Why English translations should not be included in Chinese textbooks

English presence in Chinese textbooks is prevalent. Book titles, introductions, instructions, exercises, one reads quite bit of English there. The Mandarin Express series and the Chinese Reading and Writing series are no exceptions. However, I do oppose that English translations are put side by side on the same page with Chinese texts. 

English has its purpose in Chinese textbooks. For many students, especially beginner students, when they can not read any Chinese, the best medium for them to understand what they are doing or where they are is English. Book titles let students know what book they are learning. Introductions gives people a general idea of what books are about. Instructions tell students what to do, and as for exercises, translating from English to Chinese or vice versa is a basic form of language exercises. This is quite sensible. But the same logic does not apply to include English translations of the Chinese texts in the books.

I have met some people who believe that English translations should be provided to beginner students in their Chinese textbooks. They thought the translations will make learning Chinese easier for beginner students. The rationale is that, English translations help them understand what they are learning. Therefore, three lines of scripts are necessary, a line of pinyin, a line of Chinese characters, and a line of English. For example, to teach students how to ask people’s name, we should have:

nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?


What’s your name?

Sometimes the character line is the first line, followed by pinyin. 

IMHO, only Chinese-English dictionaries adopt such format, and with words and combinations of Chinese characters as the primary Chinese texts. That’s what dictionaries do. The purpose of Chinese textbooks is different. It is for students to engage in Chinese texts, to negotiate with them, to guess a little, and to think a little in Chinese. Words and combinations of characters are only part of, many times a small part of, the Chinese texts. And English translations laid side by side with the Chinese texts do not serve this purpose, and often have undesirable effects and negative impacts on the learning results. 

Below is my reasoning. 

The first one is that the Chinese-English text layout seems to encourage students to compare the Chinese texts word by word with the English translations. When they do so, they for sure will arrive at some wrong conclusions, attributing a false translation to a Chinese character or word. As our example shows, the meaning of 叫 is not to be found in the English text. It’s likely that students will think 叫 is equivalent to “is”, a mistake which can be avoided easily and should be avoided from the beginning. 

The second one is that Chinese structures can not be translated well into English. Let’s get back to our example. In English, question words such as “what” and “how” start the sentence and the word order changes. It is not so in Chinese. In Chinese, question words are where the missing information is, and the word order stays the same. Hence, the English translations make it hard for students to fully appreciate the Chinese language structures.

The third one is that students' attention is often drawn to the English texts which they are more familiar with, and lose their focus on the Chinese texts. Distractions as such has terrible outcomes. It prevents students from engaging in the most critical learning process, to negotiate with the targeted language — the Chinese language, to guess a little, and to think a little in Chinese.

These are my ideas. And these are the reasons that both the Mandarin Express series and the Chinese Reading and Writing series do not have English translations next to the Chinese texts.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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