Tag: review


06

Aug 2015

Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Cultural Gaps

xiyouji-dashengguilai

I recently watched a Chinese movie called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in English, or 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai) in Chinese (full name: 西游记之大圣归来). The name 大圣 is short for 齐天大圣, which is another name for 孙悟空, the “Monkey King” character from Journey to the West (西游记).

Have I lost you yet? This is actually a pretty good movie, with high-quality animation, but it’s written for a Chinese audience, and as such has a lot of cultural assumptions built in. Although I’m generally familiar with the story of Journey to the West (西游记), it’s a classic that every native-born Chinese person is intimately familiar with from childhood, so foreigners trying to understand the story are at a bit of a disadvantage. (I’m going to provide all the Chinese characters and pinyin for Chinese learners like I always do, but the following info should still help even if you’re not studying Chinese. Mouse over characters for pinyin.)

Pretty much every Chinese person, young and old, knows that Journey to the West has 4 main heroes (plus a horse). One annoying thing is that each character has multiple Chinese names and multiple English translations of those names. The names given in parentheses (in bold) are the ones I hear used the most by Chinese friends.

journey_to_the_west_by_redcode77-d4y962l

  1. 唐僧 (Tang Seng), AKA 唐三藏, 玄奘, or Tripitaka in English. He’s a Buddhist monk on a mission to retrieve the sacred sutra from the West. He’s the one that always wears the tall hat.
  2. 孙悟空 (Sun Wukong), AKA 齐天大圣, the Monkey King, also called just “Monkey” in some translations. He’s a badass rebel with an attitude that can do all sorts of magic, including taking on 72 different forms.
  3. 猪八戒 (Zhu Bajie), AKA “Pigsy.” Once an immortal, but now a greedy pig-man with magical powers, but only 36 forms.
  4. 沙悟净 (Sha Wujing), AKA Friar Sand or “Sandy.” Also a fallen immortal, he’s in the shape of a man, but he only knows 18 forms. He seems to be the lackey of the group, and is often seen hauling around everyone’s luggage. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the above 3 characters.)
  5. 玉龙 AKA 白龙马 (“White Dragon Horse”), a white dragon and son of the Dragon King. Takes the form of Tang Seng’s steed as atonement for a crime. (Not nearly as famous or beloved as the top 3 characters.)

OK, now how do these traditional characters fit into the new movie 大圣归来 (Da Sheng Guilai)? That’s key to understanding it. I won’t give any real spoilers, but the following are a few important notes that all Chinese viewers understand immediately, which should clear a few things up for foreign viewers:

dashengguilai-characters

  1. The movie kicks off with Sun Wukong starting a brawl in heaven. He’s basically a troublemaker and is pissing everyone off. You get a taste of his full power here, and also see him change form.
  2. In the end of the opening heavenly brawl, Sun Wukong is stopped by 佛祖 (the Big Buddha), and imprisoned for 500 years under a mountain. This detail is faithful to the original.
  3. When Sun Wukong is first released from imprisonment, he is surprised to discover that he’s lost most of his powers, and it seems to be that magical shackle thing holding them back.
  4. Sun Wukong is referred to in the movie by three names/titles: 齐天大圣, 大圣, and 孙悟空.
  5. 唐僧, the main monk on a mission in Journey to the West, is the little boy named 江流儿 in the new movie. This name is made up for the new movie, and making him into a little boy has no basis in the original story; it’s a fresh twist. He is often referred to by Chinese audiences, for convenience, as 小唐僧 (Little Tang Seng). Everyone knows who he’s supposed to be.
  6. The old man that takes care of Little Tang Seng and raises him to be a monk is just created for convenience in this adaptation, as is the little girl that Little Tang Seng is protecting.
  7. Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are represented pretty faithfully to tradition in this movie.
  8. The “White Dragon Horse” makes a few appearances in this new movie, but he has not yet become Tang Seng’s steed. (That will probably happen in a sequel.)
  9. Sha Wujing does not make an appearance in this new movie. (That will also probably happen in a sequel.)

If you’re studying Chinese, I recommend you check out this movie. It’s pretty easy to follow even without the above information, but it’s nice to know how it “plugs into” contemporary Chinese culture.

I hope the forthcoming English-dubbed version is better than this:

Music video with scenes from the movie:


Additional Links:

西游记之大圣归来 on Baidu (Chinese)
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on IMDb
Monkey King: Hero Is Back on Wikipedia
Journey to the West on Wikipedia


02

Jun 2015

The Chairman’s Bao

Since my job at AllSet Learning is to create personalized Chinese courses for clients, I’m always on the lookout for good new sources of study material. The most interesting and promising one I’ve found lately is called The Chairman’s Bao (主席日报). More than simply a collection of interesting articles in Chinese, the site describes itself as “the 1st ever online Chinese simplified newspaper dedicated to those learning Mandarin.” This is because each article has been written (simply) to conform to a specific HSK level. The lowest level on the site is currently HSK 3, the highest HSK 6+.

The Chairman's Bao: home page

This is pretty awesome, considering that many learners despair of ever being able to read an actual newspaper until their overall levels are somewhere around “advanced.” I myself put off reading newspaper articles until I was almost ready for my graduate-level studies in Chinese. Some learners feel that browser extensions provide the reading help needed, but it’s still very easy to get discouraged if you’re looking up every other word in an article.

Essentially, this is a news-themed application of the graded reader idea. While the articles themselves are not long enough to be considered true extensive reading exercises, it’s still a refreshing take on the “study the news in Chinese” idea, and it makes news far more accessible to more learners than ever before.

Here are some of my observations about the service:

– It’s free! It might not remain that way, so check it out while you still can. It’s currently not even necessary to create an account to read articles and listen to audio, unless you want to save vocabulary words.
– You’ll need an account to use the built-in dictionary. The dictionary isn’t of the “mouse-over” variety, though; you actually have to select text with your cursor. This means that if you incorrectly parse a word, the dictionary is of little help. The good news, though, is that you can also use a popup dictionary extension on the site (which could also provide grammar links), and there will be no conflict with the built-in dictionary. Hopefully the built-in dictionary will improve over time. (If you use the built-in dictionary, though, you have the added advantage of being able to save words to your account on the site.)
– The articles are pretty well-chosen. While you may not be interested in everything, you can undoubtedly find some articles that interest you, and at your level.
– The articles’ audio recordings are clear, although sometimes the person reading seems less than enthusiastic. Considering that it’s provided for free, though, it’s quite good most of the time (no robot voices!).
– The site doesn’t tell you how many articles are on the site, but there are clearly a lot.

Because I had a number of questions about The Chairman’s Bao, I got in touch and actually met with one of the co-founders, Thomas Reid, who is also Chief of Staff. He was also gracious enough to do a mini-interview about the service:


John: How many total articles are on the site? Do you have a breakdown by level?

Tom: As of [May 28th], there are 254 articles that have been published on the site (HSK3: 60, HSK4: 68, HSK5: 73, HSK6/6+: 53). I’m afraid that there is no way to get these numbers on the site itself, however you can sort the articles by level and scroll down right until the first articles published from our launch in January. All articles are available to view.

The Chairman's Bao: so many girlfriends

John: What is your new article publication schedule? Do you have a breakdown by level?

Tom: We aim to publish 2-3 new articles a day. This was being achieved until recently when 2 of our staff left. As such we can only publish 1-2 per day. I am currently recruiting new writers and we will soon be back up to our original quota. As for the level breakdown, I try and keep it as even as possible with the number of articles being written and the days they are uploaded and published. However there are a lot of factors that can affect the timeline here, particularly the strict editing procedure. Sometimes in order to guarantee an article’s quality according to a certain level, modifications need to be made. This can slow down the time it takes for the article to be published.

John: How do you choose what articles to do, and who does it?

Tom: Myself and my partners [CEO] Matt Carter and [CMO] Sean McGibney choose the stories. We are constantly browsing news not just from within China but all over the globe to find our stories. The main focus is on China, but we will, of course, try to include major events and interesting developments from around the world.

John: How do you level your articles, and who does the work?

Tom: Once we have found the news, we add it to a shared folder and assign it an HSK level before sending it to the writers. We judge this on the content of the article. We need to look at what words must be used in order to tell the story in its most basic form. These words are a good indication of a suitable level. If they are relatively simple, then the writers can build sentences around them for low levels. More complex words will, of course, require high levels. The writers then write the articles and submit them to the site. The editors then check the articles to ensure a good style and verify the academic quality. Finally, audio is added and the article is published.

John: Do you have any cool new features planned that you can share?

Tom: We are currently designing the App for both iPhone and android. This has already started and will be finished in time for the next academic year.


I’m not going to do a full review including the vocabulary manager; I don’t use that myself. But there’s definitely a dearth of good study material out there, and it’s great to The Chairman’s Bao breaking new ground and addressing head-on one of the issues that has plagued us for so long: we want to read something interesting.

Check it out and spread the word!


24

Apr 2014

Can Project Naptha Read Chinese Text in Images?

Yesterday Project Naptha hit Hacker News. It offers a way to extract electronic text from image files through a simple Chrome browser extension. Excited to see that simplified and traditional Chinese are both supported by the extension, I immediately installed the extension and tried it out.

The results? Unfortunately, Not so great.

When it doesn’t work at all

First of all, the script needs to recognize the text in the image. This first step doesn’t always go too well, even if the text seems relatively clear to the human eye. Let’s look at some cases where the extension found nothing, despite the Chinese text being pretty legible.

In this first case, the font is non-standard. OK, fair enough. That’s to be expected.

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

In this next case, the text is pretty clear, but the contrast is poor.

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

In this final example, the text is fairly clear to the human eye, but also low-res and slanted. That probably makes it difficult for the algorithm.

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

When it sort of works

In many other cases, some text was identified, but not enough for the extension to be really useful for anything. Here are some images where Project Naptha could identify some text, and the “select all text” function was applied. (The blue boxes show what Project Naptha identified in the images as “text.” Sometimes they are bizarrely incorrect.)

Some examples:

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

I found the last two quite surprising, considering how clear and straightforward the text is, and also high-res.

When it actually works

Sometimes it was relatively successful in identifying the text. In these cases you must first set the language to Chinese (either simplified or traditional, depending on the text). There’s a cool effect showing you that some processing is going on. When that’s done, you can copy and paste the text.

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

But… it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

This selected Chinese text yielded the following copy-paste results:

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

> 总统亲 ã热fl地接

> \早、待了葫芦兄妹

If it had correctly captured all the text, it would have been:

> 10、总统亲自热情地接

> 待了葫芦兄妹

This one is better:

Testing Project Naptha with Chinese

> 雹电二怪对兄妹俩尽效使用现代

> 化武器况妹俩也不示弱 麝芦神功连

> 连使出 胭宙电二怪打入深深的山沟

It should have been:

> 355、雷电二怪对兄妹俩尽使用现代

> 化武器况妹俩也不示弱,葫芦神功连

> 连使出,把雷电二怪打入深深的山沟

Also, my sample size is too small to make any definite conclusions, but it seems like the extension works better for simplified characters than for traditional.

Conclusion

I don’t mean to sound overly critical. This is amazing technology here, and the fact that it launched with any support for Chinese characters at all is pretty awesome (and brave)! I’m sure the technology will improve with time, and that is going to be tremendously helpful to Chinese learners.

To put this in perspective, the development of OCR (optical character recognition) for mobile devices meant that you could point your cell phone’s camera at any characters you see, and get feedback on what the characters say (sometimes). Project Naptha means the same thing, but for your home browsing experience. For me, that’s when I do a lot more Chinese reading, so it’s even more important. Once this technology is perfected, as long as you have a tool to help you read electronic Chinese text, you’re all set!

Personally, I think this is especially great news for comics. It’s no coincidence that I tested this extension out on comic book text. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this extension develops.


17

Apr 2014

FluentU: a Producer of Original Videos for Learning Chinese (2)

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this review, FluentU is showing a lot of potential as a learning platform and a content producer. In this review I’ll look more closely at FluentU’s self-produced video series, and finish with an interview of content director Jason Schuurman (my ex-co-worker at ChinesePod).

Fluent-U’s Video Series

So, assuming you have a FluentU account, where do you find the FluentU-produced videos on the FluentU site? It’s not quite as obvious as you might think. They’re not aggressively recommended. But if you go into “Courses,” you’ll notice that some course names start with “FluentU.” Those are the ones FluentU has produced on their own. Unfortunately they’re not really grouped together for easy identification, so I went ahead and listed out all the ones I could find currently available on the FluentU website:

1. FluentU: A Good Morning (Newbie, 8 clips adding up to 2:07)
2. FluentU: Table for Two (Elementary, 7 clips adding up to 3:48)
3. FluentU: Making Friends and Drinking Coffee (Elementary, 12 clips adding up to 3:01)
4. FluentU: A Trip to the Supermarket (Elementary, 7 clips adding up to 4:50)
5. FluentU: Studying on Campus (Intermediate, 8 clips adding up to 4:58)
6. FluentU: An Evening Get-together (Intermediate, 8 clips adding up to 8:20)
7. FluentU: Dinner with a Friend (Intermediate, 9 clips adding up to 6:42)
8. FluentU: Shopping at the Clothing Store (Intermediate, 7 clips adding up to 6:34)
9. FluentU: A Basketball Afternoon (Intermediate, 8 clips adding up to 6:13)
10. FluentU: Going in for a Job Interview (Upper Intermediate, 9 clips adding up to 7:13)

So only 1 Newbie series, 3 Elementary, a whopping 5 Intermediate, and 1 Upper Intermediate. I was hoping for more video at the lower level, but at least I got to see what FluentU created across 4 levels.

One of the things I really like about these series is that although they’re broken up into short episodic clips, there’s also a “full” version that ends each series, putting all the clips together. This is great for review, and it also meant that I could easily watch each series without having to watch them one by one. (Watching a series on FluentU isn’t quite as easy as watching a playlist on YouTube.)

FluentU Original Video Series

The video themselves are professionally made, using young, attractive actors. There’s a bit of a Taiwanese flavor to them all (unsurprising, since they were all shot in Taipei, I believe), which may upset the Beijing-centric putonghua police. I think it’s fine, though, the videos seem to be designed to be universally applicable to mainland China learners as well. I didn’t encounter any Taiwan-only vocabulary, pronunciation was pretty standard (although not perfect, by Beijing standards). There was also some Taiwan-style usage of sentence-final modal particles, like , , and , but I didn’t find it too distracting.

At the lower levels, it’s clear that the creators slowed down the speech and added additional pauses for lower level learners. While this is nice, it has a funny effect, making some scenes feel quite awkward. You know those conversations where neither side is quite sure to say, and there are long awkward silences? There’s a lot of that feeling in some of the lower-level video series. Even within just the Elementary series, though, we quickly see the awkwardness in one series–FluentU: Making Friends and Drinking Coffee–fade to a much more natural rate of speech in FluentU: A Trip to the Supermarket. By Intermediate, the language is a lot more natural, while still being quite clear. I found the Upper Intermediate surprisingly accessible (read: not difficult), meaning it will be more useful for more learners, which is a good thing. (Other material marked “Upper Intermediate” on FluentU is usually quite a bit more challenging.)

FluentU Original Video Series

I noticed that the writers also went to great pains to make the dialogs full of high-frequency words and phrases. While it’s usually easy to pick out words that aren’t useful in most videos or even standard textbooks, there really aren’t many at all in FluentU’s videos. In fact, the language is usually so simple and everyday that the videos don’t really through you any cureveballs at all. There aren’t “twist endings” like you frequently find in ChinesePod dialogs. One thing that keeps the videos interesting, though, is a pervasive flirtiness running through many of the male-female dialogs. You kind of expect the video to devolve into a “what’s your number?” or “we should hang out sometime,” but they stay innocent.

In fact, it’s the flirtiness, combined with an amusing awkwardness, that makes these original videos memorable. Probably my favorite example of this is the elementary video where the cute flirty waitress informs the young protagonist where the bathroom is, immediately followed up by a cutesy “don’t forget to wash your hands!” (Ha ha, wut??)

FluentU Original Video Series

Then there’s also the very awkward pre-interview high-five (between strangers) in the Upper Intermediate job interview lesson:

FluentU Original Video Series

(The girl and guy from that video are going to end up as co-workers, and if that sexual tension doesn’t later erupt in a sequel series, I really don’t know what the writers are trying to do here.)

Overall, I enjoyed the videos. Especially at the lower levels, they still feel like “studying,” but they’re very usable and easy on the eyes. I can see these being useful in the classroom, especially for college students.

Interview with FluentU’s Content Director, Jason Schuurman

thinking Jason

Me: Although it’s a very different service, FluentU kind of reminds me of ChinesePod in that it offers a lot of material and tools, and it’s up to learners to put them together in the way that makes sense for them. Can you comment on how that might work at FluentU, and how different types of users use the service?

Jason: Yeah, we definitely provide a lot of freedom and flexibility. We feel this not only allows for a broader range of users to benefit from the site, but it also let’s our users take their learning into their own hands and not get bored with materials they weren’t interested in learning in the first place.

That being said, we still do provide structure for those who want it in the form of recommended content and more specifically, ‘courses’. Courses at FluentU are something like a playlist-meets-lesson plan, and guide users through various sets of content ranging from multi-part video series, to topically related materials and textbook vocab lists.

As far as users go, on one end of the spectrum, you have users who only use FluentU for the content itself. Our library of videos and audios is very large and already organized for you, translated into English, and completely annotated. These users usually already have a system for review they prefer, prefer not to review at all, or are in Chinese classes already and looking for engaging authentic content. Most of these users are intermediate and above and subscribe to our Basic subscription plan.

On the other end of the spectrum, are the users who use FluentU as their single source for most or all of their language learning and are Plus subscribers. Not only do they get all the content, but they have access to and can create decks (vocab lists), and are able to actually learn everything within the FluentU library using our personalized review tools. Learn mode integrates videos you’ve watched and tracks your progress so that we can do things like make sure clips you see are comprehensible to you and do an even better job recommending you content. All that adds up to a pretty complete learning package.

How big is the video library, exactly? How many FluentU-produced videos do you have now?

Jason: Our total count in the video library as I write this is 1251 videos, with 65 at newbie, 86 at elementary, 138 at intermediate, 257 at upper intermediate, 360 at advanced, and 340 at native. Of those, we’ve produced 10 ‘Courses’ of videos of our own, each about 5-10 videos apiece. Though, it’s ever-increasing because we publish at least 12 videos a week, sometimes more.

In addition to that we also produce our own audio dialogs, which we call ‘Audios’. They’re similar to some videos, but are more lesson-like and practical, and of course, don’t require the user to actually watch anything, which is great for mobile. (They’ll also be available offline on our upcoming mobile app.) Right now we have 228 of those spread across the levels, and also publish around 10 a week.

And as for ‘Decks’, which are vocab lists of various types available for learning via the Learn Mode, we have 124, and continue to publish more as well.

How have you been growing the library? Are you focused on particular levels, or topics, or styles of video? What are the plans for that?

Jason: We’re always looking for and preparing new videos. In general, we make sure to cover a wide range of topics and formats, and also keep difficulty in mind so that we can continuously publish a good mix of content. Though we also keep things like the overall library balance and user feedback and requests in mind as well. So far this has worked really well, so while we have no plans to change much in that regard.

How should learners decide what videos to watch on FluentU?

Jason: Browse! The videos in our library are divided into different topics, formats, and difficulties, which help users choose what to watch based on their interests and Chinese level. We also display the percentage of vocabulary the user already knows for each video, which allows them to chose videos that are more precisely at their level.

In addition to that, we have “Courses”, which if you don’t know exactly what to you want to watch or are looking for more structure, organize the content into playlists for you. Courses are also popular because they’re longer forms of content. You can slowly pick away at a course, with your next video, deck, audio, or learn mode session waiting for you every time you sign in, meaning you don’t always have browse for new content.

How do your difficulty levels relate to textbooks or other online services like ChinesePod or the Chinese Grammar Wiki?

Jason: We based our difficulty levels on a lot of things, but mostly a combination of our own knowledge and expertise (bolstered of course via sources like the Chinese Grammar Wiki), and other helpful standards like the new HSK levels. When actually determining difficulties, we consider things like speed and clarity, but linguistically we place a strong emphasis on frequency and usefulness to ensure that lower-level videos are filled with the stuff you really need when starting a language.

Can you explain the process for how you went about creating and filming your original video series?

Jason: When we first started compiling our library of videos, we realized there was a lack of quality, entertaining, video content for lower-level learners. There’s certainly stuff out there, as our current library reflects, but nothing as well-produced and linguistically-minded as we would have prefered. The stuff out there was either very entertaining but not practical, or very practical, but not entertaining. We wanted both, and so we decided to just make them ourselves. Essentially, we wanted to make sure our lower-level learners were getting as great of a video-learning experience as our more advanced users, and making some of our own videos was the best way to do that.

To produce them, we teamed up with a small independent film production company who we felt really understood our ‘vision’ with the videos. From there, we decided on what scenarios were most needed/wanted, wrote the scripts with our pedagogy in mind, and produced the videos.

You say the FluentU video series is for “lower-level learners.” Can you explain that a bit more? Is it for someone with a year of formal Chinese under their belt, or is it an absolute newbie, or someone who’s learned pinyin and a few basic phrases but nothing else, or what?

Jason: We’ve produced our own video series at the newbie level all the way up the upper intermediate level, but we made sure to produce more at the newbie, elementary, and intermediate levels simply because there’s less good material at that level.

The ‘newbie’ level courses are meant for learners with a little bit of understanding as to how the Chinese language works in particular in terms of tones, pinyin and characters, but without any prior master of them. Through a combination of the scripts, which are written for language learning, and a filming style that is meant to take full advantage of the video-learning format, we wanted to make understanding the content just come naturally, which is very important for newbies. To do that we emphasize things like repetition of key vocab, visual cues, slightly slower speech, etc.
The video player and learn mode also allow the user to start with pinyin first, and graduate up to characters when they’re ready. And finally, we also other courses meant specifically for learners who aren’t familiar with, or who need more practice with, things like tones and pinyin.

I’d say with a year of formal Chinese under your belt, you’d be just about at our ‘intermediate’ level. With ‘elementary’ being somewhere in between that, and what I’ve just described above.

How are your own videos different from other video-based learning material? What makes them special?

Jason: Well, I think for one we put a ton of care into making sure they were not only useful, educational, and pedagogically sound, but also interesting and worth watching. I think the biggest problem with a lot of language learning video series, is not unlike the problem that many textbook dialogs have, in that they end up being either boring, or unnatural and feel somewhat stilted in the end. We tried really hard to make sure ours were visually interesting (and hopefully even sometimes funny!) and also that our actors did their best to speak and act naturally, while still maintaining the clarity of speech that is so important to a language learning video. That’s probably the biggest difference in my mind.


That’s the end of this two-part review of FluentU. Check out Part 1 if you missed it.


10

Apr 2014

FluentU: a Developing Video-based Platform for Learning Chinese (1)

FluentU has quickly become the most talked-about video service for learning Chinese online. The site sports a clean, modern feel, and the team have been very responsive over the past year, as user feedback has informed a number of nice changes. Although I’ve been following FluentU’s development (and even met with the founder a while back), I haven’t reviewed the service myself until recently. It’s not a coincidence; I’m actually a bit skeptical of video-based learning (it’s really hard to get right), and I wanted to wait until FluentU got a few more features out before I reviewed the service.

For the most part, I’m going to assume that most of my readers have already heard about FluentU (it’s certainly not new anymore!), and I won’t provide an in-depth introduction to how the service works. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

Why video?

Why video? This is a really important question. Working at ChinesePod, we were often confronted with the “why don’t you guys do video?” question. The logic seemed to be: “if audio is good, video is better.” ChinesePod has done a few experiments in video over the years, but never fully committed to it. The reasons are:

1. Professional video is much more labor-intensive than audio (by a factor of 5-10)
2. Users often say they want video, but don’t really want to pay extra for it (poor ROI)
3. Many users use audio material in a way that doesn’t work with video (e.g. listening while working out, or while driving)

What conclusions can I draw from this? Not a whole lot. Maybe video is just not a good fit for the ChinesePod brand. Building up a big fanbase over years and years, all centered on audio, probably doesn’t naturally lead to demand for video. If ChinesePod were to really commit to doing video, it would have to be a concerted, long-term effort, and more than just a few experimental videos.

FluentU, on the other hand, has focused on video from the start. In its early days, it utilized tons of clips from YouTube, which meant its resources could go into translation, vocab management, and other tools (rather than video production). More recently, FluentU has started producing its own professional video content.

Video is great for providing the full visual context of language, including both cultural elements and body language. This is especially powerful for learners not in China (learners which can also take advantage of the unblocked internet and faster speeds for viewing FluentU videos).

FluentU: the Video Player

FluentU does a great job of presenting video. The player is great, right down to all sorts of tiny details. If you know FluentU at all, you know this, so I won’t say too much here.

FluentU - Video - The Four Tones in Use

Some specific details I like:

1. Being able to loop a specific clip within a video.
2. Color coding in the video timeline so you can see where the dialog happens in the videos and where there’s no speaking going on.
3. Hovering on the subtitles automatically pauses the video, so you can check the meanings or pinyin of the words you’re hearing.
4. When you first select a video, you’re presented with the entire video transcript up front (which you can also download). This is especially useful for intermediate and above; if you can read enough to get the gist of the transcript, you don’t have to suffer through 5 minutes of a video before discovering it’s not what you want.

But there’s a catch… because FluentU makes extensive use of YouTube, it doesn’t work flawlessly in China. I have a VPN, of course, but it’s still a little slow. It’s usable, but the lag is quite annoying, I must admit. I imagine using FluentU on a fast (unfiltered) internet connection would be pretty awesome, though.

FluentU: Learn Mode

The is one of the key features I want to focus on. It wasn’t around in FluentU’s early free/beta days, and it has a lot of potential. Basically, “Learn Mode” is FluentU’s take on SRS, an idea which isn’t so great all by itself, but holds a lot of promise for enhancing other methods of learning.

When you choose a FluentU video at your level that you’re interested in, you can choose between “Watch” and “Learn.” “Watch” is just watching the video, as expected. “Learn” takes you to a new interface which is focused on figuring out which words in the video you actually know, and familiarizing you with the ones you don’t know. This process should feel very familiar to anyone who’s used Anki or other SRS vocabulary review software, but FluentU has done its own take on SRS.

FluentU

When you don’t “know” a word, you have the option of watching one or more short video clips which include the word. It’s a very cool cross-section of the word in action across all kinds of video content and contexts. Imagine that all those sample sentences you love so much in your favorite dictionary (or Chinese Grammar Wiki) were all mini video clips. That’s what it does, complete with transcript for each individual sentence.

After you “learn” the word and continue, the system will cycle back and test you on the words you should have “learned.” There are multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank, and straight-up translation mini-quizzes for each word.

FluentU FluentU FluentU

So I’m totally on board with the idea of extending SRS into something more interesting, and I like seeing innovation around the boring SRS model, but there are a few issues (which I’m sure FluentU is working on). First, if you’re in China using a VPN, the lag issue is even worse for these tiny clips than for the full videos.

Second, the “Learn this word” vs. “Already Know” dichotomy may be a little hard for some types of learners to deal with. There are just so many words we learners are working on in learning, which fall in that fuzzy region somewhere between “Learn this word” (as if it were new) and “Already Know,” that being forced to choose may be just a little agonizing.

If you choose “Already Know,” then BAM, that word is forever (?) on your “known” list, which might make you feel like you damn well better know it before clicking “Already Know.” Perhaps that’s the idea: getting you to browse clips more, and make fuller use of FluentU’s archive of annotated video. Fair enough. I just think it will be hard for some users (read: super-serious learners with perfectionist tendencies, like I used to be) to confidently click on “Already Know.”

FluentU - The Four Tones in Use

One thing is for sure: the “Learn” mode offers a much more focused way to “study” FluentU’s video content, rather than just casually browsing. It really is a very different experience from the site’s main video-watching experience, more similar to a quiz than enjoying a TV show. I can see how this might attract some users and turn off others.

If FluentU can get “Learn” mode right and get more users actually using it, it has huge potential. Any learning service that can accurately determine what its users “know” is very well poised to offer an amazing, personalized learning experience. Right now, FluentU offers a little green strip next to every video displaying what is “known” (based on feedback from “Learn” mode). There’s a lot of potential here.

FluentU-01

Mini-Interview with FluentU’s Founder, Alan Park

alan-park

Me: The FluentU video player is fantastic! How did you design/develop it?

Alan: Thanks for the kind words! We designed/developed it through the same way that we develop the rest of the site: by going back and forth with our users and adjusting based on feedback, until they loved it. And then adjusting it some more.

FluentU has some great video content, but it seems to also be branching out into audio too. Are you having second thoughts about a “pure video” approach?

Alan: Our team doesn’t have many “sacred cows.” We experiment a lot and are always trying new things to make the best language learning site possible. We started with real-world videos because video has many advantages. Video is exciting, and it opens your eyes to a whole new world and culture. People talk naturally on video. It’s memorable and helps words stick. And most of all it’s fun. On the other hand, audio has 2 huge benefits: it’s cheaper to create than video, and it doesn’t require as much active engagement for the user as video. We’ve found that there is definitely a place for audio alongside video.

Is FluentU primarily aimed at individual self-study learners, or at schools and other institutions?

Alan: Our focus is individual learners, but many schools and institutions tell us that their students are loving FluentU.

You’ve launched other languages on the FluentU platform. What does this mean for Chinese? Will Chinese get any “special treatment” going forward, or are new features now “all or nothing”?

Alan: Chinese is our first language, so it will always get “special treatment.” And by virtue of the fact that there is pinyin and Chinese characters there is no way around it. Besides, it’s my favorite foreign language.

The “Learn” feature on FluentU is a unique take on spaced repetition. Is it popular with your users?

Alan: Yes, they love it. Instead of saying that it is a take on spaced repetition, I would say that spaced repetition is just one small part of it.

The “Learn” feature is really a personalized quiz for learning vocab through video contexts. Instead of learning vocab through flashcards, why not learn them through short video clips which are handpicked for you?

What’s next for the “Learn” feature?

Alan: We’re making it mobile friendly. Right now, it involves a lot of typing, which wouldn’t translate well for smartphone. Stay tuned!

Conclusions

Just a few takeaway points:

– FluentU has a great, learner-centric video player with awesome features and real attention to detail
– FluentU may not work well in China, even if you have a VPN
– FluentU has “Learn” mode, which may not be for all users, but it definitely takes FluentU well beyond “a site with a bunch of videos,” and looks very promising


In part 2 I’ll be looking at the FluentU-produced video series, with a more in-depth interview with Content Director Jason Schuurman.


25

Jan 2013

Quick Review of PinYin Pal

OK, so I feel a little dirty typing out “PinYin,” but that is the name of the app. (Words can be capitalized in pinyin, but syllables within words should not be capitalized or spaced out.) I guess that’s my main linguistic complaint about PinYin Pal for iPad; it seems to confuse syllables with words. Still, it’s a pretty decent “Words with Friends” clone (read: Scrabble clone), and the incorporation of characters is done in a smart way. The relative short length of pinyin syllables (as opposed to English words) is also cleverly skirted with a purple extension tile.

Some screenshots of me playing an AllSet Learning teacher:

PinYin Pal for iPad

Right from the get-go you can see that we had a little bit of trouble coming up with long pinyin syllables.

PinYin Pal for iPad

Then we started to successfully create longer syllables.

PinYin Pal for iPad

Finally, we were forced to figure out how to use the purple “spacer” block. (It turns into a blank orange square when you place it. You can see it near the top under “jun.” Blank tiles make you choose a letter, and then the letter appears on the tile, but with no points.)

It’s true that native Chinese speakers don’t have a huge advantage when playing this game, since you’re creating syllables rather than words. (In fact, you can’t string syllables together and create actual words, which is a little frustrating.) So in order to play, the learner just has to know what syllables are possible in Mandarin (and I hope you have the iPad Pinyin app for that), and be able to match the syllables you created to one correct character and definition. Tones are added when you choose your character, but you’re not tested on them.

Overall, the game felt less fun than Scrabble. I think it’s mainly because there are so few syllable finals in Mandarin (you can’t end a syllable in m, p, g, z, y, etc.), and this can slow the game down a bit. Still, it was fun playing this classic game in Mandarin, and the app is free! It was also fun playing such a well-known English-language game with a Chinese person who had had absolutely no exposure to Scrabble (or “Words with Friends”). So if you’re learning Chinese, check it out: PinYin Pal.


22

Aug 2012

Learn Chinese in 3D takes Chinese learning to the third dimension!

What does it mean to take Chinese learning to the third dimension? Well, it means a cool 3D interface for exploring Chinese characters and words, but beyond that, it’s not totally clear. But that’s OK! The way I view this new app, 3D Chinese, is a sort of experiment, a Chinese learning app that was created because it was possible. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s fun, for one (unless you’re a luddite). I’d like to see more of this kind of thing.

Check out the video and some screenshots:

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

I was a tester for this app, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I gave the developer a few suggestions, and he was quite responsive to feedback. The style of the app still feels a little too Japanese to me, but it’s still a very polished experience.

So what is the app? Basically, it’s an alternative to a character dictionary or character book, where you have a bunch of common characters laid out in lists by radical. Instead, characters are grouped spatially by radical. You can explore the characters in the 3D environment, learn words containing those characters, etc. It’s a very visual, exploratory way to experience Chinese, and I know that appeals to a lot of people.

The app also has its own built-in SRS functionality. I didn’t test this functionality much, as the app seemed much more suited to a visual tour than the old “doing reps” SRS chore, but this feature might appeal to some.

Learn Chinese in 3D

Learn Chinese in 3D

3D Chinese is currently priced at $2.99. This is a reasonable price for its beautiful 3D visual experience, but this app is not for either (1) the super hardcore learner who wants extreme depth (that user really just wants a dictionary, not something visual-oriented), or (2) a super casual learner who just wants to be entertained by visuals and doesn’t really want to learn (the 3D effects of the app will lose their charm pretty quickly if the learner isn’t actually into the characters at all). If you don’t fall into either of those categories, and don’t find a price of $2.99 exorbitant, I recommend you give this little experiment in visual learning a whirl.


12

Jun 2012

Skritter for iPhone: finally!

The hard-working guys at Skritter have been working on an iPhone app for quite a while. They put up a nice launch page, made a really cool video, and then… proceeded to “keep us in suspense” for a really long time. Well, the wait is finally over! Even though I’ve been helping to test the new app prior to the official release, I waited until I got word from Skritter that the app has been officially approved before writing this review. The app is real!

Skritter iPhone app: Launch Page

I’ve mentioned before that I feel the iPad has real potential for Chinese writing practice. I’ve always liked Skritter, but when Skritter first came out, I had already put in my writing time (the old-fashioned way), and I wasn’t really interested in using a mouse or a writing tablet to practice characters. It did strike me as a cool way for a new generation of learners to write, however.

With an iPad, though, it’s different. The iPhone is a little small, in my opinion, when my writing utensils are as big and fat as my fingers. That’s why I’m more excited about Skritter on an iPad than on an iPhone, and I actually tested the app exclusively on my iPad rather than my iPhone. (To be clear, Skritter has only released an iPhone version so far, so I was just running an iPhone app at 2X on my iPad.)

How is it? Although I’m not crazy about every aspect of the design, the app got one thing very right: writing is very smooth. And for this app, writing is the right thing to get right. (I’m pretty sure that makes sense.) They could have invested more into slick iOS interface design, but they chose instead to make the actual writing functionality of the app work really well. Good call.

I’ve only got screenshots here, but the “virtual ink” feels very liquid as you write, like it’s really seeping out of your fingertips. When you hold your finger down and make slower strokes, you can see the extra ink “flowing” out and sinking into the “paper.” I like it.

Here are a few screenshots of me fluidly writing my name (and then the ink fading). Meanwhile the Skritter robot wants none of my narcissistic tomfoolery, and reminds me in blue what I’m supposed to be writing.

Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing

Here’s me writing the character . (And no, the Skritter robot doesn’t like strokes to be that connected, but hey, it made a cool screenshot.)

Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安 Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Here’s some crazy unacceptable strokes just straight-up exploding, and then a screen for tone recall:

Skritter iPhone app: Explosion Skritter iPhone app: Tone Practice

Here’s some word lists and a settings screen:

Skritter iPhone app: Word Lists Skritter iPhone app: Settings

Finally–and this is a feature that kind of took me by surprise, because I’m a Skritter fan but not a regular user, so I was unaware of this feature before I discovered it–here’s a shot of Skritter’s Pleco integration. When you’re writing a word, you can click on the “info” button on top right, and then click on the Pleco button. That opens up Pleco, with the word already looked up. Pretty sweet! And there’s a button at the bottom of the Pleco screen which can take you right back to Skritter when you’re done.

Skritter iPhone app: Info Skritter iPhone app: Pleco Support

Bottom line: very cool app. Yes, the free app requires a Skritter subscription to support it, so it’s not the cheapest option for writing practice. (But if you’re such a cheapskate, what are you doing with an iPhone, anyway?)

You can get the app here.


P.S. It wasn’t until after I had written this review that I bothered to ask Nick of Skritter why the styles in the video and in the app I tested were so different, so only then did I learn that you can change the theme of the app. I gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern Chinese.

Here’s the difference between the two:

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter: Traditional Theme

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Apparently a lot of people prefer the traditional “inky” style to the modern “flashy” style. Interesting.


P.P.S. If you’re interested in learning Chinese, though, make sure you’ve learned your pinyin first. AllSet Pinyin for the iPad can help with that.


01

Sep 2011

Pinyin Typist for iPhone, iPad

Pinyin Typist is an app for the iPhone and the iPad which allows for easy pinyin input with proper tone marks. Note that it is not an input method; you can’t use this app to switch between English and pinyin input like you can with Apple’s built-in language input support. But it turns out that Pinyin Typist works even better as an app rather than an input method.

In the screenshots below, I’ve used the iPad version of the app. Note that you can adjust size of the pinyin text (larger text makes pinyin tone marks much easier to make out). Pinyin tone input works pretty much as expected; just type out a syllable, then hit a number to add the tone mark. You can be pretty sure that tone marks are implemented correctly, because even Mark Swofford (of pinyin.info) has given it the nod. I have found no problems with it.

Pinyin Typist

Pinyin Typist

Pinyin Typist

In case it’s not entirely clear, the way to use this app is to open Pinyin Typist, type pinyin with tone marks, then hit the app’s handy “Copy” button, switch to another app (like the “Mail” app pictured above), and paste in the pinyin.

[Update: clarification from the developer] Actually, in Pinyin Typist you can also directly email the text in its Pinyin Typing tab view, and you can also directly email the title and text of a saved snippet from its Snippets tab view, without leaving the app and switching to another one. (The button that reveals those direct emailing commands is the one on the top right.)

I find switching apps to type pinyin and copy it over is actually a good way to do it, simply because I don’t use pinyin very often. Yes, I do use it occasionally, and for those occasions this app is very handy. But if the pinyin were an actual input method, it would be pretty annoying to have to cycle through it every time I wanted to switch between English and Chinese input (which is often). I had to remove Chinese handwriting input because pinyin input is almost always faster to input, and having the extra input method there in the way was just too annoying.

The one problem I have found with the app is that because I’m actually typing in English mode, iOS’s autocorrect (damn you, autocorrect!) sometimes “corrects” a pinyin syllable. This isn’t a problem when there’s a tone mark on the syllable, but it’s sometimes a problem when the syllable has a neutral tone. For example, when I typed “zhīdao” above, iOS originally correct it to “zhīSao” (no idea why). It’s a fairly minor issue, though.

The app is not free (it’s currently $2.99), which raised in interesting question for me: how important is it to be able to type pinyin on iOS? I’ll admit that I use pinyin a lot more on my regular computer than on my iPhone or iPad. I do need to frequently provide pinyin for AllSet Learning clients, but not via my iPhone or iPad. It seems like this app would be especially useful for a Chinese teacher who frequently texts students, or who sends a lot of email on an iPad or iPhone.

I raised this issue with the developer of the app, Wayne. He’s also very interested in learning more about how potential users will use his app. As a result, he volunteered to provide 5 free copies of Pinyin Typist for Sinosplice commenters who leave an insightful comment below and explain why the app will be useful to them on their iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. (If you have other comments about the price, you can leave those too, but be nice.) The developer will choose the 5 winners from the comments himself, and I’ll provide him with the email addresses so that he can award the app to the 5 winners (so be sure to use your real email addresses; the blog will never publicly display them).


Update: The developer has chosen the 5 winning commenters; you should be hearing from him shortly!


30

Jun 2011

Learning to Write Chinese Characters on the iPad

One of the reasons I rushed to get an iPad for my own company is that the iPad is the leading tablet computer device, and tablet computers, with their relatively large touch-driven screens, seem uniquely poised to offer a great learning experience for a new generation of learners. Now that the iPad has been out for a year, developers have had some time to dig into iOS and create some cool apps for learning to write Chinese characters.

The only problem is that they haven’t yet. It’s not that they haven’t done anything, it’s just that no major player with a lot of resources has put a lot of effort into creating a superior app just for teaching writing. Significant effort has gone into Pleco‘s iOS handwriting recognition and OCR function, but neither of these teaches writing.

Before I go into my reviews of the handful of Chinese writing apps I found, I should first pose a question: what should an app that teaches Chinese characters do? This is a question that at times seems neglected by app creators. It’s easier to focus on what can be done with an app, rather than what needs to be done for real learning.

To effectively teach the writing of Chinese characters in a comprehensive way, an app would need to do the following:

1. Introduce the basic strokes, emphasizing the direction in which each is written and the shape of each.
2. Introduce the building blocks of Chinese characters, calling attention to how they function is a part of a whole.
3. Introduce the various structural types exhibited by Chinese characters, and the order in which characters’ various component parts should be written.
4. Introduce new characters in a progressive way, building on what has come before, while still trying to stick to useful characters as much as possible.
5. Provide practice writing the characters and give feedback.

This issue goes way beyond the scope of this blog post, but the point is that most of the apps out there now stick mainly to #5. Because most of the apps are largely about practicing writing, I’m going to talk mostly about the concepts of tracing and feedback. Now onto the reviews…


iPad Apps for Writing

Word Tracer

Price: $4.99

Feature Description
Tracing Yes (it’s in the name!)
Feedback Yes, a green star tells you where to start writing when you go off track. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No; tracing only

iPad Apps for Writing

Word Tracer is a very polished app. It’s attractive and was clearly crafted with care. The issue of stroke direction takes center stage in this app, as a star in a green circle tells you where to start, and a series of numbers in little circles show you which way to make the strokes.

iPad Apps for Writing

While the app is not a course in characters (which would need to go through numbers 1-4 I outlined above), it does offer a nice collection of characters to choose from, ranging from a frequency list to common phrases. I missed this feature at first, and it definitely adds a lot.

iPad Apps for Writing

Overall, the app shows a lot of attention to detail. It wasn’t created to be a writing course, so it’s mainly a polished “writing practice app,” and its name very clearly states what this app is all about: tracing. It can’t help you with recalling characters without any prompt and writing them out.

On the plus side, I actually met with the main developer in Shanghai, and he seems quite open to suggestions for improvement, and has plans to make the app better. (Full disclosure: the developer let me try out this app for free.)

If you’ve already learned how to write characters and are looking for a mechanical way to practice writing on your iPad, this app is not a bad choice.

trainchinese Chinese Writer

Price: Free (for the basic app)

Feature Description
Tracing Yes, in game form
Feedback Yes, a big red “X” tells you when you make a mistake but gives you no immediate clue where you went wrong. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No; tracing only

I really like that this app tries to be a game. It’s not the most fun game in the world, but I’ve seen more than one learner really get into it. The timed aspect also adds another dimension which makes the “trace the strokes” mechanic a bit less monotonous (at least for a while). I also like the options in the beginning (although that screen with its crazy animated background is a little busy).

iPad Apps for Writing

The way the game works is that characters slowly drop for the top of the screen. You tap them once to zoom in, then quickly trace over them to “destroy” them. That’s it. If you can write a character especially fast, you are praised with a “很快” (“very fast”). If you’re too slow or keep getting the strokes wrong, the character eventually drops off the bottom of the screen, and that’s one strike against you.

iPad Apps for Writing iPad Apps for Writing

One of the best things about the app is that at the end, after you’ve gotten your 5 wrong characters and the game is over, the game shows you which characters you got right and which you got wrong, and then you can review the correct stroke order for the ones you got wrong. The app is never especially clear about the direction of strokes, however.

iPad Apps for Writing iPad Apps for Writing

In the end, it’s tracing only, and the characters are chosen at random. The app is solid, though, and it’s free. Not bad for basic mechanical writing practice.

Chinese Writer for iPad

Price: Free (tutorial only; additional account required for other functionality)

Feature Description
Tracing No
Feedback Yes, the correct stroke flashes on the screen when you make a mistake. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Free-form writing No

Chinese Writer sets itself apart in that it is not a tracing app. It’s slightly confusing at first, because (1) the app button is labeled “ChinesePad,” and (2) it seems like you have to sign up for a Popup Chinese account to use the app, since neither the simplified or traditional “practice mode” seem to do anything. Apparently only the “tutorial mode” is available if you don’t have a subscription (that button works).

iPad Apps for Writing

As you write each stroke, the app shows your stroke in red, but it doesn’t actually save it on the screen; it either accepts it as “correct” and replaces it with a print-style version of the stroke, or it rejects it and erases it, flashing the correct stroke in the correct place to prompt you.

iPad Apps for Writing

In theory, the app is fine, sort of a simpler version of the Skritter system. It can be confusing, though, rejecting seemingly perfect strokes, and rejecting quite imperfect ones.

The app is free, and will be updated in time, according to Dave Lancashire, the developer. When asked if it will stay free, his reply was, “I can’t see changing the price, although you should tell people it will be $99.99 next week so GET IT NOW!”

Chinesegram

Price: $4.99

Feature Description
Tracing Yes (optional)
Feedback No automated feedback, just a layer of numbers to indicate where strokes should start
Free-form writing Yes

Chinagram is not free and contains a very limited number of characters, but in many ways, it’s my favorite of these apps. While it doesn’t teach strokes or radicals, it does show the evolution of the characters through various scripts over time, and offers graphics to help clarify the pictographic characters.

Chinagram

I also like how the app offers very free-form writing practice. There’s no computer program to tell you you’re right or wrong. There’s simply a faint guide which can be switched on or off, and some little guide numbers to help with stroke order, which are not tied to the tracing guide, and can also be independently turned on or off. This simple combination of options makes for a quite satisfying range of writing practice possibilities.

Chinagram

Chinagram

With Chinagram, it does kind of feel like you’re paying for design and pretty graphics, but let’s face it: characters are graphic. Chinagram offers an attractive and appealing, although somewhat limited, introduction to the writing of Chinese characters. I’d still want more instruction on how to write characters than this app offers, but it definitely goes farther than the three above.

(See also my original review of Chinagram.)

Chinese Handwriting Input + Notes

Price: Free (comes with the iPad)

Feature Description
Tracing No
Feedback Indirectly, because if you’re too far off in your stroke order, the character you’re trying to write won’t appear
Free-form writing Yes

One of the things that struck me while reviewing these iPad apps is that (1) many of them assume some previous study of characters, and (2) if you’ve previously studied characters, there’s probably nothing better than just writing. And the iPad let’s you do that out of the box. All you need to do is enable Chinese handwriting input:

iPad apps for learning to write Chinese

Once you’ve got that working, go into the “Notes” app (or anything that lets you write text, really), and just try to write something. You’ll learn a lot just by the act of writing the characters stroke by stroke, and identifying the one you want from the resulting list of characters. If you get a character totally wrong, chances are, it won’t be in the list. Try again.

iPad apps for learning to write Chinese iPad apps for learning to write Chinese

(In the example above on the right, the correct character “写” meaning “to write” is written in a way that is clearly recognizable, but does not appear in the list of resulting characters because the stroke order/direction used was totally wrong.)

This really is not a bad option for practicing writing, especially if you have someone you can write to.

My conclusion: these apps are worth checking out, but better writing apps for Chinese are still needed!


I have a student intern at AllSet named Lucas, who kindly gave me his own feedback on the four apps above. Lucas has studied Chinese for three years in college, and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai for the summer. I asked him to rank the four apps, and make some comments about each. Here are his independent picks, #1 being his favorite:

1. Chinesegram: “Seeing the picture and comparing the scripts and evolution helps me remember them better.”

2. Word Tracer: “Helpful for learning stroke order, but a bit over-sensitive, which can be frustrating.”

3. trainchinese Chinese Writer: “Kinda funny, I guess, but I don’t like the time pressure.”

4. Chinese Writer for iPad: “It’s too sensitive; it kept making me redraw the strokes.”


Related: iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)


10

Jun 2011

Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar

Edited by Qin Xue Herzberg & Larry Herzberg (Stone Bridge Press, 2011)

Review by: John Pasden

I quite enjoyed this book on Chinese grammar, but the student would do well to be clear on exactly what this book is and what it is not. Right on the cover are two huge clues:

> A quick study handbook with over 75 key constructions for reference and practice

> A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors

In case it’s not obvious, this book is not the place to start learning Chinese grammar. Sure, it’s packed full of great information and important side notes, but it’s going to be most valuable as a reference material, such as a handbook for a student who’s studied Mandarin for a year, then plans to go to China, but doesn’t want to take his old textbooks.

(more…)


So Many Flashcard Apps…

13

May 2011

So Many Flashcard Apps…

This link was too good to not post: Flashcard apps. I really dig the graphical feature display (just mouse over the icons).

Personally, though, so many choices almost makes me want to ignore all these options altogether. So far, Anki and Pleco are a good combination. I do wonder if these 100+ apps offer anything special, though.

Link via @ajatt.


10

May 2011

QQ Live is Awesome

I’ve not been a fan of QQ the IM client, ever since its malware phase c. 2002. I used it to practice typing Chinese with friends online, but it forced me to use “Tencent Explorer” as my default browser as long as the software was installed. I have never forgiven Tencent for that.

Still, this QQ Live application is pretty awesome. I discovered it through its iPad version (and wrote about it in my recent iPad Apps for Chinese Study post), but have heard that there’s a desktop version for Windows that works great too. Get it!

QQ Live

It’s my experience that while this app doesn’t do anything that other apps don’t do, it’s especially fast (even if you’re outside China, I hear) and easy to use. Also, its limited selection is a blessing in disguise. It offers a lot of the popular TV shows and movies (including my favorite, 非诚勿扰), and saves you the trouble of having to search on Baidu video or bittorrent sites.

Remember: this is a free app with no login required. I suspect this is all a promotional trick and that we’ll all have to log in with a QQ ID just to use the program eventually, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it while it lasts!


iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

05

May 2011

iPad Apps for Chinese Study (2011)

We recently purchased an iPad 2 for AllSet Learning, and quickly set about looking for useful apps for learning Chinese. It didn’t take long for me to realize a basic truth about having an iPad: once you have an iPad, you want to run iPad apps on it, not iPhone apps. And the there are way more iPhone apps out there for learning Chinese than there are iPad apps. The purpose of this post is to call attention to the decent iPad apps out there.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

I realize this post isn’t going to stay current for very long, and that’s OK. Rapid innovation is one of the things that drew me to the iOS platform in the first place. For now, though, I have my top picks for iPad apps for learning Chinese. One thing I should make clear in advance, though: many of these apps are not explicitly for learning Chinese; they’re simply apps in Chinese (good sources of more input).

Pleco

Yes, I think I’ve mentioned before that I love Pleco. It’s a great dictionary app. It also supports the iPad, while many other iPhone dictionaries don’t. I won’t say too much about Pleco here.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

QQ Live HD

I must admit that I’m not a fan of the QQ IM client. But this app is great. It doesn’t require any kind of QQ login or account; it’s just a simple app for streaming Chinese movies and TV shows, and it’s fast (in Shanghai, anyway). I’ve already watched several movies on it, and while I won’t recommend any of those movies, the app does its job just fine.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

Zaker

This one is an obvious Flipboard clone, but it’s a really good Flipboard clone. It’s one of those really good clones that tries to one-up the original. And, of course, it’s got tons of Chinese content ready to be added for magazine-style consumption, whether it’s Chinese news, Chinese blogs, or Weibo. It supports copy-paste, too, so you can pop over to the Pleco Pasteboard Reader when you need to.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

Chinagram

I’ve reviewed this one before already: Chinagram for iPad.

Radio Chinese Plus+

This app is quite simple. It only offers three Mandarin stations and three Cantonese stations (6 total), but it works just fine.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

雷人图片2011

This is just a big collection of silly photos from the internet. Some are funny; many are just bizarre.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

一日一囧四格漫画

A collection of poorly drawn comics of the 冷笑话 (dumb joke) tradition. This app, like the last one, demonstrates how simple an iPad app can be.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

My Chinese Library, Pinyin Trainer, and Chinese Number Trainer

I’m grouping all these apps together because they’re all by one company, called TrainChinese. While these apps aren’t revolutionary, they’re of good quality and exist in iPad versions. Sadly, not many apps for learning Chinese have met that simple requirement. They all seem to have free versions which are somewhat limited, trying to get you to pay. I recommend the pinyin trainer and number trainer to beginners.

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

My list of really noteworthy iPad apps for learners of Chinese ends there. There are a few others worth pointing out, though… The four others pictured but not covered are: 枫林书院精选 (an ebook reader that comes with a number of titles), 中国新闻周刊 (China Newsweek), iLearn Chinese Characters Lite, and Kids Mandarin.

These are the apps in the “Good…not HD” folder (I wish they had iPad versions):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “词典” folder (iPad apps include: iCED, KTdict, eFlashChinese):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “阅读” folder (iPad apps include: 格林童话集, 中文杂志, 宋词三十首, 三毛全集, 给力书城, 拇指索引圣经, 爱阅读, 让笑话飞, 小姐日记):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “新闻” folder (none are iPad apps):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “故事” folder (iPad apps include: Chinese Stories (really bad), Heroes of Three Kingdoms, The Greatest Daddy (English and Chinese), 一千零一夜选, nciku Peter Rabbit):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

These are the apps in the “其它” folder (none are iPad apps):

iPad Apps for Learning Chinese

I know I haven’t been exhaustive in my search for good iPad apps; I’d love to hear recommendations!


Chinagram for iPad

19

Apr 2011

Chinagram for iPad

I recently had the opportunity to try out Chinagram, a new iPad app which introduces Chinese characters. There aren’t many Chinese-learning apps out there specifically for the iPad, so I decided to review this one.

My first impression of the app is that it is beautifully made. I guess that’s Italian design for you. The overall aesthetic is nice, and there are lots of little touches that make the app fun to use. Don’t miss the “History of Chinese Writing” section. While the information it contains is not something you can’t find on Wikipedia and many other sites, it’s definitely presented here in a way that’s enjoyable to browse. I especially liked the foreground/background faux-3D effect you get when you swipe to a new page.

After my playing with the app a little bit, the key question in my mind was, who is this app for? Is it for an advanced student? An intermediate student? A beginner? Or maybe just a casual student of Chinese? My conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that it’s for the casual student of Chinese. Sure, a beginner can get some use out of it, but since the app only covers 120+ characters, the serious student won’t be using this one for long. The strength of the app, perhaps, is its treatment of the evolution of the characters it contains. The graphics it contains go further than Wenlin, but certainly not ChineseEtymology.org (which is free). And Wenlin costs a lot more, while ChineseEtymology.org actually has an iPhone app now.

There aren’t yet many Chinese learning apps created for the iPad. Chinagram has got to be the most attractive one currently in the app store, and while it’s still $1.99 it’s a good deal for the beginner or casual learner.


16

Feb 2011

Wenlin 4.0 Review

Wenlin3-4

I’ve been given a copy of Wenlin 4.0 for Mac by the Wenlin Institute for an honest review. It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Wenlin for a long time, so I’m really happy to see an update to this wonderful piece of software which most of us almost dared not hope would ever issue another update. But the day has finally come! The new version offers some very welcome updates, but one major disappointment as well.

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22

Oct 2009

The Pleco iPhone App (beta)

I just recently had the pleasure of trying out the beta version of the new Pleco iPhone app. In case you’re not aware, Pleco is the software company behind what is regarded as the best electronic learner’s Chinese dictionary for any mobile device (and possibly the desktop as well). Given the dearth of really good Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone, Chinese learners have been eagerly awaiting the release of this iPhone app for quite some time. The wait has not been in vain; Pleco for iPhone is an outstanding app.

The Video Demo

Michael Love, Pleco founder, has made a two-part video of the new Pleco iPhone app:

For those of you in China, visit Pleco’s mirror site for the videos.

An All-New UI

I’ve never owned a device running Windows Mobile or Palm OS, so I’ve never been able to own Pleco before, but I’m familiar enough with previous versions to make basic comparisons.

The Pleco user interface received a much-needed makeover for the iPhone. While older versions of Pleco squeezed a plethora of buttons and options onto the screen (you have your stylus, after all), this iPhone Pleco had to find ways to increase buttons to tappable sizes and limit button clutter by hiding options on screens where you don’t need them all. Compare (Windows Mobile on the left, iPhone on the right):

maindict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

aisearchdict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

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