For students of Chinese, tech tools offer fun and ease

Updated: 2012-07-20 11:33

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

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For students of Chinese, tech tools offer fun and ease

Michael Rowe, a 15-year old student at Palo Alto High School in California, shows his classmates how to use an iPad app to learn Chinese. Chen Jia / China Daily

Fifteen-year-old Michael Rowe had never studied Chinese before June. Two weeks into his course, he can tackle what's arguably the hardest part of the language: writing its intricate characters, thanks to a Chinese language learning app for Apple's iPad.

In the classroom at Northern California's Palo Alto High School where Michael is taking - voluntarily- a free introductory course in Mandarin during summer vacation, an overhead projector linked to his iPad shows the result: 学, a character with eight strokes. Transcribed into English's Latin characters through the pinyin system, the word is xue, which means "study".

"So far it's really fun! I will take Chinese throughout high school, hopefully," Michael told China Daily. The teenager, who will be a sophomore this fall, has been spending over five hours each day just on the iPad portion of the course.

"If I could speak Chinese, it's like opening a door for me and that might change my life," he said. "Spanish and French aren't as useful as Chinese, because so many people worldwide speak Chinese."

His parents believe that knowing the language will better prepare Michael for a career.

Norman Masuda, Michael's instructor, says his school is in sync with the growing popularity of Chinese in the United States, as more Americans who speak and understand the language will be needed to conduct US business and diplomacy.

"Chinese has ranked among the top three popular foreign-language courses in Palo Alto High School, just behind Spanish and French," he said.

About 1,600 public and private middle schools and high schools in the US teach Chinese, up from 300 or so a decade ago, according to a 2010 survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics. Among the 27,500 schools that offer at least one foreign language, the proportion offering Chinese rose to 4 percent in 2008 from 1 percent in 1997, according to the survey, which was funded by the US Education Department.

The uptick is bolstered by curriculum publisher Better Chinese LLC, based in Palo Alto.

"We believe that there are as many as 120,000 students in the US Chinese-learning market, and these figures do not account for weekend schools for heritage learners," said Fiona Lee, associate editor for Better Chinese. Heritage learners are those who have been exposed to a language from an early age, usually through native-speaker parents.

"The Chinese-learner demographic has changed from heritage students to include more non-heritage speakers," Lee explained.

Another indicator of demand is the number of states that have ordered textbooks for Chinese-language instruction, she said. According to Lee, curricula developed by Better Chinese have been reviewed and adopted by boards of education in nine states - Texas, Oregon, Utah, Oklahoma, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Idaho.

Meanwhile, publishers are competing for the expanding market for Chinese-learning materials including new tools such as iPad apps for calligraphy and other skills.

Last year Better Chinese teamed up with Stanford University, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the National Security Agency's Startalk program to create an intensive summer course, Discovering Chinese, on the iPad for high school students in Silicon Valley.

Startalk was established in 2006 by President George W. Bush to bolster US national security through training in critical languages such as Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Urdu. Better Chinese was chosen as a program partner on the strength of its secondary- school curriculum, which the company said has been adopted by eight US states and over 400 schools worldwide.

The Discovering Chinese app was tested by Startalk during last year's summer intensive program at Palo Alto High. The positive response prompted Better Chinese to proceed with development of a complete iPad app for Volume 1 of the textbook series Discovering Chinese.

The Discovering Chinese iPad course has also been well-received in pilot programs at other schools in California, according to teachers quoted by the company.

"I was amazed when iPad apps held my students' attention so completely. They didn't want to turn it off even when class ended," Hilda Leung, who teaches at the Brentwood School, a private K-12 institution in Los Angeles, was quoted by Better Chinese as saying.

"Transforming our curriculum materials for the iPad environment optimizes Chinese-language learning in a way that we've never seen before," CEO James Lin said in a statement from the company.

Better Chinese has textbook materials from kindergarten through college levels in about 1,000 US schools and some 1,300 worldwide, Lin said. For the Discovering Chinese app, he said the company has had about 2,000 downloads since launching in early June.

"The iPad classroom provides a very fluid learning experience for Chinese learners and a seamless instructional delivery for teachers," said Jin Ying, a teacher in Cupertino, California. "With the Chinese app, students can learn at their own pace, check their answers, and turn the pinyin on and off to challenge themselves."

Besides the handwriting check that engrossed Michael Rowe, the app allows users to hear word pronunciations and ensure their recognition of characters using electronic flash cards, Jin said. The app approach has also helped teachers improve communication in Chinese with students, she added.

Kalim Winata, who works for Itsy Bitsy Stories LLC, said the publisher of online learning materials for children ages 2 to 9 offers storytelling apps for the iPad and Android tablets. The Oakland, California, company has introduced 123 Calling, an interactive-story program that uses the animals of the Chinese Zodiac to help kids learn counting and basic vocabulary in Mandarin.

"Our customers' feedback has shown broader and broader interest from a growing variety of teaching institutions," including preschool programs, elementary schools, museums, self-study guides and tutorials, Winata said.