I was invited to speak last week at the ‘International Conference on Internet and Teaching Chinese as a Second Language’, hosted by Leeds University East Asian Studies and the Business Confucius Institute in the UK. The conference was attended by around 60 Chinese teaching professionals from all over the world and I was fortunate enough to be asked to give my perspective on the rise of Chinese-learning apps and their place within global Mandarin classrooms.
One thing that was immediately apparent from the conference – the fifteenth of its kind to be held since 1995 – is the willingness of the global teaching community to embrace and create new forms of technology to complement traditional teaching styles. I did get the sense, however, that there is still an amount of uncertainty surrounding how best to adopt technology, as well as ensure its quality and added value. A quick Google of ‘Chinese learning app’ yields over 34,900,000 results, which demonstrates a market that is becoming saturated – more chaff, less wheat.
I closely follow the Mandarin teaching community in the UK and during the past weeks much of the discussion has centred around how to engage children in the classroom. To quote a recent contributor: ‘This is a question I’m always asking myself – how to make material relevant but interesting, simple but accessible…’. I feel that this is where technology can play a huge part and developers of online resources have a fantastic opportunity to work alongside teachers to embed online resources within curricula, rather than simply being nice-to-have, supplementary materials.
Speaking from the perspective of somebody who has been a student of Chinese for the past 14 years, I hoped that my presentation would provide a fresh perspective to the teachers. However, given my position at TCB, I certainly didn’t want to create the image that everything is perfect in the world of online education, or that CALL/MALL (computer/mobile assisted language learning) is some form of magic pill that diminishes the need for traditional teaching. I think there is space for both communities to work more closely together in this regard as, after all, our goals are commonly aligned.
I discussed both the positives and potential short-falls of using apps and other online resources in the Mandarin classroom, summarised as follows:
- Remove the hurdle — 充分利用碎片时间 — From my perspective, long pieces of Chinese homework set by my teachers at school were a chore. I would have to dedicate a set amount of time each evening to studying them. However, Chinese apps – in particular news-readers such as TCB – remove this hurdle to study. Bite-sized lessons with lots of features to support learners make regular learning more accessible than ever.
- Study on the move — 随时随地学习 — Apps and mobile content make it easy to study on the go. We have plenty of users who study with TCB on their way to/from the office each day. As every Chinese learner knows: use it or lose it!
- Topical/relevant/current resources — 追踪热点事件 — What’s more, content online is often updated daily. It is a challenge to keep textbooks topical and relevant, whereas online resources can keep up with current trends. This is particularly important for younger learners.
- No rote-learning — 不死记硬背 — Gone are the days of cram-to-revise character dictations, which can now be replaced by intelligent flashcard systems with ‘recycle and repeat’ functionality to ensure students keep on top of their vocbaulary revision.
- Fresh subject matter — 新鲜的题材 — Relevant content can also help with understanding culture, history, or even current affairs which can be great to fuel discussion with Chinese friends.
- Accessible where no teacher present — 远程学习 — In remote areas, such as Australia’s Outback, foundations are ever-increasingly looking toward online tools to provide support in areas where it is not economically viable to hire a Chinese teacher on a school-by-shool basis or where the distance between schools makes ‘group teaching’ impossible.
- Adoptive algorithms can adapt to the learners’ cognitive learning styles — 智能化结构化教学系统 — Apps can use adoptive algorithms to align with students’ levels or interests, again removing barriers to study.
- Student autonomy over content/approach (within reason!) — 学生主动挑选学习内容和方法 — Teachers should never underestimate the power of self-motivated study for their students. A certain amount of autonomy over content or approach to study can go a long way to increase motivation.
- Gamification — 游戏 — Games can make language learning more engaging and interesting for students.
- No sacrifice in other areas of life — 不影响其他重要的事 — Apps are able to provide language learning that is accessible, meaning that it can be fit around busy schedules or where Chinese is not the primary subject of study.
- Competitive and interactive — 有竞争有互动 — To give a real-life example of this, my little brother often spends three to four hours each night on My Maths just to stay ahead of his classmates on the leaderboard. Just don’t tell him he’s actually doing homework as he battles!
- Cost-effective — 价格优势 — It can be cheaper to learn online than attend classes or hire a tutor. However, it’s not always cheaper or more effective to learn remotely.
- Familiarise with different accents — 不同的口音适应日常生活 — TCB as an example of this has spoken, graded audio for each lesson. Our team of writers come from different regions, and it’s a fantastic way to familiarise yourself with different Chinese accents that makes the leap to conversing with a native Chinese speaker a lot less daunting.
- Reduce lesson planning time — 减少学习筹划时间 — Teachers can use apps to reduce lesson planning time, giving them more time to do what they do best… teach!
- Retention process — 僵化的程序 — Whereas it may have in the past taken a couple of hours to study a Chinese text, with resources such as Pleco and Wenlin, it’s now easier than ever to grasp the meaning of a body of text. However, the ability to skim characters and quickly retrieve their meanings may come at the cost of retention of vocabulary. Each character used to be a challenge which could lead to more thorough mastery of the language – 掌握不牢固.
- Cost-effective — 价格优势 — Some schools and universities do not have spare funds to dedicate to external resources.
- Lesser understanding of radicals/word make-up — 边旁部首不能系统化学习 — Apps often neglect fundamental parts of the language such as the importance of radicals and the make-up of words, which teachers are able to convey in the classroom.
- Stroke order — 汉字笔顺 — Stroke order is often neglected, as often is writing in general when studying online, however tools such as TCB’s Stroke Order and Character Writing Tool are helping to address this issue.
- ‘Communication is king’ — 双向交流 — It’s hard to find people to practice speaking with when you learn remotely. That’s not to say students can’t find language partners online or offline. Another key factor here is the ability to linguistically problem solve. Something you develop as a learner with regular conversation is the ability to explain what you are trying to say without necessarily knowing the correct word or best way of saying a phrase.
- Access to technology in poorer areas — 贫困地区难以接触科技 — Some schools have disparity between levels of parents’ incomes. It would, in some cases, be unfair for a school to purchase a subscription when some of the students are unable to access it outside of the classroom, due to the lack of a computer or mobile device at home. This would give an unfair advantage to students from more affluent backgrounds.
- Teachers still have to create supplementary materials — 仍需要教师编写材料 — This is something that we at TCB are currently working closely with institutions to address through our comprehension and feedback system.
The accessibility of resources that are regularly updated with engaging content, particularly for reading, can be hugely beneficial for students. To quote Dr Theresa Munford, of St Gregory’s School, regular reading can help students master more abstract terms in Chinese that they often fail to retain when learning vocab lists. These ‘Bloomin’ Obvious‘ words, such as ‘的’，‘在’ and ’没‘, become natural and automatic through reading.
I also spoke briefly about the different teaching styles for languages and stressed the need for a communicative approach to keep students motivated and engaged, as well as to make their language-learning experience outside of the classroom much more fruitful. It’s ok to make mistakes and I believe this is something that should be encouraged inside and outside the classroom.
Where no access to a large pool of native speakers is present, even a simple conversation each day as a student passes their teacher in the classroom will go a long way to removing the barriers to speaking Chinese and improving confidence in students.
I believe that as the worlds of teaching and Chinese-learning app development work more closely together, we can create a much better experience for both students and teachers.
I would like to extend my gratitude to the organisers of the event last week as it presented me with a much clearer picture of how far things have already come and how much room for mutual growth and learning still exists within the community.