Bilingual Chinese-English apps for iPad, part 1

There just aren’t a lot of bilingual English-Chinese books that an American parent can easily get a hold of. We’ve mined out most of what’s available on Amazon and have about 5-6 books to show for it. Thankfully, digital books don’t cost a thing to print and ship, and you can now find a decent number of bilingual apps for iPad from publishers on both sides of the Pacific.

Blighty: The Ugly Duckling screenshot

A page from Blighty's The Ugly Duckling

If, like me, you have some skill with understanding and speaking Chinese, searching the App Store for “pinyin” can get you pretty far. Doing this, I discovered the ill-named “Blighty Studio,” a self-described “elite team of Ninja Warriors” who convert children’s books from China Education Publishing House Group into iPad apps. They have dozens of apps, most educational, and I gambled $0.99 to try out “The Ugly Duckling.”

“The Ugly Duckling” is, overall, a decent buy for $0.99. For bilingual households, its best feature is the ability to have the story read aloud in one language while displaying text in another. It takes a little fiddling, but you can set the story up to be read in Chinese and follow along in Chinese traditional, Chinese simplified, Chinese traditional + pinyin, Chinese simplified + pinyin, or English. This is great for someone like me who has limited Chinese vocabulary – I can get the gist of what’s going on in English, then switch to pinyin to make sure I’m pronouncing words right.

The English translation is competent, if stiff and somewhat literal. These are all good qualities if you are trying to learn Chinese – it’s easier to map new vocabulary words this way. The story itself, however, hews far too closely to the Hans Christian Anderson original, which is to say it’s a bit long and out of tune with modern American culture. The writing doesn’t help either, sounding a little like it got wrung through Google translate from English to Chinese and then back to English again:

“He dove into the water one moment and came out the next. It is only through this way could he enjoy a little bit fun of life.”

(Yes, “The Ugly Duckling” is a pretty ugly story, featuring quite a lot of bullying and cruelty).

The two voice readers are quite different in tone – the Chinese reader is very high-pitched and cloying, while the English voice sounds like she’s laboring with effort (though I do think she sounds like a native English – by which I mean American – speaker).

The illustrations are decent enough, with some telling Chinese details (for example, in one image a chick taunts the ugly duckling by pulling down its lower eyelid). Every page has a few interactive elements that might move or speak if tapped (what they say can be quite random and irrelevant). Annoyingly, swiping does not turn pages; you have to click near-invisible arrows at the bottom-right and bottom-left to move forwards and back. Another serious annoyance is that the app shuts down if the screen blanks out, which seems to me a major bug. Finally, the app also offers some distracting “features” such as three games and five pages of random vocabulary words, neither of which have anything at all to do with the book.

You’re not going to get this app for its innovation, art style, voice acting, or writing. You’ll get it because it’s one of the very few children’s apps out there that let you read pinyin while listening to Chinese or English out loud. And that justifies the modest $0.99 download price.

More soon on other bilingual apps…

DIY Bilingual Board Books

DIY bilingual board bookJust because mainstream publishers haven’t caught up with the demand for bilingual Chinese-English children’s books doesn’t mean you don’t have options. Do it yourself and you can choose from the best books out there!

I started with Sara Anderson’s Vegetables because, like the Gordon & Li Li series, it meets my criteria of board book with one page per concept and lots of colors. Since it’s basically a shopping list, I don’t have to worry about grammar or idioms (for the most part).

I translated the entire book with the help of Google, using my vestigial linguistic memory to pick the right choice when necessary. Then I assembled the words onto a Word template and printed it onto a clear return address label page. The result is not bad, though on dark color pages the “clear” labels are very visible (which is perhaps a good thing, because those pages have terrible contrast against black ink, my only complaint about the book itself).

If you’d like to do this one yourself, go get the Vegetables book, download my pinyin and simplified Chinese labels for it, print onto Avery clear return address labels (Avery 18667, which has 4×20 labels measuring 1/2″ x 1 3/4″), and stick them into your book. Voilà: instant bilingual book!

Book Review: Gordon & Li Li series

There are surprisingly few bilingual Chinese-English children’s books for sale on Amazon, and even fewer that are appropriate for a family whose command of Chinese is, shall we say, uneven. The Gordon & Li Li series by Michele Wong McSween are among the very few that I would unreservedly recommend to parents who want to raise their children bilingual from the get-go. They’re great for toddlers because:

  • They’re board books
  • Each page focuses on just one word or concept
  • They’re super-colorful and have a very strong, consistent style.

They’re also ideal for situations (like ours) where only one parent has familiarity with Chinese: each word is presented in English, pinyin, simplified Chinese, and best-guess American phonetic spelling. (The phonetic spelling is of limited value – if you can’t read pinyin, you’re unlikely to get the Chinese pronunciation right).

Gordon and Li Li pantsGordon & Li Li Words for Everyday is the first book in this series, and we bought it for Jacob almost right away. These are words that are super-useful for American babies: “boy,” “girl,” “ball,” “book,” “cup,” “milk,” and, yes, “cell phone” are all in there. Our edition only includes English and pinyin on each page, which for us was enough as we were focusing on just getting Jacob to hear the sounds of the words. (For overachievers, the simplified Chinese are all listed in the back in a glossary of sorts). I’m happy to say that Jacob can understand at least two-thirds of the words in this book. He doesn’t always prefer them over the English when he speaks, but he certainly responds to the Chinese. (One of his favorite words in the world is “ba bu ball,” or basketball, and all variants on the word “ball,” but today when I asked him for the 球 (qiú), he went and got the ball without hesitation).

Gordon and Li Li killer whaleJacob’s Jewish grandmother got him Gordon & Li Li Learn Animals in Mandarin as a gift, and it is great! As someone who had an incomplete education in Chinese, learning to say 企鹅 (qì’é) is a lifesaver in the post-March of the Penguins era. It’s also nice that there’s no overlap with Words for Everyday — “dog” and “cat” are excluded. My only criticism of this book is that some of the animals are just a tad too stylized – the alligator in sunglasses, for example, or Gordon and Li Li themselves (blue and pink pandas). On the other hand, the ducks, chicken, and frog all have a certain, endearingly Chinese-cartoon quality to them.

There’s a third book, Gordon & Li Li Count in Mandarin, which haven’t gotten because we haven’t needed help with counting in Mandarin.

We, the Anderkoos, also appreciate that the books are copyrighted by “McWong Ink.”

And we’re totally excited that a Gordon & Li Li Learn Animals in Mandarin iPad app is coming out soon! Now we just need to get ourselves an iPad.

Book+CD Review: Chinese and English Nursery Rhymes

We’ve shared our enthusiasm for Speak and Sing Chinese with Mei Mei, but while Mei Mei wins top points for enthusiasm, her production values leave a bit to be desired. Also, CD liner notes just don’t cut it for toddlers to read. So we were excited to receive this book-and-CD set as a gift for Jacob from Gene’s sister.

Chinese and English Nursery Rhymes: Share and Sing in Two Languages is a nice hardcover with colorful illustrations, and the music on the CD sounds professional and clear. You get a lot of content for your dollar: 20 songs in English and 20 in Chinese. The price is worth it for the CD alone! And you’ve heard many of these songs before, so it’s easy to sing along.

I find the pages just a little too crammed and the typeface too small. This allows more songs to fit into the pages, creating good value, but that makes it hard for Jacob to ask for one particular song (or for me to read the lyrics when the lights are dim). The pictures are vivid and interesting, though that can make the text even harder to read (for example, when printed black-on-blue).

The songs are organized thematically (Outside, Inside, Party, Play, Night), but I think there could have been even closer alignment among them. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday to You,” and “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” are matched with their Chinese translations, but more pairings would have been nicer for purposes of language acquisition of parent as well as child. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why there are English songs in here that aren’t translations of the Chinese. If I wanted music in English, I’d go buy that separately – as nice as these songs are, there are better from American artists.

Overall, this book-CD combination is well worth its value – I recommend it, despite the criticisms above. So far, Jacob has not been smitten with this book, but he’s still at the stage where a single-song book, or just humming a tune, is his best way of asking for music. Maybe as he gets older this book will become more fun for him.