Powerful Language Lessons from Korean English Bi-Lingual Picture Books

A Review of English/Korean Bi-Lingual Picture Books 

My parents learned English from Koreans who in turn learned it from Koreans who had never met or even talked to an English-speaking person. Not surprisingly, these successive Korean teachers imparted misplaced accents and Konglish galore to their pupils. When my parents arrived in the U.S., no one could understand their version of English. Instead, all parties were left scratching their heads and my parents dealt with the gore of butchered communications. Those were the days before the internet and globalization. 

Language learning has come a long way since my parents’ generation. We now have apps, videos and surround-sound multimedia for language acquisition. We get to absorb, repeat, and self-quiz ad-nauseam, to the kudos of rings and dings and attaboy stars via apps and websites on tablets and on phones. 

From textbooks to flashcards, every language-learning tool has its place and benefits. One language learner’s tool that is often overlooked, however, is the bi-lingual picture book. Key features of picture books uniquely lend themselves to language learning.


Sample page from the bilingual picture book, Brave Hong Gil Dong.

Picture books aren’t just for children. As many picture book ‘readers’ cannot yet read, parent and child togetherness offers a special appeal in its format. For language learning, that translates into student and teacher. Every growing child has a favorite story that he/she reaches for often (long after parents have gotten sick of reading and re-reading the same story, but before the child has moved on). Repetition reinforces learning, and so the picture book has great appeal for language learning. 

Another feature often found in picture books is repetition of certain words and phrases (think Dr. Seuss: How many times does Sam say, ‘I do not like green eggs and ham’?  Imagine a foreign language learner hearing/repeating this phrase throughout the book — you get my point). Re-read a story time and time  again, and the child (who has yet to read on his/her own) uses the picture clues to parrot the lines of the story. This repetitious cycle = new learned vocabulary regardless of one’s reading level. 

Now… feast your eyes on the bi-lingual picture book – the same story in two languages! And that is the subject of this review. Here, I review six English/Korean picture story books. These stories were chosen because of their English and Korean dual language features. 

Review Criterion

For each book, I note 5 areas of importance: (Rankings are from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best score)

(1) Translation rating for accuracy and language-learning friendliness

(2) Re-readability rating (How likely will a reader reach for the story multiple times?)

(3) Repeat-ability rating (catchy phrases that a reader may parrot during and after the story, or stays in the reader’s mind because of its fun-ness; yes, I made up that word)

(4) Audio feature availability  (Face it, because most language learning books are read out loud, and leaners don’t always have a tutor with them to pronounce words or phrases. An audio feature and its repetition is key to language learning.)

(5) Korean culture reference, as language and culture complement each other

Check out the books for yourself and see what you think!  


Brave Hong Kil-Dong/용감한 홍길동

Author: Kim Youg-Kol

Illustrations: Kang Mi-Sun, Dim Yon-Kyong

brave hong gil dong
Summary:

Hong Kil-Dong is the legendary Robin Hood of Korea. Kil-Dong was likely an average person with average skills and talents, but after many re-tellings, a hero of supernatural strength and mythical abilities emerged over time. Just like Heung Bu and Nol Bu has multiple legends, many scenarios of Kil-Dong’s justice/antics of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, grace the mind of all Koreans. 

In this tale, cultural references to the social ranking system of Korea — upper class (the haves) and lower class (the have nots) — abound. Kil-Dong’s father is a high-ranking government official; therefore, the son is due a government position as befitting the child of the upper class. However, his mother is a slave. 

Societal hierarchy and rules deny Kil-Dong a government position on the basis of his mother’s slave status; her rank in society even prevents Kil-Dong from calling his father by the title of ‘father’.  In protest of his unjust circumstances, Kil-Dong embraces the bandit life, stealing from greedy and crooked aristocrats and giving to lesserborn victims. 

Translation: 4

A variety of sentences, short and simple to long and complex, with spot-on translation make this book a good read. Likely for an intermediate to advanced reader. 

Re-Readability: 5

The clever ways that Kil-Dong avoids capture, outwits corrupt aristocrats, and dishes out their come-uppance is worthy of many reads. 

Repeat-ability: 2

No catchy phrases or repetition in the book.

Audio: None
Korean Cultural References: 5

This book scores tops in Korean cultural references. Not only is the class system in Korea woven into the story, but other historically relevant characters, such as Budddist monks and a mysterious, wise, gray-bearded old man (which is standard fare for many Korean folklore) play a role. 


 Amanda’s Dream/ 아만다의  

Author: Shelley Admont 

Illustrator: Sumana Roy

Publisher: KidKiddos Books

amanda's dream
Summary:

Amanda has nothing to smile or cry about and so her facial expression is emotionless and seems sad. A fairy appears to console Amanda and counsels her on how to solve the problem of her doldrums. 

The fairy suggests that a dream – something for Amanda to work for — is just what she needs to bring on a smile. Amanda imagines future scenarios that would make her happy. Finding no dream that excites her, her long face continues, until – voila – just the idea of realizing this one specific dream makes her beam.  

Reminiscent of Cinderella or a similar Disney character, Amanda’s fairy friend makes her appearance in a pink dress and a tiara. Amanda’s predicament may interest many readers, but this fairy character may not capture the interest of every audience. However, the story redeems itself because of Amanda’s unconventional dream and the satisfying ending.

Amanda’s Dream is a story of how everyone needs hope and a dream.  

Dual Language Translation: 3

While the Korean translation is spot-on, the sentences are long and more complex compared to other books in this list; this story is suitable for more advanced readers. 

Re-readability: 2

While the story has a satisfying ending, the re-readability factor is low. 

Repeat-ability: 1

This book could benefit from more interesting or fun phrases or picture images. The word dream may stay in the reader’s mind because it is repeated often, and is part of the title; otherwise, very little stands out in the reader’s mind.

Audio Feature: None
Korean Cultural References:  None

This book is part of a larger collection of stories translated into many languages; there are no cultural references specific to Korea. 


Alex and Tom’s Big Day with Elephant/ 코끼리와 특별한 날을 보낸 알렉스과

Author: K. Yee 

Illustrator: Tanja Russita

Translation Jooyeon K.

big day with elephant
Summary:

Follow the very energetic Alex and Tom on their adventures. Tom and Alex spend an active day with their elephant friend, playing, eating, cooking, singing, climbing a tree, bathing, and finally going to bed. 

Alex’s, Tom’s and Elephant’s pursuits are expressed in both English and Korean, with the Korean written in Hangul characters and also phonetically in English. The corresponding English and Korean words are color-coded for easy cross-reference, and word lists on many pages reference the activities on the page. For example, when they play outside, the words listed are bird, hat, garden hose, flower garden, butterfly, watermelon, lawn, cloud and tree. Simple and accessible sentences describe their activity.

The trio—Alex, Tom, and Elephant – are full of nonstop action. While I could have used a nap or a breather in the middle, this book is a harmonious marriage of a story book and reference book in one and this dual purpose feature makes this book very appealing.

My favorite parts are the watercolor illustrations and the ending, when you find out that their partner-in-crime, the Elephant is a ___ . (I won’t spoil the ending for you.)

Dual Language Translation: 5

Simple, straight-forward and accessible sentences. Good for beginner to intermediate levels. 

Re-readability: 3

Using the wordlist to find and seek the corresponding pictures is an engaging and worthwhile activity.  

Repeat-ability: 3

The simple sentences are easy to repeat, but no ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ moments.

Audio Feature: None
Korean Cultural References: None

This book is part of a larger collection of stories translated into many languages, and there are no Korean cultural references. The illustrations of the Chinese dragon and foods hint that the original story was written in Chinese.


Am I Small? / 내가 작니?  

Author: Philipp Winterberg 

Illustrator: Nadja Wichmann

korean picture books
Summary:

Am I Small is a delightful story about a child who recognizes her size relative to others; compared to giants, she is small, but compared to insects, she is large. With engaging illustrations and short sentences, the story is just right for the early language learner. 

Am I Small? has a great universal message: Everyone has a place in this world.  

Translation: 3

The main character  is referred to as 이것; in the Korean language, only objects (not people) are referred to in this way. Other than this translation issue, the remaining renderings appear sound. Good for a beginning reader.

Re-readability: 5

The story scores tops in repetition-worthiness. The reader is pulled into the narrative of this book and is definitely worthy of many reads.

Repeat-ability: 4

Although the repeated words are not common, everyday words, this story is very repetition-worthy and its skillful use of repeated phrases with slight variances can be a highlight for language acquisition. 

Audio: None
Korean Cultural References: None

This book is part of a larger collection of stories translated into many languages; there are no Korean culture references.


Heung Bu and Nol Bu/ 흥부와 놀부

Author: FB Smit 

Illustrators: Monse Vallejo

korean picture books
Summary:

Mean and greedy Nol Bu mistreats his kind brother, Heung Bu, so much that even the animals take notice. One day, a bird drops a magical seed onto Heung Bu’s yard. What does jealous Nol Bu do to earn a seed like that from his brother? 

This beloved and well-known tale is a quintessential Korean folktale. Most noteworthy is the story’s adaptation to an American audience found in the author’s message. A closer look reveals it to be a portal into the country’s culture and values. 

Translation: 3

There are some complex sentences,  although most are short, simple, and straight forward. Likely for an intermediate reader.  

Re-readability: 5

Folktales are classics that have withstood the test of time in the form of retellings, which assure its re-readability. 

Repeat-Ability: 3

A few objects – fan, bird, pumpkin – fire the imagination because they turn into characters and play a part in the story; other catchy words or repetition-worthy phrases would increase its repeatability factor. 

Audio: Yes

On website.

Korean Cultural References: 4

While the illustrations feel more Asian fusion than specifically Korean, this story is appealing because it is original to Korea. The highlighting of the fan and rice, because of their cultural significance, adds dimension to the cultural experience.  


The Biscuit Moon/ 비스킷

Author: Jesús Zatón

Illustrator: Jesús Gabán

bisquit moon book
Summary:

In the heat of the day, a hungry and thirsty buffalo searches for food and water. He comes across a precious pond with a huge biscuit in the center of the water. Enter the lion who claims the biscuit as his own based on his mighty roar and his  top-of-the-food-chain status. The two quarrel and their bellowing and roaring over the biscuit wake up the other animals, and creates more competition for the morsel and a drink of the water. After a night of squabbling, the sun rises and the biscuit, which is not what it appears –  disappears – leaving them with scratches and bruises and nothing to eat.

The award-winning illustrator of this book gives the characters plenty of caricature and unique expression. 

Translation: 4

A variety of sentences, short and simple to long and complex, with spot-on translation make this book a good read.

Re-Readability and Repeat-ability: 3

No catchy phrases or repetition in the book; however, a QR code offers animal outlines and cards to download for re-telling of the story.

Audio: Yes

The publisher of The Biscuit Moon, Mantra Lingua, offers the TalkingPEN, which can be purchased separately. Although it comes with a hefty price tag, the TalkingPen, when activated, narrates all of MantraLingua books into its multiple languages. The TalkingPen’s record feature allows the reader to play back his/her own story narration.  

Korean Cultural References: None

This book is part of a larger collection of stories translated into many languages; there are no Korean cultural references.


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Picture Books beautifully supplement the academic appeal of reference books and flashcards. They are a great resource for passing on and preserving our beautiful language and culture, sans butchered accents.

Happy Reading!


FB Smit was born in Seoul, South Korea and when she moved to the US with her family when she was 7 years old, she replaced Korean with all things Anerican. Now grown-up, she is having the best time (re) discovering all things Korean language and culture as a teacher, playwright, and author.


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