Tag: tech


Jan 2017

Shanghai’s Mobike Mania Invites Competition

I noticed at the end of 2016 that Mobike seemed to be really taking off in Shanghai. But when I came back from Florida in January, it was a whole ‘nother story… Not only were there more orange Mobike bikes on the streets than ever, but yellow (Didi-backed) competitor Ofo was suddenly seriously competing, and even baby blue 小鸣单车 was upping its game. I’ve been seeing so many rows of Mobikes on the sidewalks of Jing’an District that I’m guessing there now must be nightly redistribution efforts going on to properly seed the city center. Now that the Uber war is over, this seems to be the new battlefront.

A few shots I snapped last week:









And one photo I downloaded on WeChat (not sure who to credit), which was labeled “#VCfunding“:



Sep 2016

Pleco’s Hidden Gem: the Clipboard Reader

Pretty much everyone knows that Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary app. It’s the best free Chinese dictionary app, and it’s got the best paid add-on Chinese dictionaries. The add-on bundles, while not super cheap, are a good investment for any serious student embarking on the long-term journey of Chinese study.

But why do so few people know about the clipboard reader? It’s free! From Pleco’s (iPhone) documentation:

Most of Pleco’s document reading functions are part of our paid “Document Reader” add-on, which you can purchase from the Add-ons screen. The one exception to this is the “Clipboard Reader” function, which is available even in our free app.

Note: this feature is apparently called the “Clip Reader” in the Android app, but it’s also free.

So what is it? Well, if you’re looking up a word, use the Pleco dictionary. If you have a chunk of text and can’t even begin to read the Chinese, use something like Google Translate. But if you are getting a handle on Chinese characters, the clipboard reader is what you want. Simply copy the text message or article out of WeChat, or your mobile browser, or whatever. Then open up the clipboard reader, and it’s automatically pasted in. Tap words to see definitions in a popup.

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

Using the Pleco Clipboard Reader

I’ve seen people paste whole sentences into Pleco’s dictionary function, and Pleco does a pretty good job of parsing sentences into words and showing the definition for each word. But that’s not really what the dictionary lookup is for. It’s much better for your learning if you first read what you can (without help), and then tap on the words you don’t know to get the pinyin and English.

You might also notice that you can also adjust the bounds of the word you’ve tapped on, in case Pleco gets it wrong. You can also use the arrows at the bottom of the screen (which don’t change position) if you’re going to be looking up almost every word.

Thanks to Mike Love of Pleco for continuing development of such a great tool all these years, and for making such great features free. Enjoy!


Aug 2016

Mobike in Shanghai

It’s quite the cliche to talk about “the Uber for x” in the startup world. Those types of businesses tend to not work when they’re not Uber (and Uber itself had a had time in China). But there’s one that I really like: Mobike, AKA 摩拜单车. Like Uber, it’s app-based, and you open up the app to see not where drivers are, like Uber, but to see what parked Mobike bikes are near you.

Mobike app

Then you use the app to unlock the bike and pay 1-2 RMB for each ride. Lock the bike somewhere public when you’re done. So simple!

If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you can even try out the app (without riding a bike) just to see what how many bikes are parked around you. There’s usually a decent number wherever I am in Shanghai. Once you know what a Mobike looks like, you’ll start seeing them everywhere in this city. (The new “punch buggy”??)

Mobike bikes

The only “catch” is that you have to pay a 300 RMB deposit to start using the bikes. That’s fair. Coincidentally, 300 RMB is also my “cheap bike budget.” It’s the amount I’ll pay for a bike that’s “good enough” to ride but is not likely to get stolen. Not a bad price for never having to worry about your bike getting stolen again.


Jul 2016

Pokémon NO GO in China

Pokémon GO

I keep reading about how Pokémon Go is so wildly popular everywhere, and I tried to play it in China, but it just doesn’t work. I managed to use a VPN to create an account using my Google login, and I even caught one little creature (I think it was just part of a beginner tutorial), but then the virtual world (in China) was a vast wasteland… nothing to play. Later, I couldn’t get the app to connect to the server over 4G while I was out and about. Still later, the app acted like I didn’t have an account anymore.

I see now that there is already a Chinese Pokémon Go clone. This is one of the things that disturbs me so much about using the internet in China. It’s not just that we’re so often forced to use cloned apps instead of the real deal (although that, too, is annoying). It’s that we’re cut off from the rest of the world’s users, isolated.

Which is, of course, exactly the point. Even for Pokémon Go.


Sep 2015

McDonalds Getting its Pun on

I spotted a punny McDonalds ad in the subway yesterday that might not be obvious to a lot of learners:


The ad presupposes knowledge of the word 充电宝, which is a pretty recent word, and isn’t in a lot of dictionaries yet. 充电 means “to recharge” (electricity, but sometimes metaphorically as well). means “treasure” and is also used in the common word for “baby” (宝宝), but here it just means “thing.” 充电器 already means “charger” (for electronics), but the difference here is that a 充电宝 is a battery that can be carried with you and used to recharge you smartphone. These portable chargers seem to be way more popular in China than the battery-extending cases (Mophie and the like) I’ve seen a number of Americans use.


OK, so back to the pun. It’s focused on the “bǎo” part of 充电宝 (portable charger). It uses the character , meaning “full”. It creates the sense that a meal at McDonalds is a “recharging fill” (not “full recharge”).

Anyway, you get the idea.


Dec 2014

“Open” IP in China

An interesting article hit Hacker News the other day, relating to the Chinese model for innovation among hardware startups: From Gongkai to Open Source. The article uses the Chinese words gongkai (公开), meaning “open,” and kaiyuan (开源), meaning “open source.”

Here’s how it starts:

Entangled Sparks

Photo by Ars Electronica on Flickr

> About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a $12 “Gongkai” cell phone… that I stumbled across in the markets of Shenzhen, China. My most striking impression was that Chinese entrepreneurs had relatively unfettered access to cutting-edge technology, enabling start-ups to innovate while bootstrapping. Meanwhile, Western entrepreneurs often find themselves trapped in a spiderweb of IP frameworks, spending more money on lawyers than on tooling. Further investigation taught me that the Chinese have a parallel system of traditions and ethics around sharing IP, which lead me to coin the term “gongkai”. This is deliberately not the Chinese word for “Open Source”, because that word (kaiyuan) refers to openness in a Western-style IP framework, which this not. Gongkai is more a reference to the fact that copyrighted documents, sometimes labeled “confidential” and “proprietary”, are made known to the public and shared overtly, but not necessarily according to the letter of the law. However, this copying isn’t a one-way flow of value, as it would be in the case of copied movies or music. Rather, these documents are the knowledge base needed to build a phone using the copyright owner’s chips, and as such, this sharing of documents helps to promote the sales of their chips. There is ultimately, if you will, a quid-pro-quo between the copyright holders and the copiers.

> This fuzzy, gray relationship between companies and entrepreneurs is just one manifestation of a much broader cultural gap between the East and the West. The West has a “broadcast” view of IP and ownership: good ideas and innovation are credited to a clearly specified set of authors or inventors, and society pays them a royalty for their initiative and good works. China has a “network” view of IP and ownership: the far-sight necessary to create good ideas and innovations is attained by standing on the shoulders of others, and as such there is a network of people who trade these ideas as favors among each other. In a system with such a loose attitude toward IP, sharing with the network is necessary as tomorrow it could be your friend standing on your shoulders, and you’ll be looking to them for favors. This is unlike the West, where rule of law enables IP to be amassed over a long period of time, creating impenetrable monopoly positions. It’s good for the guys on top, but tough for the upstarts.

Very interesting stuff. Read the whole article on bunniestudios.com.


Dec 2014

The Appeal of WeChat’s Moments

Dan Grover recently posted an in-depth overview of Chinese Mobile App UI Trends. Here’s an excerpt that talks about WeChat’s “Moments” that I especially liked:

WeChat Moments

> When I first saw it, it seemed as if someone hastily duct-taped an ersatz Facebook news feed to the app and slapped the Picassa icon on it. But as I’ve used it, I’ve found it a surprisingly original and subversive feature. In fact, it’s everything Facebook’s news feed isn’t:

> No filtering — Every one of your friends’ posts is here, with no filtering or re-ordering. If one of your friends is annoying, you can take them off the feed, but it’s an all-or-nothing deal.

> More intimate — When you like or comment on a friend’s post, only they and any mutual friends can see it – not all of both parties’ friends, as on Facebook. This means that only the author of a post has an accurate idea how many people liked or commented on their post. This lowers’ users inhibitions in engaging with their friends’ posts.

> No companies/news — When you follow a company or news site’s official account, they push their updates in a separate area, not on your news feed. Though a friend can re-post content from these accounts to Moments, it takes some deliberate action.

> No auto-posts — Third-party apps can post to Moments, but only if the user initiates it, gets switched into WeChat, and manually confirms the post, each time.

> No games — Tencent makes boatloads of money off of Zynga-style social media games. However, they’ve had the good sense to relegate this activity to a “Game Center” section of the app that can be safely ignored.

> No photo filters – Though many types of content can be posted to Moments, it’s biased towards photos. Moments also actively eschews Instagram-style filters, in an attempt to make posts fast, spontaneous, and raw.

> As a result of these design decisions, and the way it’s sewn into the parent app, people here are addicted to checking this feed, more than any other. To switch between messaging to checking the feed, to commenting and engaging, and back is a swift and fluid movement that people perform countless times each day.

There’s a lot more in the full article. Check it out.


Nov 2014

Zhongwen Extension for Chrome: Now with Grammar Links

I’ve been recommending the Zhongwen extension for Chrome for years already, and it’s also the one we recommend to users of the Chinese Grammar Wiki. Well, with the most recent update to the extension, that recommendation has gotten a lot stronger! The Zhongwen extension now makes it easy to look up words on the Chinese Grammar Wiki by keyword. For example, if you’re using the Zhongwen extension and mouse over “,” you’ll notice that it has a grammar keyword entry. Press “G” to open that in a new tab, and you’ve got a list of all the grammar points on the wiki that use 都. Pretty useful!

Zhongwen Grammar Lookup

While working with the extension developer, Christian Schiller, to add this new feature to Zhongwen, I also took the opportunity to do a short interview with him:



Oct 2014

Improbable Wifi

I’d love to see a list of the most improbable places that have wifi in China. I had lunch at this little hole in the wall the other day, and snapped these pictures:



Unfortunately I didn’t notice the wifi until I was on the way out. I do wonder how good the wifi was.


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.


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.


Feb 2014

A Pinyin Typing Shortcut for Crazy Characters

Pinyin is generally great for typing (learn it!), but there’s not much it can do for you when you’re trying to type a character you don’t know how to pronounce. This has always been the case, until recently, when a few of the popular pinyin input methods have started adding a few new tricks.


Basically, you first type “u” (a letter no valid pinyin syllable begins with), and then you type out the common names of the character components. You can see it in action in the image (the apostrophes are inserted by the pinyin input method itself to show how pinyin syllables are interpreted).

More text-friendly breakdown of what the image shows:

– 壵 (zhuàng) = 士 (shì) + 士 (shì) + 士 (shì) = u’shi’shi’shi
– 磊 (lěi) = 石 (shí) + 石 (shí) + 石 (shí) = u’shi’shi’shi
– 渁 (yuān) = 氵 (sāndiǎnshuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) = u’shui’shui’shui
– 淼 (miǎo) = 水 (shuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) + 水 (shuǐ) = u’shui’shui’shui
– 萌 (méng) = 艹 (cǎozìtóu) + 日 (rì) + 月 (yuè) = u’cao’ri’yue

[Side note: best English translation for the slang word 萌 “adorbs”??]

The bad news is that this doesn’t seem to work on Mac OS X or iOS. I hear from reliable source that it works on Sogou pinyin for PC and Google Pinyin (for PC). Does it work on Android devices running Google Pinyin?

Let me know in the comments if it works for you, and share some interesting examples of what works and what doesn’t work. Thanks!


Jul 2013

A More Complete iOS Solution to the China GPS Offset Problem

This is a guest post by a friend, [unnamed for now]. It goes quite in-depth into China’s GPS issue, which I’ve complained about here before. The hope is that, armed with the following information, non-Chinese developers will be able to get around the issue more quickly and more effectively. Note that while the information below was applied to iOS app development, it isn’t strictly iOS-specific.

Description of the Problem

One problem that often comes up when people stay in China for an extended period of time is that they find their GPS devices don’t work. Sure your iPhone or Android phone will report your own location just fine, but try using a route tracking feature when you’re jogging or if you use an app showing other people’s GPS locations like Find My Friends, you’ll likely see they’re standing in a river or some place 500 meters away even if they’re standing right next to you.

This is the mysterious China GPS offset problem. This has been covered in a few posts [in Chinese] here, here, and here. Basically the Chinese government strictly controls mapping data within China. It’s illegal to map or create GPS traces within China without authorization. There have been stories of a few foreigners who created hiking trails near sensitive buildings w/ GPS devices being arrested due to relevant local laws.

For popular map apps such as Google Maps or Apple Maps on iOS, the user’s own location will be correct. This is because licensed companies that register with the government will be given the corrected algorithm to adjust the user’s position. Google Maps, Bing and others allow you to search for a location based on the GPS coordinates, but no local Chinese map providers such as Baidu Maps allow you to.

If you had taken a photo near the Forbidden City, load the photo into iPhoto or Picasa and look at where it is on the map you’ll see the location is just a bit off, 300-500 meters and typically about a block or two away. Not far enough to be extremely inaccurate but incorrect enough to annoy and not place you in the proper position.

Baidu Maps offset example

Fig 1. Example of proper position at Xujiahui and the offset location to the northwest

Two GPS standards

The most common GPS standard used internationally is based on a coordinate system called WGS-84. The globe is an imperfect sphere and any mapping from 3D to 2D introduces some compromises. People who get really into it will note that as you get further away from the equator, the way GPS coordinates for latitude and longitude change aren’t the same even if you’re traveling the same distance. However this is the GPS we’ve come to know and is used globally.

China uses a standard called GCJ-02 which is based off an older Soviet system of coordinates introduced in the 1940’s. It’s converting from WGS-84 to GCJ-02 that we’d like to accomplish. Chinese programmers refer to this coordinate system as the 火星坐标系统 or “Mars coordinate system” (as in you’re mapping from Earth with WGS-84 to Mars in GCJ-02).

Preliminary tries to correct the problem

Static offset

The first tries in the English-language world to correct for this China offset problem noticed that in local areas like within the city of Shanghai or Beijing, the difference was relatively fixed. That is, if you just subtract a few degrees from the latitude and add a few for longitude, you can correct the position. They quickly realized that the translation was non-linear, though, changing from city to city.

Collecting data points

Approaching this problem myself, I found out that as long as I was within China’s IP range, I would see the iOS simulator report my simulated location correctly, but if I dropped a pin on the same GPS coordinates it would be off. I created a simple app that let you drag the pin back to your real location and after scraping Wikipedia’s list of cities in China, had 657 data points.


Fig 2. 657 points taken from list of official cities in China from Wikipedia

Using Excel’s LINEST function you can split the data up into groups and actually get a pretty decent correction that works across the whole country although it will still be off by a few meters. Enough to put you across the street from where you really were or down a few stores.

google data

Fig 3. Example of Google data point set with offsets

It turns out if you search in Chinese, several people sell massive data sets of tens of thousands of points within China with their corresponding offset. Apparently people have run into this need before. On Taobao you can find sets from 400 RMB to 900 RMB.

datasets for sale 3

Fig 4. Example of data set for sale on Taobao

Hints at already solved code

A few English language posts stated that Chinese Android coders had already released the proper algorithm in open source. After several searches in Chinese, finding relevant posts was easy. But the actual ones that solve the problem took more hunting until I found the personal website of Rover Tang and a post on a popular tech site called XCoder.cn.

Solution found and explained

Keeping it brief, the originally released code was a C file that took into account all sorts of height, GPS time and date etc. even though they were unused. This could be found several places online. A refactored and cleaner version of the code is available in C# on EvilTransform.cs.

It’s basically a complicated transform using equations describing an ellipsoid (what the Earth is) from one system of coordinates to another. Once you throw in GPS in WGS-84 you get the same ones back in GCJ-02.

You’ll note that the code interprets that anything within China needs this conversion, anything outside of China, doesn’t. And that China is defined as anything between Latitude 0.83 to 56 and Longitude 72 to 138. I think there’s a few countries caught in that rectangle that might object.

So what now?

So now any web or mobile app developers who need to record GPS paths, post GPS locations, or anything else on top of a map can now have the proper locations. It was a huge relief to me to finally find a solution that works anywhere in China so we can all go back to creating apps that work.


Dec. 23, 2014 Update:

A developer recently found this post vey useful in solving his own China location app problems, but needed some additional information to properly implement the above advice. I’m sharing that extra information below in the hope that it’s useful to more developers:

  1. Apple returns their coordinates in the WGS format and offsets the map when rendering (I thought the coordinates themselves were offset, not the rendered map).

    Not mentioned but deduced from the above was that Google does it the other way around… if I’m not mistaken, Google returns the GCJ coordinates for a China location (even if you are not in China)… This explains why Apple’s coordinates are off when input into Google until they are converted into GCJ.

  2. MapKit only offsets the map from devices within China.

    Because we were testing on devices in and out of China we weren’t sure where the root problem was; we had tried the conversion, but then tested the results with MapKit on a device that was outside of China.


Jul 2013

The Wheely Spotted in Shanghai

I saw this guy on the street the other day in Shanghai’s Hongkou District:


A little research seems to indicate that this is the Wheely 500W by BeInMove. €899 is over 7000 RMB. Not only is that expensive, but I’ve never seen this kind of thing for sale here. I wonder where this guy got it…

Update: it seems to be selling for 2999 RMB on Taobao. (Thanks, Brad!)


Mar 2013

Typing Chinese in Gmail (Google’s Web IME)

I was surprised to discover a new little dropdown option in the Gmail menu bar today, with the Chinese character on it (for 拼音, pinyin). After playing with it, it became clear that it’s an in-browser input method–a way to type in Chinese characters. Most people install Chinese IMEs at the operating system level (Chinese input is supported by Windows, Mac OS, and Linux now), but now Gmail is offering a way to type pinyin without the OS-level IME. It’s all in the browser. What’s more, it’s surprisingly fast. It’s pretty much exactly like using Google Pinyin for Windows, which I used to love, but gave up when I switched to using a Mac. This is very cool.

Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail

It’s not only for Chinese, though:

Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail

I’m not sure why it was auto-enabled for me, but if you’d like to try it out, just open up your Gmail settings. It’s right at the top:

Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail

More info from Google here. (Thanks, Luke, for that link!)


Feb 2013

Creating Characters by SVG

A new project called SVG Hanzi (SVG 漢字/SVG 汉子) allows anyone to piece together an image of a character by specifying its structure and component parts. Very cool!

From the site:

> SVG Hanzi is a web service that can be used to obtain a picture of any Chinese character in SVG format.

> It is only necessary to visit a link that looks like http://svghanzi.appspot.com/[Character Code].

> Character Code here should consist of an Ideographic Description Character ⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻ or △

(Those weird symbols above represent the main structural patterns of Chinese characters, such as ⿰ for 知, ⿺ for 道, etc. △ is used to denote structures like 品 or 鑫.)

In case it’s not clear, this tool allows you to construct a character by just sticking a string of symbols and characters into a URL, which is then output as an SVG image.

Some examples (click through to view the resulting SVG character output in a pumped-up font size):


Those are all actual characters, of course. I quickly realized that this tool can be used to contract the character creations I love so much (and used to do the hard way, in Photoshop):


Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

Character Creation

This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.

Anyway, SVG Hanzi is a very cool tool, and I’m glad to see this. Not sure if it will ever be capable of representing really complex characters, but it’s already impressive as is!

Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.


Feb 2013

First Look at Google Glass and Chinese

I’m pretty into geeky tech stuff, so I’m excited about Google Glass. On the new promo site, though, I noticed this strange photo:

Google Glass for Buying Vegetables in Chinese

My first thought was, “where can you buy vegetables in Chinese by the pound?” Must be in Chinatown in the U.S.

I showed this to my wife, and her immediate reaction was, “they wrote the in 豆苗 wrong.”

If you’re using Google Glass to buy vegetables in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and possibly while getting realtime help from Google Glass).

Wow, I would love for AllSet Learning to be a part of an initiative like that! We’ll see how long it takes us to get our hands on Google Glass and onto the streets of Shanghai…


Nov 2012

CIEE Conference: Tech and Chinese

Over the weekend I joined the CIEE Conference in Shanghai. It struck me as a mini-ACTFL (but in town!), focused on study abroad. I was part of a panel discussion on “Effective Use of the New Digital Chinese Language Technology,” chaired by David Moser and also joined by Brendan O’Kane.

To sum up our initial points (and apologies if I get any of these wrong), what we said was:

David Moser: Chinese used to be a huge pain because looking up words was so difficult, but now, thanks to technology a lot of the pain is gone
Me: Technology is not inherently useful, but there is now great potential for a new, student-led way of learning enabled by technology
Brendan O’Kane: both the level of students entering Chinese translation classes and the quality of Chinese reference materials are going up, but there are still some fundamental reading/parsing issues that need special attention

After we made our points, the discussion turned to a bunch of learning resource name-dropping, including FluentU, Shooter, and the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Fielding questions from teachers and program directors, some of the issues that struck me were:

1. It’s not at all clear what resources are most useful to teachers (even ones like Pleco that have been around for quite a while and have a good name in the space) and which ones they can use
2. Even if teachers are willing to use new tools to find interesting, up-to-date material for their students, they don’t feel well-equipped to do so in anything resembling a systematic manner
3. What technology is here to stay, and what is just a passing fad? It’s hard to say. I don’t blame some of the teachers for wanting to just wait until the dust settles.

There are so many opportunities for innovation in this space right now…


Sep 2012

iOS6 has your iPhone speaking Chinese

I got a great tip from my friend Will Stevenson yesterday. Apparently iOS6 not only added text-to-speech support for new languages, but also enabled the ability to recognize and read out Chinese, even when the phone is in English language mode, and even when the text is a mix of Chinese and English.

What it is

Here’s an example of “Speak” enabled for a Chinese spam text:


Here’s an example of “Speak” for a note which includes both English and Chinese (I’m not sure why there’s a choice of reading in either 中文 or English; either one does the same thing):



For text messages, iOS treats each SMS text as one big block of text, and it won’t highlight individual words as it reads them (even though it reads them all). For other types of text, though, in apps like the Notes app, it will highlight each character as it reads it out:



[Side note: here’s what the note was about. I took notice of it because it’s a fairly rare example of mixing simplified and traditional Chinese characters in print. It was done to put the (heart) back into the character for love, since the simplified version quite literally takes the “heart” () out of (traditional) “love” ().]

How to enable it

Anyway, since you’re likely here to get your iOS6 device speaking Chinese, here’s how you do it.

First, go to Settings > General > Accessibility (Accessibility is near the bottom of all the stuff in “General.” Just a little hard to find. Naturally.)

Right at the top, you’ll see an Accessibility section called “Vision.” There you’ll see an item called “Speak Selection.” Touch on that. On the next screen, turn it ON. You can also turn no “Highlight Words” here too (why not?). You probably don’t want to mess with the speaking rate. It gets way too fast pretty quickly.



Here’s the really cool thing, though. There’s a “Dialects” section. (And no, I’m not going into the “what is a dialect, really? discussion here!) In there, you can not only choose the dialect for English and other languages, but also for Chinese! At the bottom of the “Dialects” section, under 中文, you can choose mainland Mandarin (中国), Cantonese (廣東話), and Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣). Not sure why they chose two regions and a language/dialect/topolect as the choices. But anyway, fun stuff!



What it means

Why does this matter? Well, my friend Will discovered it by accident as he was going through the somewhat tedious routine of copying a text so that he could then paste it into Pleco‘s pasteboard reader. He tried playing the text, and much to his surprise, he could hear the Chinese (whereas in the past, on iOS5, the text-to-speech converter would just skip over all Chinese). In this particular example, after having the Chinese read to him, he didn’t need to look it up after all.

Because a lot of the challenge of Chinese is simply recognizing the characters for the words you already know, text-to-speech can be extremely convenient. Will’s reaction was, “now that I have this feature, I’m going to be using Pleco a lot less now!”

Interesting. Let me know if you think this new feature changes how you learn Chinese on your phone, or if it’s just no big deal to you.


Sep 2012

A Visual Case for Stroke Order

Inevitably, students of Chinese characters will ask, at some point, “why do we have to learn stroke order? What difference does it make?

It’s a good question. This is the answer:


(The message reads 好无聊. “So bored.”)

This is what Chinese characters start to look like as the strokes flow together. And it’s not just about calligraphy and an appreciation of ancient culture; I discovered the image above through Tencent’s WeChat (the iPhone app).


Sep 2012

AllSet Learning Pinyin App in Video

I’ve been quite busy with AllSet Learning lately and haven’t been updating Sinosplice (oh, the blogger guilt!), but here’s a little video we did lately to provide an easy preview for the AllSet Learning Pinyin ipad app:

The app is doing great! Thanks very much to everyone who’s downloaded it, recommended it to friends, and purchased the optional addons.

If you don’t have the app, you can get AllSet Learning Pinyin here.