How helpful are bilingual books for students to learn Chinese?

Chinese-English bilingual books are the books printed with two languages side-by-side on one double-page. I do not mean those “pictionaries” books, which are colourful dictionaries teaching vocabularies in two languages, such as a list of fruits in both Chinese and English.

Let’s discuss about Chinese-English story books.

The idea of Chinese-English bilingual books is that, with two languages telling the same story, readers can learn Chinese while relying on English, a familiar language. The underlying method of bilingual books is learning by translation. 

If bilingual books are printed in two of the European languages, such as Spanish-French or Italian-Portuguese, they may be very effective. But for Chinese-English bilingual books, they don’t work as well as we would like them to be. 

When students grab a Chinese-English bilingual book and try to learn Chinese, they usually list a number of new words appeared in the Chinese text and find out the meanings of these new words in the English text. 

This is where the trouble begins.

Translation quality

Good and inspiring translations are almost always a re-write of the original texts. A good example is Yan Fu’s translation of Evolution and Ethics. 

English and Chinese are two languages with so many differences. Many times, when good original work and good translation are put side by side, we are struck by how daring the translators are and the wonderful skills they have mastered to transform the original text to something quite different. 

Good translations do not allow students to tally the English text with the Chinese text sentence by sentence, or word by word, with the intention to learn Chinese. 

Bilingual books which allow readers to tally sentences from both side and pick out new words must adopt a literal translation approach, and the overall result will be a substandard translation in Chinese. 

Substandard texts do not nurture learning interests, and have a negative impact on learning result. 

Taking the fun out of reading a good book

People enjoy reading a good book. 

However, when Chinese and English are put side by side with the intention to teach Chinese, it defeats the purpose of an enjoyable reading time. 

Reading such books becomes gruelling and tedious. 

Some people might have picked a long list of new vocabulary from the Chinese texts, but most of the new words will slip away from their mind quickly because they may not see them again for a long time. The effectiveness of learning is very low. 

Personally, bilingual books never helped me when I was learning English. If the story was good, I would tend to read the Chinese texts only. If the book was bland, I lost interest in reading it after a few pages.

Bilingual books for young children

I think young children who have bilingual parents benefit the most from reading Chinese-English bilingual books.

They enjoy many advantages that adult students do have.

Young children often read together with their parents.

Young children can read the same book over and over again. That makes it possible to read a Chinese this time, and English next. 

Young children are never asked to learn a list of new words, or to compare the two languages from a grammatical point of view. 

Young children just read and have fun. 

This is how children learn.

Another added benefit for young children is that books published for them are more colourful and more appealing. Language texts are not very prominent.

Adult students learn Chinese differently. They don’t pick up Chinese naturally as children do, and books published for them generally have more words than illustrations. 

Adult students need to know where their strength is and understand how to use their strength to achieve the best learning result.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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