A Guide to Bilingual Reading

As a bookworm, reading has always been one of my favourite ways to study a foreign language. It exposes you to natural, high-quality writing in your target language, which is important if you want to improve your writing skills. There is also a lot of variety when it comes to the content, because you can find books for literally every topic under the sun.

One of the most effective methods, I’ve found is ‘bilingual reading’. It is essentially reading two versions of the same book simultaneously – one in your target language, and one in your native language. It works great at intermediate level (B1 onwards), when you already have a pretty solid grasp of the basic grammar and need to accumulate more vocabulary in order to be able to read with ease in your target language.

How Exactly Do You Do It?

It’s actually very simple, albeit a little tedious, as all intensive reading methods tend to get, so I would recommend picking a book that you either really, really want to read, or are already very familiar with. In my first attempt, I went with the latter, which for me was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book I have ever read. I had read it many times in Mandarin Chinese growing up, so I knew the text very well, which I have to say helped tremendously.

Here’s how you do it:

Step 1: Read a paragraph of the text in your target language. You might understand only half of it, or even less than that. It is something to be expected, so don’t panic.

Step 2: Read the same paragraph again, this time in your native language. This should help you understand majority of the original text. Compare the two versions, sentence by sentence, if you need to. If you’re doing this with a book that you know extremely well, you might be able to skip this step entirely, as you would have been able to work out the meaning of most sentences based on your memory of the text. I was able to do this with my first book, which saved me a lot of confusion and frustration.

Step 3: Analyse the sentences. Look up words and conjugation patterns that are unfamiliar, and write them down in your notebook so you can study them later. I usually make a flashcard deck for every book I do this with.

Step 4: Repeat Step 1 to Step 3 and gradually work your way through the book.

It’s frustrating and tedious in the beginning, but I promise, it gets easier. The whole purpose of this exercise is to get you to the point where you can read advanced materials – in other words, anything you want to read – without strain.

In the meantime, you can make it easier for yourself by splitting the book into smaller portions. Start with several pages per day, then graduate to a full chapter, and then to perhaps several chapters in one go. You’ll find the amount of unfamiliar words and conjugations dwindling steadily as you go on. It means it’s working!   

How Does It Help With Language Learning?

So what exactly are the benefits of this method? There are plenty, but I feel the following three sums up quite nicely why I think it’s something everyone should try at least once, especially if you’re an avid reader.

Learning Vocabulary in Context

For starter, it is great for learning vocabulary. Seeing the same word coming up again and again not only reinforces your memory of it, but also exposes you to more than one way of using it as well as the different meanings it might take depending on how it is used.

Learning words in context also helps you remember them better. If you get your brain to associate a word to the scenario for which it was used in the book, you’ll be able to recall it much faster, especially if you find yourself experiencing a situation that’s highly similar to said scenario.

Accumulating Natural Expressions

For me, a lot of language learning comes down to accumulating vocabulary and natural expressions. The latter is arguably harder than the former as there isn’t a comprehensive collection of them. You’ll just have to expose yourself to as much input as possible and pick them up as they come.

You can’t approach this with the goal of memorizing every single ‘natural’ expression out there, because it is impossible. What you really need to do is learn to word things the way a native speaker would. Easier said than done, I know. It’s hard, because to do that you have to think like a native speaker.

For example, if I wanted to say, “I wish I didn’t have to wake up that early” in Mandarin Chinese, it would be:

如果不用那么早起来就好了。
(Literal translation: It would be good if I didn’t have to wake up that early.)

See how different the sentence turned out, even though the overall meaning remained the same? If I were to translate the English sentence directly it would be, “我真希望我不用那么早起来”, but it would sound weird because no one would word it like that. ‘It would be good if I didn’t have to wake up that early’ sounds awkward, too, and a lot less natural than ‘I wish I didn’t have to wake up that early’.

How do you get yourself to think in another language? You begin with observation, because to change the way you think, you must first identify the difference between your current way of thinking and the one you seek to acquire.

Reading in two languages allows you to compare two versions of the same sentence, and through this, you will come to see how differently writers of both languages interpret and express the same idea, which brings me to my next point.

Understanding the Differences between Two Languages

This is actually my favourite part of the whole thing: comparing two versions of the same text to see how they differ in expression of similar ideas.

Here’s an example. This is a sentence from the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

‘Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.’

This is the Chinese version of it:

德思禮夫人則非常苗條,一頭金髮。她的頸根有常人的兩倍那麼長,這使得她整天伸長脖子透過花園圍欄去偷窺鄰居家的動靜變得非常容易。

(Literal translation: Mrs. Dursley is very thin and blonde. Her neck is twice as long as that of an average person, which makes craning over garden fences and spying on the neighbours extremely easy.)

The Korean version:

더즐리 부인은 마른 체구의 금발이었고, 목이 보통사람보다 두배는 길어서, 담 너머로 고개를 쭉 배고 이웃 사람들을 몰래 훔쳐보는 그녀의 취미에는 더 없이 제격이었다. 

(Literal translation: Mrs. Dursley is thin and blonde. Her neck is twice as long as that of an average person, which suits her hobby of craning over garden fences and spying on her neighbours very well.)

See what I mean?

The Problem with Pronunciation

A downside to relying too much on textual materials is that you might end up neglecting the pronunciation, which makes it difficult for you to use these newly acquired words in actual conversations. This is especially common with languages that don’t always pronounce a word the way it is written, like English, and doubly so with non-phonetic languages whose writing system does not at all reflect the sounds of the language, like Chinese.

One way to counter this is to look up words you aren’t sure how to pronounce in an audio dictionary. But in my opinion, it’s much better to hear words pronounced in a sentence than on their own, because there are other factors that might affect how a word is pronounced, such as intonation, which is in turn influenced by the mood and context of the situation, among other things. A friend of mine suggested reading a book and listening to the audio book version simultaneously, and I found this method very useful. It makes for good listening practice, too, which is a bonus.


That’s bilingual reading in a nutshell! If you go about it the right away, it can help build up your vocabulary quickly over a relatively short period of time. It is very time-consuming, however, so I wouldn’t recommend doing this with every book you plan on reading.

I usually do this alongside more casual, extensive reading, such as reading short articles, comics and magazines, which I approach with the goal of covering as much material as possible without attempting to analyse every new word I come across. In that case, I usually don’t stop to look up words in dictionary unless it is absolutely crucial to understanding the text. More often than not, I rely on contextual clues to deduct the general gist of things, and move on.

That said, it might not be for everyone. If you don’t like reading, you’re likely to find the process unbearably tedious. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method when it comes to language learning – the key is finding the ones that work for you.

But if you’re a bookworm like me, I highly recommend that you give this go. You might be surprised how well it works (and how fun it can be)!