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…

新年快乐 (happy new year!)

Xin Nian Kuai Le Happy year of the dragon y’all! The moon is setting on Gene’s year (rabbit) and rising on Rachel’s (dragon). All in all this last year’s been a great one for me, so I hope this one will be just as great for my wife.

We held our 11th annual Anderkoo make-your-own-dumpling party last weekend so as not to step on any “real” Chinese New Year celebrations. Far off our record high of 1K+ dumplings, we still made and served up shy of 400 this year. As always, we made way too much stuffing for the event. It’s feeling like the week after Thanksgiving, except with pork instead of turkey.

Jacob experienced his first lion and ribbon dances on Sunday in Rockville, MD – as always, he thoroughly enjoyed (read: stared intently at) the festivities.

For anyone who’s looking for an explanation of the Chinese zodiac, I recommend checking out this book reviewed at Hapa Mama. The story as I recall it really illustrates Chinese culture’s respect for brains over brawn. (And, just to get a jump on next year’s snake, which to Western ears sounds sinister, Chinese culture has traditionally revered the snake as the ancestor of the human race.)

Happy New Year! (or, more traditionally, 恭禧发财, or “May you prosper!”)

More Mandarin classes in public schools

Chinese-language instruction is becoming more popular in urban schools across the country where educators hope to offer a global perspective to students in low-income areas and students who sti may be learning English. In Boston, Mandarin classes are seen as a way for students to compete with peers outside the district, who may have greater access to such courses. “We want to expand their life experiences outside of Boston, and one way to do it is for them to study international cultures,” said Yu-Lan Lin, director of the city schools’ world-language program.

CD Review: Chinese Lullabies

Parents suffering from sleepless babies will pay anything for relief, and retailers make fortunes off pseudo-scientific quackery. Chinese Lullabies is the real deal: music that really can help a baby go to sleep. Or, at least, our little Jacob.

I’ll admit this CD won’t teach either you or your child much Chinese, except maybe “mā ma” (mother) and “bǎo bao” (precious one). It’s hard to glean Chinese out of singing, where tones are distorted; the Chinese in these songs are formally poetic (that is, not everyday language), and I find children’s voices (with lots of echo) hard to discern. Maybe if you really know your Chinese, you’ll do better than I.

What recommends this CD is the music, which is decidedly Chinese and not some Chinese translation of “Rock-a-bye-baby.” It’s uniformly soothing and peaceful – what you’d want from a lullaby album. The instrumentation seems to be a mix of authentic instruments and synthesizers, but it actually works. (I’ve got some other Chinese children’s CDs whose over-the-top synthetic sounds definitely do NOT work).

Jacob’s gone to sleep to this music for nearly nine months now – he doesn’t really need it anymore, so we occasionally skip it. We can’t really prove that this music soothes him because it’s good or because he’s so familiar with it after hearing it for most of his life, but really – isn’t the point of these lullaby CDs really to soothe the parents after a long day? I say yes. Buy this CD today.