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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 in Chinese textbooks. The Mandarin Express series and the Chinese Reading and Writing series are no exceptions.

The purpose of English translations in Chinese textbooks

English (or other languages) has its purpose in Chinese textbooks. 

When students have a limited understanding of Chinese, English book titles let them know the nature of the textbooks, English introductions give them general ideas about the books, and English instructions tell them what they are expected to do. 

In short, English informs students when Chinese can not.

However, the same logic does not apply to including English translations of the Chinese text.  

Students’ job is to learn Chinese texts presented in books. Merely understanding the meaning of the Chinese texts does not help them learn. In fact, English translations hinder students from making progress.

Why three lines of different scripts are not working

Many Chinese textbooks have three separate lines of different scripts, a line of pinyin, a line of Chinese characters and a line of English translations.

For example, to teach students how to ask people’s name, we would have the following texts:

nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?


What’s your name?

Sometimes the line of Chinese characters is on top of the line of pinyin.

Let’s see why three lines scripts don't work.

  • Such Chinese-English translations encourage students to compare the Chinese texts word by word with English texts.

    When students compare both texts word by word, they often arrive at some wrong conclusions, attributing a false meaning to a Chinese character or word. 

    Let’s use the example “What’s your name?” to explain. In this question, the meaning of “” is not to be found in the English text. 

    ” means “to shout, to call, to order, and etc.”. It is the best to be translated into “to be called” in this sentence. “What’s your name” is an indirect translation of “你叫什么名字”. A direction translation would be “you to be called what name”, which is bad English. 

    A simple translation needs a lot of explanation. If nobody is there to explain that to students, it is very likely that they will think “” means “is”, and that is a mistake. 

    Mistakes like that can be avoided easily should be avoided from the beginning.

  • Chinese structures can not be translated well into English structures.

    The current system of Chinese grammar is an adopted one. Believe it or not, it actually has a Latin origin, which is the same origin for English. This is the reason that we see so many English linguistic terms that are used in explaining Chinese. 

    The fact is that Chinese and English are two very different languages. It is a mistake to learn Chinese using English grammatical concepts.

    However, putting English translations underneath the Chinese texts encourages students to learn Chinese through the lens of English.

    One big problem students must overcome is the different language structure.

    Let’s get back to our example, “What’s your name”. 

    In English, the question word “what” starts the sentence. It is different from Chinese. In Chinese, question words are where the missing information is, and the word order stays the same. 

    Somebody needs to explain that to students. Simply putting English translations there makes it hard for students to fully comprehend the Chinese language structure.

  • English translations are distractions.

    When we read texts, our attention is always drawn to the familiar ones. When students are reading their Chinese textbooks with English translations, their attention is involuntarily drawn to the English texts. Therefore, they lose their focus on the Chinese texts. They are distracted. 

    Distractions like that have terrible outcomes. It prevents students from engaging in the most critical learning process, to negotiate with the targeted language, i.e., the Chinese language.

  • English translations can not replace Chinese teachers.

    Many Chinese textbooks with translations claim that they are made for students to do self-study, because they’ve got everything, Chinese, pinyin and English. 

    From the above reasoning, it seems that Chinese textbooks that have lots of English translations still need Chinese teachers to explain the English translations. 

    Then the question is, to have teachers to do explanations defeats the purpose of having English translations there. Why do textbooks still need English translations?


I think the purpose of Chinese textbooks is for students to engage in Chinese texts, to negotiate with them, to guess a little, and to think a little in Chinese. 

English translations of Chinese texts, regardless good translations or bad (Read From Yan Fu to translations of Chinese language textbooks), do not serve this purpose, and often have undesirable effects and negative impacts on the learning results.