Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The APPs and programs we're using now

The world of Apps for IPad, IPhone and Android are constantly changing and like Chinese textbooks, we now suffer from an overwhelming flood of content.  Some is great, some is ok and a lot is just not worth your time or money.  How to tell the difference?  That is difficult. 

We have a policy of only recommending what we actually like AND use.  We don't write negative reviews. Therefore, the absence of a mention does not mean we don't like a product, it may mean we have not looked at it. If you have recommendations, please forward to our email and we'll take a look. We will only mention a product if we choose to use it in our school and recommend it to our students. With that in mind, here is what we are currently using, recommending and/or requiring for our students:

Key Software - Key is published by CJKWare.com and represents the best and most comprehensive word processing product for students of Chinese. It goes beyond mere word processing to a full learning tool. It allows input in English, Chinese (Traditional and Simplified) Japanese and Korean at the click of a button. Key contains a mouse over dictionary that lists a character's radical, radical number and total stroke count as well as definition. In addition Key allows the user to create vocabulary lists, timed reading passages, glossaries, and promotes fluency in typing in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Please note we only use the product for Chinese and cannot comment on its use for Japanese or Korean. Students can cut and paste content to and from Key to utilize the tools contained within such as displaying Pinyin or Zhuyin above or below the character text, tones, and switching back and forth from Traditional to Simplified. Key was created specifically for students of Chinese, Japanese and Korean at the college level and is unlike any other product in its unlimited content creation capability. We require this product for all students who are reading at a 4th grade level and above in our program. Teachers looking for a product to create lesson plans, handouts and content should look no further than Key. The only shortcoming to using Key is that the input method is slightly different from the standard IME input format. Students who do not also learn to type without the "assistance" that key provides in a regular IME format, will find typing Chinese outside of Key difficult. It is important for students to utilize both.

IQ Chinese Go Chinese & Pinyin - IQ Chinese is a type-to-learn curriculum that outpaces all competitors. Although the company produces a product similar to Key, it has substantive differences.  Key does not teach how to type in Chinese, this is where the IQ Go Chinese levels 100-800 and Pinyin products shine. We will start with the Pinyin product - it is among the very best to teach Pinyin for the purpose of typing in Chinese. Rather than utilizing class time to teach phonetics, older students can utilize this product to accomplish a rather mundane but important task on computer saving class time for vocabulary acquisition. The type to learn vocabulary and character curriculum is called Go Chinese.  It has 8 separate levels that mirror most textbook series.  The curriculum is engaging and thorough. It drills listening comprehension, character recognition, production of correct spelling and tones as well as selecting the character while typing. This product is essential for AP Chinese exam preparation. The AP Chinese test is a typewritten test and therefore students must spend substantial time learning to type in Chinese in order to sit for the test. Most Chinese programs prioritize handwriting characters from memory and many do not teach typing. Students who have not learned how to type accurately in a standard IME format will be at a significant disadvantage in the AP Chinese exam. Typing in Chinese involves typing pinyin (or another input alphabet) and tones that will generate a choice of either traditional or simplified characters. It is a 2 step process - correct spelling & tones an then selection of the correct character. The process takes repeated practice and can be overwhelming for beginning and intermediate level students. IQ creates an environment that limits choices for the beginning student thereby simplifying the learning process. The combination of kinesthetic, visual and auditory learning styles through typing can increase the speed at which students learn to recognize and produce written Chinese content.

Pleco - This is the last dictionary you will ever need. Previously we recommended the hard copy Far East Dictionary and a series of picture dictionaries - these still have value but realistically, Pleco is what we use every day, in every class, with every student. Pleco is available for IPhone, IPad and Android devices. Pleco is a free app but you will need to purchase a bundle or selected add-ons to take full advantage of its strengths.  We recommend the Basic Bundle $29.99 which contains almost everything a student will need including:  Optical character recognizer (shhh - we dont' tell the kids about this one - we want them to use handwriting to look up words rather than taking a picture with their phones), full screen handwriting, stroke order diagrams (huge hit with the kids), document reader (cut and paste from email, texts, or websites to read with the help of Pleco dictionary), flash card system, audio reader with male and female voices. We are currently experimenting with new add-ons for character etymology, a proverb dictionary and a thesaurus database.

Skritter - this is the 1 the only, the best tool for learning to write characters (also used for Japanese). Skritter requires a subscription.  It is essential for anyone learning to write by hand and read Chinese characters. The program features spaced repetition which is much better than your old fashioned flash cards. Kids will like tracking their scores. You can create your own cards or download pre-made sets for specific textbooks. Its not for the youngest children however - as it is a pinyin utilizing tool. Pre-literate children will not be able to use it without assistance. There are a number of writing programs for very young children. 

認字識詞 - This darling app requires in app purchases. It teaches topical vocabulary with proper stroke order in a format that will delight younger kids. There are 8 topic areas each featuring 15 characters. After introducing the stroke order, hearing the words, seeing zhuyin bpmf, the user is quizzed to put the words in the correct sentence order. There are multiple challenges allowing the user to earn points. The animation is cute and the interactive nature will appeal to younger users. The stroke order is strict but friendly for kids. Challenges can be repeated and the app will track multiple users.

APPs to learn Zhuyin or Pinyin - yes we teach both in our program therefore we look for products that offer one or both phonetic systems. These are not listed in a particular order - some are free (with annoying music and popup ads or low cost apps.

5Q Channel BPMF App -  This app takes the form of a child's audio picture book. It has interactive features - click on the pictures on the screen to hear the word and the sound followed by a "find the sound" page.

快樂學bpmf -This App has rather annoying music, but kids will love the writing of the Zhuyin phonetic symbols. The pronunciation is clear and in the voice of a young child. It is a good app for learning to write the symbols and association the sounds with the symbols. The interactive activities are limited to writing. There is no game or quiz mode.

熊貓教室 - This app has an interactive list of zhuyin symbols and a game that tests the student's listening and association of the sound with the symbol. It is the only app we found that does this. It is a limited program but good for what it does.

Bopomofo - pinyin to zhuyin training game - This app quizzes the user on zhuyin and pinyin associations.  A limited matching game format but tests sound combinations in both zhuyin and pinyin.

Wills School Lite - This app has 3 useful components surrounded by irrelevant games. Under learning, users can trace zhuyin symbols and see them used with vocabulary associated with pictures (the user must tap on the pictures to hear pronunciation, a "music" task where the user can hear the pronunciation of individual symbols, and an interactive "exam" that asks the user to fill in the blank on a vocabulary picture card from 4 symbol choices. This "test" on zhuyin in context is good but the app does not pronounce the word for confirmation. 


BoPoMo一起Fun - This app has 4 activities writing the zhuyin phonetic sounds, clicking on them in a game-like activity, listing the sounds in the correct order by selecting the floating circle and a blackboard where you can select a card and write/select the bpmf sound and tone to match the character/picture (note there is no correction or verification on this activity). The app is useful for learning how to write the symbols and recite/list them in the correct order. Kids will like the tracing activity.

Apps for learning the history/etymology of characters: 
Chinese Etymology - our absolute favorite. Type in a character (simplified or traditional) and you can see Oracle Bone, Bronze, Seal and 6 Book scripts. The list of Oracle Bone and Bronze variants is substantial - you will need to be online or on Wifi to use this app as it connects to a database. It also lists character details that are very helpful in understanding how characters evolved. It represents a labor of love by the author who compiled the database. We frequently use this in class.

古文字猜猜樂 - this fun game asks the users to match characters with Oracle Bone, Bronze and later script variants. Free app with ads.

Art of Chinese Characters - This fun app requires in app purchases. It features 15 "pages" with 4-7 characters depicted. It demonstrates the origin of each from Oracle Bone to the modern simplified variant, shows stroke order, meaning, and associated words (with audio). It has a learn and "search for" function. The user can write the character after seeing it traced using the correct stroke order.

汉字猜猜1:幼儿版--有趣有文化的猜字游戏 - This guessing game asks the user to see an oracle bone script character or later variant and guess which modern simplified character it represents. 4 clues are provided. A book can be opened after guessing that shows the full evolution. Kids will like scoring points by guessing correctly.

How to choose materials for young children - part 3 of 4


How do I find appropriate materials to help my child learn Mandarin? 


There are thousands of materials available with new products reaching the market every month.  Only 10-15 years ago, the opposite was true.  Now you have the benefit and the burden of sifting through more options than you may be able to evaluate.  So, where do you begin?  I will suggest general guidelines to help you decide which textbooks, readers, music, and videos are worth your time.  Like many language learners, I have a variety of products which fall into one of the following categories:

·         Use for now
·         Save for later
·         Sell or give away

As a beginning point, look at your personal goals and those for your child.  If you have not set short, medium and long term goals, read the first article in this series, Setting Realistic Goals.  Goal setting will determine whether a language learning resource is appropriate at this time, suitable for later study or irrelevant to your learning journey.  I recommend a different set of categories to divide your current library and evaluate future purchases:  

·         Suitable for short term goals
·         Suitable for medium term goals
·         Suitable for long term goals
      Not suitable for my current goals because the product is too easy, I have already used it and would not need it for review, or this product has no relation to my goals. 

Evaluating for age and developmental level

Are the textbooks, handouts, CDs, computer programs and homework materials suitable to your goals, your child’s age and developmental level?  Is there a mismatch such as a college textbook featuring situations and vocabulary a young child cannot relate to?  The opposite is situation is not necessarily a negative – older students can successfully use materials designed for younger children or students, but content designed for preschool children may not be well received by teen students. 
For children of any age, look at the product from their perspective. 

·         Does it feature situations and vocabulary they can relate to? 
·         Is it relevant to their experience? 
·         Does it hold their attention and interest?   

Evaluating for language level

Often language classes or products are divided into:

·         Are the sentence patterns and vocabulary useful and accessible? 
·       Are the sentence patterns too complex for the student’s learning level or at the appropriate language level?  

Is the product accessible outside the classroom?

Evaluate materials in terms of how you will use them outside the classroom.  If you want to work with a teacher online or pursue self-study, look for content you can access without the help of a teacher.  Does the book, CD, computer program or DVD include pinyin, characters, a glossary or vocabulary list?  Is there an introduction, explanation or guide to using the material for students or is it directed toward the teacher?  Is the material suitable to your level?  If you can figure out the meaning from the pictures or the video, this is a good product.  You don’t need a full translation to use a resource, you just need a product that facilitates your use.  Select audio/visual material where you comprehend 65-75% or more of the content.  If the material is a textbook, does it include audio or video files you can use to hear as well as read?  Avoid purchasing materials that are too difficult, instead collect resources that are at your level and just above.  Before buying a DVD, watch some of the content and see how much you or your child can understand.  If you have a teacher using multi-media, ask if they will provide vocabulary lists and resources you can use at home to help you when watching/listening/using outside of class. 

How to choose Chinese Teacher part 2 of 4



Part 2 in our 4 part series - How to choose a Chinese teacher - What really matters when choosing a teacher or school?  A balanced review of factors that impact your learning experience.



What to look for in a teacher

How do I find a teacher to help my child learn Mandarin? 

This is a challenging topic that defies one simple answer.  The selection of a teacher and school for yourself or your child is a highly personal quest; one that must take into consideration your individual goals, needs, and background.   Therein lies the rub.  When you talk with a school administrator or teacher, are they asking about your goals, needs and background?  Or, are they telling you about their individual skills, methodology, track record or materials?  

Your needs are central

In order to choose the best program to meet your needs, you must first examine what those needs are and recognize that they will change over time.  Some of the most important questions to ask yourself:   
   
  • Where will you use Mandarin; in which social, academic or professional circumstance and environment?
  • Where will your children use Mandarin? 
  • Are your goals for yourself and your children age and developmentally appropriate? 
  • Finally, are those goals realistic?  
 If you have not yet identified short, medium and long term goals, read article one in this series, Setting Realistic Goals.



Be an active learner

In order to learn a language you need to be more than a passive learner in the process.  You need to take an active role in determining what you will learn, when you will learn it, and if you are satisfied with the progress you are making.  The burden for accomplishing those goals lies not only with the instructor, but with you.  Have you chosen the environment that is best suited to help you meet those goals?  If not, you have the opportunity and the right to seek a different environment and or teacher.  Use the goal setting process to identify not only your goals but to think about your strengths and weaknesses.  What do you know about the way you learn?  If you have never studies another language you can still identify how you learn most effectively.  Do you learn by listening (an auditory learner), by reading or seeing pictures (a visual learner), by moving and acting out (a kinesthetic learner).  Knowing the learning styles that help you process new information can allow you to work toward your strengths and your teacher to deliver content in a way that best works for you.  There are many different learning style inventories available; the most basic divide the process of learning into the 3 categories listed above (auditory, visual, kinesthetic).  Other inventories (multiple intelligences  broaden the categories to include music, environment, interpersonal/social learning among the styles.  It is helpful to understand your personal or child’s learning styles.  The balance between the different styles will change over time as a student matures and succeeds in different challenges.  Young children will shift from functioning as predominantly auditory learners to a blend of two or more dominant styles.  Repeat the learning style inventories every few years to help tune your learning and keep your teachers informed. 

Making contact with a teacher and school

After you identify how you learn and set medium and long term goals, it is time to make initial calls and email a teacher or school.  Ask about the teaching philosophy and methods.  Is instruction conducted with immersion, partial immersion, or English/translation techniques?  What is the emphasis of the class – developing listing and speaking or reading and writing skills? 

Next, set up a time to visit class and talk with a teacher in person.  It is important to see a teacher and the students while a class is in session.  It will give you an opportunity to see how the teacher interacts with students, what the norms of the classroom are, if the environment is welcoming and suitable to the student’s developmental level.  It will also provide an opportunity to ask the teacher to outline the program goals and see how they fit with yours.  A good program and teacher should have more than a text book at the center of the program; the program should be built around objectives that are easy to explain and understand.  Ask about the rationale for the objectives.  Good programs are both progressive and spiral allowing for a review of previously learned material while introducing new content.  No matter what the program, there will be some rationale behind what is taught, the sequence, and the evaluation methods – even if these issues are dictated at the administrative level.    

The classroom setting

The classroom will give you a good indication of the age group and developmental level best suited to the environment.  Young children (preschool-elementary) will learn more effectively in an environment that provides room to move and play, carpets and child size tables and chairs rather than adult desks, visual aids and toys, inviting colors.  Junior High/Middle School and High School students are more comfortable in a traditional classroom setting with tables, chairs and desks.  Adults respond well to seminar settings. 

Many weekend language schools rent university facilities or classroom style rooms designed for adult learning.  The physical environment can and will dictate how the teacher engages with students.  For a high school or adult student, a classroom full of desks creates a physical separation and is the most comfortable and inviting setting.  For a preschool and elementary age children, the opposite is true.  Young children learn by interacting with their environment. 

When seeking a program for young children, look for a teacher who has experience with the age group in both personal and professional settings.  Imagine taking your 2 year old to a teacher who has never taught or raised a 2 year old child.  Will he or she understand the behavior and interests of a child that age?  Will the teacher have a methodology that accommodates the learning styles and speed of a young toddler?  Likewise when teaching teenagers, will the teacher be able to handle typical behavioral challenges posed by teens when they are bored because a class that is too easy, overwhelmed because they don’t understand, or just disinterested? 

What skills matter?
 
You will find that many programs emphasize on one or two skills over the others (listening, speaking, reading and writing).  How are the goals for each skill determined at different ages and levels?  Is there a different program for native speaking children versus Chinese-as-second-language children?  How do these instructional priorities fit with your goals?  Is there flexibility in the program to meet your needs? 

Learning the writing system is typically emphasized sometimes to the exclusion of other skills.  It should be questioned in Chinese-as-second-language (CSL) programs.  Although all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing need to be taught, the last two will take significantly more time to develop.  Depending on the age and language background of your child, he or she may not be developmentally ready to start work on literacy before learning to think and speak in the language.  A heritage learner who has significant language exposure at home can begin literacy work much earlier while acquiring new vocabulary.  For older students and adults, an emphasis on writing will prepare the student to take standardized exams to demonstrate proficiency.  Ask about how the methodological emphasis aligns with standardized exams.  Will you be prepared to take the exam(s) you wish to take?  Tackling all four skills at the same time is a complex task in any language.  In Mandarin, it is a particular challenge given the time needed to learn to read and write characters. 

Phonetic systems

A second concern is the use of phonetic systems to teach pronunciation.  There are two main systems in use – pinyin 拼音and zhuyinfuhao 注音符號/注音符号 (aka Bopomofo).  Both phonetic systems have advantages and disadvantages.  All Mandarin students should eventually learn pinyin but not necessarily as the first step.  For young CSL children, it is important to develop strong phonemic awareness in their first language (English or other language using the Roman alphabet) before adapting the same alphabet as an aid to learn another language.  A good benchmark is to teach pinyin after a student reads at the 3rd grade level in English (or other language using the Roman alphabet).  Otherwise, pinyin can and does cause phonemic confusion.  Therefore, children below this age should only be taught characters or the zhuyinfuhao system rather than the pinyin system. 

For those asking “why should I learn pinyin,” the answer is primarily applicable to students above the beginning level or older students (above 3rd grade).  Pinyin is the most widely accepted system for transliterating Mandarin Chinese worldwide.  It is also one of the easiest to use in typing Mandarin on an electronic device (computer, cell phone or other devices).  All these factors do not mean that pinyin is an efficient or even useful system for learning to pronounce or read Mandarin Chinese.  There are multiple ways to teach Mandarin pronunciation, pinyin is only one of these.  However, when it comes to input for electronic devices, pinyin is a clear leader in terms of ease, frequency of use among devices and programs, and world-wide standardization. 

Simplified or Traditional characters

What is better Simplified or Traditional characters?  There is no correct answer to the question.  Starting with either is fine.  Many teachers will have adamant views on this question but in reality if you and your child study Chinese for an extended period, you will be exposed to both and will need to develop some proficiency with both character sets.  Is one really easier than the other?  Yes and no.  Traditional characters are easier to see the history and understand their development over time which can be an aid in learning to recognize them.  Simplified characters are easier to learn to write.  Both require substantial time to learn to read, type and more time to write from memory by hand.  The time required to learn to read and/or write Chinese characters is substantially longer than that required to learn to comprehend and to correctly use words in conversation.  Depending on your personal goals, the choice of characters with either matter or make no difference.  It should not typically be the criteria for selecting a teacher or school. 

Handwriting versus typing

Do you need to learn to write or to type characters?  Again instructors will have strong views on this question.  The answer goes back to your personal goals.  What do you need to do?  Write letters or type and text?  If you live in the U.S., the Advanced Placement Chinese exam may provide an answer – it is a typewritten exam and students must know how to type in Chinese to sit for the exam.  If you live in Australia, handwriting is required as part of the national curriculum and associated exams.  If you want to take the HSK exams, handwriting will be required. 

Online versus in-person classes

Your needs will change over time.  You will find that in-person instruction is essential for young children.  Online classrooms will not provide the essential environment and interaction needed for a pre-school to elementary age child.  For older children and adult students online teachers may provide the best option to meet your individual goals.  However, online one-to-one instruction will not provide group learning opportunities.  Social/interpersonal learners need group interaction in order to learn more effectively.  Many families attend language school in order to establish cultural connections with a community, to make friends with other families, and spend social time with those who share a language and culture.  These factors are also important but may impact the achievement of language learning goals.  If the program or teachers in a school do not fit your personal learning goals but the social goals are important, you may be able to remain in that program for extra-curricular programs and pursue language instruction online or with a private teacher. 

Native versus non-native teachers

A non-native teacher can be more effective than native speakers at the beginning and intermediate levels.  Unlike native speakers, teachers who have been second language learners understand the process and particular challenges their students face.  One of the most important criteria for selecting beginning or intermediate level teacher is teacher training.  Is the teacher familiar with the American Council for Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL) standards and current research on teaching and assessment methodologies?  If you plan to take the U.S. AP Chinese exam, is your teacher trained by the College Board and intimately familiar with the exam?  If the HSK is a goal, is your teacher familiar with the structure of this exam and how to prepare you for it?

For high intermediate and advanced learners, working with multiple native-speakers is essential.  Mandarin Chinese is characterized by significant regional pronunciation differences, an expansive literary tradition that infuses all advanced written material, and multiple cultural centers of learning.  One instructor, particularly a non-native teacher cannot address these complexities.  At the advanced level, you may have highly specific needs and goals.  You can work with native speakers who are not trained teachers but have specialized knowledge.  If you understand your needs in a sophisticated way, you can help non-teachers provide they type of instruction that will benefit you.  Therefore, working with multiple instructors over the course of learning is important. 

Finally, go with your gut.  If you don’t feel right about a teacher, program or product, don’t buy it.  Try something else.  It may take a while to find the right fit, but in the end it will be worth it.  Remember, no teacher, program or product is right for every student.  You will need a mix of resources to meet your goals.  You will also need to change direction throughout your learning journey.