THERE are two reasons why I never liked bilingual books.

Firstly, I was afraid the kids would be confused by reading two languages simultaneously.

Secondly, I found that they tend to tune in to their preferred language – English, of course – and ignore the Chinese words.

So what is the point of a bilingual book?

Thanks to a Crazy About Chinese fan and follower, I decided to investigate.

Turns out that bilingual books can be useful for the child who is learning Chinese as a second language. In addition, bilingual books can be used to cultivate what the experts call “bilingual awareness”, the idea that there are two different ways to talk about the same thing.

I spoke to Dr Soh Kay Cheng, Research Consultant and Senior Fellow at Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, and author of “Help Your Child Learn Chinese Language Efficiently and Happily” to find out more about how to use bilingual books.

Advantages of bilingual books

  • They allow you to use your child’s stronger language to help him learn his weaker language.
  • As languages in a bilingual book do not always have one-one correspondences in meanings, sentence structures, and expressions, uncertainty or ambiguity arise occasionally. The child may, thereby, be forced to mentally sort out such problems and the solution of them result in more sophisticated mode of thinking. For instance, when reading the same sentence in Chinese and English in a bilingual book, the child will realize that the positions of the key words may be reversed in the two languages, e.g., “teachers of the school” and “学校里的老师”。This helps to develop in the child a sense of grammar in two languages.
  • They create bilingual awareness in the child that things (almost anything) are described in two languages, and that the languages are interchangeable. This may motivate the child to seek information in the other language and be satisfied with its mastery.

Disdvantages of bilingual books

“Reading the same stories in two languages all the time, especially when forced to do so, is time-consuming and, more importantly, boring to the child,” said Dr Soh.

I had to ask: What if the child is confused by two languages?

What I call confusion, the experts call “code switch”.

“Parents can see code-mixing as a transition from being monolingual to being bilingual. How long the transition takes really depends on the child’s progress in learning a second language,” said Dr Soh.

He added that code switching is a natural process of becoming bilingual. And kids will not code mix if or when they have mastered both languages.

“Sometimes, we adults even purposely code-mix to emphasize particular words for more effective communication, or to convey relationship or status,” said Dr Soh.

How To Use Bilingual Books

  • Know the child’s abilities in the two languages and use his stronger language to help him learn his weaker language.
  • Match the language learning tasks with the child’s language abilities. For a start, help the child to learn orally names of familiar objects in the other language. For example, computer / diannao and then ask “How do you say computer in Mandarin?” and NOT “What is diannao in English?”
  • When the child has made obvious progress with above, short phrases or sentences can be introduced in the same manner. Be sensitive to the child’s reaction and avoid pushing him to hard.
  • Read a text in the child’s stronger language and then read it in his weaker language. Highlight some key words and search for corresponding words in the other language. When the child has shown progress, the search directions can vary and do this like a game.
  • Read a text in the child stronger language and then read it again in his weaker language. Talk about the evens and characters in his weaker language, but use his stronger language to explain when necessary. If the child finds this difficult, it means the text is too demanding to him.
  • Make the child an interpreter to say the same thing in the other language.

At our public libraries…

Parents can search for bilingual books at the National Library Board’s online catalogue,

Find the bilingual collection at the Children’s Section in our public libraries.

A bilingual book has the suffix [BIL] in its call number. For example, the book “Oscar Otter and the Goldfish” will have the call number “JP PLE -[BIL]” printed on its book label.

There are three different ways to present the text in bilingual books:

  • Parallel text in Chinese and English, so that readers can read them on the same page.
  • Using only Chinese text in the story while the English text is usually left on the last page
  • Half the book in English and the other half in Chinese.

What is your experience with bilingual books? Please share!










  1. It’s very helpful information as we’re now trying to have nephew learn to 講話語. Thanks Diana for sharing your research!

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