her late 20s when she became an author and accidental business owner.

She was teaching German to undergraduate students at the University of Washington when a colleague suggested she write her own foreign language book. The idea surprised her, although she was intrigued.

“I said, ‘I’m an academician. I don’t do commercial,’ ” Kershul said.

Told to give it a year before deciding for good, Kershul said she put together a team of colleagues, and, to her surprise, in that first year they published five books – in German, Spanish, Italian, French and Chinese.

“Now, we couldn’t do that many in a year if I wanted to,” Kershul said.

That was in 1981.

“I was 29, and I didn’t know anything about publishing, but I knew a lot about teaching,” she said.

With her first five books out of the way, Kershul soon became immersed in the world of foreign language book publishing.

The premise of her books, Kershul said, is that, with a little commitment, everybody has 10 minutes a day to learn a new language.

“There are wonderful stories of people who are truly fluent in so many languages,” she said.

Early on, Kershul decided her strategy would be to produce introductory foreign language books and products that were useful, entertaining and easy to use and understand. She also decided each book would stop with the first.

Kershul said she had her students from UW in mind when deciding on her intended audience and planning the learning materials. Her UW students, she said, were learning for personal enrichment, but the traditional coursework was not teaching them what they wanted to learn.

Her books, which start with key words like “when, how much and where” are purposefully arranged like a children’s book, include stickers to learn vocabulary and incorporate verbal recitation, as well as written exercises.

“They’re academically solid, but they’re designed for the casual user,” Kershul said, adding they are introductory books intended for people who are traveling to a different country and want to learn the basics before going, people with a significant other from a different country with whom they want to speak the language, or people who just want to learn a new language on their own.

Kershul said what she hadn’t foreseen is the books being picked up by people traveling for work, homeschool students, adult classes, gifted children, some high school classes and the military, which routinely purchases German, Italian and Japanese books, and for whom she has created some of her word maps in the past.

Now, including the five original books she published, Kershul’s Bilingual Books, Inc. empire has since grown to include seven more languages in the 10 Minutes a Day series: Arabic, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew and an English book for Spanish speakers. There are also four audio cd programs for Spanish, French, German and Italian. The language maps, which feature key words and phrases in a foldable, easy-to-carry booklet, come in 20 languages, including Swahili, Vietnamese, Pashto, Polish, Dari and Farsi.

Kershul said, if she were to take  on more languages, she might add Finnish, Dutch, Thai or Korean, but that is unlikely.

“The demand for those four languages is just too minimal,” she said. “It just makes no business sense to do it.”

Tourism, she said, makes up only one sector to which her books cater, with the military and education the other top sectors.

While most school districts offer a few language courses, very few, if any, offer Thai or Korean.

As well, while other languages range in popularity, Kershul said Spanish, French, German and Italian are always the most sought after among tourists and in classrooms.

Kershul said her education has grown through the years, as well. She is fluent in German and proficient in Italian, French and Latin, but she has picked up enough of the languages to understand and get by after each project, she said.

“After we put out our first Russian book, I could knock your socks off with what I could say, but then you move on to something else,” Kershul said.

As with every industry, the coronavirus pandemic did hurt Bilingual Books, with COVID-19 grinding everything to a halt and fewer people traveling, Kershul said, but things are slowly picking back up with the distribution of vaccines and people ready to travel after being confined for so long.

“We’re still here, and all our employees are still here,” Kershul said.

Looking back on the last 40 years, Kershul said she is proud of what she has done: established herself as a book author and publisher in a mostly male-dominated industry and created a company that leads in foreign language publishing. She said her interactions with customers each week, answering their questions, directing them to more advanced learning materials and hearing their stories, keep her invested and interested in continuing.

“Helping someone learn a foreign language only has a good outcome,” Kershul said.

To learn more Bilingual Books, or to purchase materials, go to bbks.com.