Dual Language Books - A Whistle Stop Tour

No matter what you encounter in life, there are six questions that are invaluable: what, when, where, who, how, and why.

And dual language books are no exception. Anyone who’s ever had to learn more than one language knows how much easier it is to remember new words, phrases and syntax when you can relate them to something you already know. So if you already know your own version of, say, Cinderella or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, it makes a lot of sense that a dual language edition can help you acquire new vocabulary in your new target language.

And while everyone has their own language learning style, and some people may prefer hearing a story to reading it, dual language books are an essential tool in our bilingual language learning virtual cabinet.

So let’s start at the very beginning, as the song from a rather famous musical has it.

What are dual language books?

Dual language books (or DLBs for short, as they are sometimes known) are books in which the whole book is written in two languages throughout, in as close a translation as possible. In many cases, the content of the dual language book or story is written in one language on one side of the open book, and the second language on the other side. The pictures allow you to see the language used in context, as well as breaking up the text. In recent years, however, improved computer technology means that electronic dual language books, or ebooks, have appeared, meaning language learners can dip into libraries on computer, tablet, and Smartphone. In some cases, the dual language book is also accompanied by sound files, so that not only can learners see the words, they can also hear the correct pronunciation. You could argue that dictionaries are dual language books, although in practice most dual language books tell a story or impart information. You may also sometimes hear them described as parallel texts although these are also sometimes used to transpose an older type of language into modern words, as with Chaucer or medieval French.

When are dual language books useful?

Dual language books are useful in all kinds of situations, including learning both native and target languages, settling into a new location, helping children gain literacy skills, and simply encouraging readers to understand the joy of language. They’re useful in the classroom or other language learning arena; they’re useful as an addition to a child’s bookcase (or an adult’s collection, come to that); and they’re useful as an aide-memoire. They’re an excellent next step up from a simple dictionary or vocabulary chart, and a great stepping stone to reading longer texts in the target language.

Where do you find dual language books?

Surprisingly, in a world where the term “global village” becomes more applicable every year, there are relatively few providers of dual language books. Those that do exist are often translations of long-standing but very text-heavy classics by authors like Cervantes or Kafka. It can be particularly difficult to track down dual language works if you are looking for languages outside the UN “Big Six” list of Spanish, Russian, French, English, Chinese and Arabic.

The London-based award winning publisher Mantra Lingua offers dual language books in over 50 languages. Many are based on well-known and much-loved traditional tales, some are modern retellings, some are non-fiction and some are brand new tales. Some are non-fiction, and all take an inclusive approach to children from all ethnicities and backgrounds.

All the titles are beautifully illustrated, many by artists who work very regularly with the publisher and have extensive experience in the teaching and caring professions. 

Every book also brims with bright and accessible images which facilitate language understanding and language acquisition, in both the native language and the target language. Mantra Lingua staff also work with innovative educational leaders and councils across the UK and worldwide. Recent projects have included work with Erica Field, EMA Teaching & Learning Adviser, Rochdale Borough Council, and Cartwheel Arts, to create multilingual resources for the Art for Induction programme and global projects on some endangered languages. 

Mantra Lingua’s own patented PENpal technology also means language teachers, parents, guardians, librarians and storytellers can all add sound to the texts of dual language books, increasing the levels of familiarity for readers or listeners.

Who would benefit from dual language books?

Since many dual language books are picture books, you might think that they are mainly aimed at children, but that isn’t always the case. A picture, so the saying goes, is worth a thousand words, and dual language books have also been used in recent years to disseminate information on agricultural techniques in Papua New Guinea, for example. Many parts of the NHS also produce dual language resources to help patients access healthcare services in the UK.

Bilingual families and multilingual families, those teaching multilingual classes and learners, librarians with multilingual and bilingual collections and library users – all would benefit from having access to dual language books.

How do you use dual language books?

Well, the sky’s the limit, really. You could simply use dual language books to tell a story in one language or the other. You could cover up the target language, leaving the more familiar words accessible, and ask the reader to retell the story in his or her own words. You could single out individual words or phrases, or particular word groups, like nouns or verbs, and encourage the learner to memorise them. You could cover up the more familiar language, and ask the learner to translate from the second language (often, but not always, English). Or you could use them as a bedtime or afternoon story, to help and comfort new arrivals to a country, particularly when so much around them might be confusing and unfamiliar.

Why would you use a dual language book?

If you’ve ever used Google Translate or other automated translation software to translate a language, and then, just for fun, translate what you have back into the original language, you’ll know there is absolutely no substitute for a native speaker translation.

For many years, the “immersion” theory of language learning was held up as the most appropriate; but no one learning technique works for everyone and recent research shows that the dual language approach is very effective. Much of the research in this area has been carried out for English language learning, not in languages other than English. Most of those who translate dual language books have a good understanding of the nuances and traditions of both languages and in many cases are writers and storytellers themselves. Rather than translate directly, word for word, with no interpretation, dual language translators take into account the cultural and linguistic differences and similarities all the way through. Dual language books can act as a bridge between cultures, a context-sensitive way to translate and transpose stories and instructions, a way for parents, teachers and guardians to bond with children, and a comforting reminder of home for those who might find themselves displaced. 

Whatever your situation, dual language books offer a bridge between cultures, generations and divisions.