How helpful are bilingual books for students to learn Chinese?

Bilingual books are the books printed with two languages side-by-side on one double-page. Here I do not refer to those “pictionaries” books, a colourful dictionary with two sets of vocabularies, mainly on fruits, animals or colours. Instead, we are discussing story books.

The idea of bilingual books is that, with two languages telling the same story, readers can learn a new language while relying on a familiar language. The underlying method of bilingual books is learning by translation. Regarding the effectiveness of the bilingual books printed in two of the European languages, such as Spanish-English or Italian-French, I am not qualified to comment. However, as for Chinese-English bilingual books, I am quite certain that they don’t work as well as we would like them to be. This is largely due to how Chinese-English bilingual books are used in learning Chinese. 

When students grab a Chinese-English bilingual book trying 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 by comparing with 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, it is particularly so when it comes to English and Chinese, 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 with the intention to learn new words. 

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 is highly likely to be a substandard translation. Substandard texts do not nurture learning interests, and have a negative impact on learning Chinese.

Taking the fun out of reading a good book

People enjoy reading a good book. But when reading Chinese and English side by side with the intention to learn Chinese, it is no longer an enjoyable reading activity. It becomes gruelling and tedious. Even a short book will take weeks to finish. 

Some people might have a sense of achievement when looking at a long list of new vocabularies they have picked out from the Chinese texts, but nearly all of the new words will slip away from their mind quickly, if not instantly. The effectiveness of learning is very low. 

Personally, bilingual books never really 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

Who benefit the most from bilingual books? IMHO, young children who have bilingual parents benefit the most from reading bilingual books, as long as they read with their parents. Young children can read the same book many times, and often their parents have the power to decide which language of the book to read. Young children are never asked to make a list of new words, or to compare the two languages from a grammatical point of view. They just read and have a fun story time. This is how children learn.

Moreover, books published for young children are generally more colourful, with detailed illustrations, or with some texture. 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. Therefore, they need to know where their strength is and understand how to use their strength to achieve the best learning result.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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