Chinese Resources

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chinese as a tool for...

I would be curious to know how many times over the past two years I've had to remind my classmates (and teachers) that I didn't receive an undergraduate degree in Chinese. My guess would be more times that I can count on ten fingers. I've never taken a class on the Chinese classics and, until recently, was never asked to translate anything... minus the times when friends or family members saw/heard something that fit their description of what Chinese probably was and asked for my "expert" opinion.

My undergraduate degree was actually in Global Studies, a sort of modern day International Studies degree that focused on globalization and global systems (political, economic, cultural and otherwise). While I had fair share of core classes, my own focus was on how communication and communication systems are affected by globalization and global trends. One point that came up time and time again during undergrad was the idea that languages are a tool for conversation and conveying meaning. 

While I will not deny the strong bond that exists between language and culture, I feel like certain cultural elements become stripped away when a language flirts with or has reached lingua franca status. At that point, the bond between a particular language and its culture MUST be broken to allow non-native speakers a chance to imprint their own culture onto the language, and on a more basic level use  the language to communicate. Chinese, in my opinion, is in the process of making this transition. 

Today, however, as a language teacher and non-native speaker of Chinese I find myself reflecting on the idea that language is a tool. While I don't think my undergraduate program missed the mark or got anything wrong, there are certain elements of this concept that can be greatly expanded upon in reagards to second language acquisition.

As a language student the idea of having a tool for conversation is incredibly important. In initial stages (especially when already living in the target language environment) this often means learning the necessary language to survive and interact with people in the environment. Buying things, hailing a cab, asking for directions, going to the bank... these things are often necessary for living in the target language environment. But what happens once you've passed to the next level, or you've already achieved the ability to successfully communicate (here I am referring to conversational fluency) in the target language? 

In other words, what happens next?  

I left the title of this blog post open ended because I think the "what happens next" should be very individualized... which is really the best part about language being used as a tool. You can can use the tool in any way you want. For me, this notion means trying to figure out a way to live our lives (or at least part of our lives) as we might have done in our home country or in our native language. There should be no reason why you cannot strive toward using your second language to fulfill your own interests and needs. If you like cooking, for example, than what is stopping you from taking cooking classes in your target language, or picking up a cook book in your target language? Interested in music? What is to stop you from writing songs, or taking music lessons in your target language? Interested in sports? Go do that in your target language. Interested in just about anything, than go and try to find a way to do that, or learn more about it in your target language.

So often, language blogs seem to spend all of their time focused on the process of learning a language, but I'm beginning to wonder what negative side effects that might cause/create. Instead, what would happen if learning Chinese stopped becoming the goal, and instead became a tool to reach your goal?

In that case you really wouldn't have a choice, you'd simply have to learn use it. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ChineseCUBES Review

Opening ChineseCUBES for the first time brought me back to being a kid on Christmas morning. The outside, filled with cute cartoon characters and a giant "HELLO!" is beautifully designed and inviting. Opening the box I was surprised at just how much stuff there was! A writing pad, a webcam, a learning pad, character cubes... is there anything that ChineseCUBES doesn't have?

Tossing the CD into my computer (you need an optical reader to use ChineseCUBES) I opened up the Quickstart Guide and followed along with the step-by-step instructions. 10 minutes later I had my study station setup and the software launched. It was time to explore.
ChineseCUBES Learning Pad and Webcam

For those who don't know, ChineseCUBES is "a Chinese-learning software that incorporates Augmented Reality (AR) technology and tactile cubes to assist Mandarin language learning." Rather than dialogues or grammar exercises, ChineseCUBES puts focus on Chinese characters, allowing users to explore how words and sentences are combined through either a learning or freestyle mode.

ChineseCUBES learning mode. 
Learning mode

In learning mode every mini lesson highlights a new character, teaching users how they interact. Starting from“好" users learn how various cubes (characters) combine to form words and sentences. At every step users are encouraged to explore more about the characters by clicking on the "SPEAK," "TRANSLATE," and "WRITE" buttons, or using the corresponding cubes.

With every cube (and lesson) users are encouraged to speak aloud and physically write the characters with the pad and pen provided. The stroke animations are clear and the writing pad works just fine. Every time the program asked me to speak aloud, however, I couldn't help but think that there should be a recording option built into the program that appears automatically on the screen, not only reinforcing the need to physically say a word or phrase out loud, but also to allow users to hear what they sound like and make necessary adjustments.

In learning mode, each theme revolves around a set of cubes. As you progress in levels you combined new cubes with cubes that you've already studying with. The progression and speed feels right for beginners and the challenges provided in between lessons,test retention on characters that you've already learned, for example: character and pinyin matching, character and sound matching etc.. 

While a recording option would be nice, there is one thing that I feel must be changed in learning mode, the hints. Whenever you are asked to find a new cube, or make a new phrase the program would politely remind you that a hint was on the bottom of the screen, if you needed it. The problem, however, is that like displaying pinyin under characters, hints are a language leaners kryptonite-- it kills our ability to use our brain and actually try to comprehend the information! Hints are good, and should be provided, but at least make it a click button away, or wait 5 seconds. Displaying something on the bottom of the screen forever is not hint, it's just the answer.

Freestyle Mode

The cool factor of ChineseCUBES is actually in Freestyle Mode, where users can use cubes and discover how Chinese works. Freestyle Mode is the area that sets ChineseCUBES apart from a traditional textbook. Rather than waiting for a lesson on how characters interact, users can explore on their own. For those still in need of guidance, there are hints that appear on the side of the screen if a particular phrase is a bit off. At any time during the exploration process you can also uncover the translation and speak options to reinforce what you've just learned.

Being no stranger to beginner textbooks or teaching material, I found myself asking which elements of ChineseCUBES could I use in my own classroom, and how might they stack up against a traditional textbook.
ChineseCUBES vs. a textbook, according to the website.
There is no question that ChineseCUBES makes learning a little more game-like. Challenges give you gold coins, and Freestyle Mode lets you wander off the beaten path. Being a fan of LEGO and building blocks as a kid, there is something genuinely interesting about the actual cubes. Reaching for the box to find the perfect "piece" was  an experience I never thought I'd have while studying Chinese; it's a kinesthetic learners dream!

But is that enough to replace a traditional textbook?

While a textbook might feel daunting on its own, I'm of the opinion that any good teacher should never allow a textbook to guide the learning process... that's the teachers job. And while spiral learning is something that a program like ChineseCUBES does better than most, the thing that learning mode seems to be missing is a textbook feel; bad dialogues, cheesy story lines, and the ocasional one-liner sentence practice. Learning that "你" "好" and "嗎" can be combined together is great, but I wanted ChineseCUBES to actually ask me "你好嗎," while I reach for the blocks to respond. I wanted to make my own bad dialogue with the characters I've just learned and watch the drama unfold on screen!

ChineseCUBES does execute the unlimited practice part quite well, but there are still some things left to be desired. According to the website, "40 characters alone are able to form 2,500 unique phrases and sentences," but how do I know when I've discovered them all? With the growing popularity of gamification, ChineseCUBES could gain a lot by adding challenges and unlocks: coins when you discover a new word, a dancing AR tutor when you get a phrase correct... the skies the limit! It would also be great to review previous discoveries and create them over and over again.

If they could find a way to fit those kinds of elements into the learning process, it would makes ChineseCUBES that much better. One thing is for sure, ChineseCUBES is taking a very different approach to character discovery, and I give the company credit for that. Beyond being a novel approach there is no question that countless hours have gone into the manufacture and development of this product, it feels much more polished that many language learning products on the market.

If you're interested in checking out more about ChineseCUBES, or would like to purchase ChineseCUBES for yourself or your classroom, be sure to check out their website or youtube videos for more information.

ChineseCUBES website
ChineseCUBES video

ChineseCUBES was gracious enough to send me their product for review. I am grateful  that I was given this opportunity and sorry that this review took so long. Life (and school) got in the way for far too long!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Translation Practice 2.0

My mini translation challenge continues this week with another post from Seth's Blog. I ran into some issues with this one, and ended up putting my work on Lang-8 to be checked by a native speaker. My biggest issue was whether to add a subject to the sentence or not, or when to add "mistake," since Chinese is a pro-drop language.

I wrote the post in simplified Chinese, since most Lang-8 users are from Mainland China.

Here is my original work, as you can see there are parts that were unclear to me:

Two kinds of mistakes

一种错误是过分的防守现状, 投资太多的时间与力量放在保持目前的状况。
There is the mistake of overdoing the defense of the status quo, the error of investing too much time and energy in keep things as they are.
And then there is the mistake made while inventing the future, the error of small experiments gone bad.

We are almost never hurt by the second kind of mistake and yet we persist in making the first kind, again and again.

Here is the Lang-8 user corrected version:





Truth be told, I don't know how well the corrections capture the original meaning, I'll need to discuss with a native speaker. The confusion, for me, comes from the 即使再...也 portion of the third section. I understand that 即使...也 and 再...也 can both be used as a sort of concession of a truth or outcome, for example: 
  • 即使你去了也沒用 (Nothing would have changed even if you had gone)
  • 你到了北京,時間再緊也要去看老師 (When you arrive in Beijing, however tight your schedule is, you must go to visit your teacher.
But, can they both be used together? Furthermore, is that what Seth is saying with the line "the error of small experiments gone bad? I don't think so.

I'll have to give this one some more thought, but I would encourage anyone who has an opinion to comment below. I look forward to uncovering the mystery, and of course, learning a great deal in the process! Stay tuned for the next episode of this mini challenge sometime next week!

The original blog post from Seth can be found here.

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