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…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Resource-wise, I’d also like to plug Waigo Translate, a magic OCR app for Chinese menus that basically supersedes my old recommendation for non-Chinese-readers attempting to order from all-Chinese menus, the great The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters by James McCawley.

    That pair is sort of the subject of our talk in microcosm: the old resource that’s 2/3 dedicated to helping you learn how to look up characters in a paper dictionary, versus the shiny new cameraphone-based hotness.

  2. Gotta get Charlotte flashcarding on Pleco…

  3. I agree with your comments John about how technology offers tremendous potential for student-led way of learning, be it the programs provided by chinesepod, FluentU or your own company. With all these wonderful apps, on-line dictionaries or SRS programs, some people forget what life was like before all this technology arrived. Even an MP3 player has completely changed how students learn languages. I am self-learner. And this is due to technology. Without it acting as a crutch (in particular SRS) I would have given up a long time ago and wasted a number of years. However, now that I have embraced technology – at least some of it – my motivation and self-belief improved exponentially. There is one sore point I would like to point out: even with all this technology, the human brain can only still process so much at certain times. Our capacity to access information in so many ways has exponentially increased in only ten years. Thinking on that, technology still requires to be used wisely in order to be effective.

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