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There’s one thing I’ve done a lot of while working at a platform for EDU iPhone/iPad apps and that’s playing educational apps. I’ve played dozens, if not hundreds of games designed to teach children ABCs or basic arithmetic. I’ve flipped through an equally formidable number of storybook apps, including some recreations of my childhood favorites. A lot of the apps have really been disappointing, but a few gems have stood out.

One of my favorites is a math app called Space Math. After it won the SmarTots Quest for the Best educational app contest, I had a chance to help the designer, Reese, add some more features to its newest version. In thing that I found interesting was the contrast between him and many of the other app developers I’ve worked with. While many others were either large companies converting various properties from browser-based flash programs to iOS or business people hiring outsourcers to make a variety of apps, Reese was a one-man hobbyist shop. More interestingly, his full-time job is teaching math to high school students and his app was driven partially by his experiences with some his students arriving to high school with weak foundations in more elementary math. As a former teacher who was drawn to build things to help my students, I find it very easy to empathize with him!

Here is the first version of the screencast I made to help promote his work:

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicing program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing local’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One even refused to believe me that I was a tourist and not someone who had been living there for a while! The best boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have focused their stuff on HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered people who downright insisted on using English with me all the time, often even from people with terrible English. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.

Looking back, it kind of amazes me that I’ve just this month truly discovered James W. Heisig’s landmark work, Remembering the Kanji. Back in 2001 and 2002, I heard Heisig’s name pop up a couple of times while I was studying Japanese at UC Boulder. I think my very first Japanese teacher may have even used some RTK-inspired methods when she taught us hiragana.
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Anki is a free software program designed to help people remember what they have learned.anki-logo It’s a flashcard program, with support for a variety of media, including text, sound files, mathematical equations (using Latex) and even images. My use of it so far has been restricted to foreign language learning. Anki runs on Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux.

The value of spaced repetitions

Anki is a spaced repetition learning system. Unlike traditional flash card systems in which the user decided what to practice and when, spaced repetition systems schedule practice for you. The first time someone learns something, it will be forgotten quickly. The next time, it might stay for a day or two. The time after that, a learner can usually remember an item for over a week. The length of time increases exponentially. If an item is forgotten, though, much of the progress is lost. By scheduling review for each item right before the learner is expected to forget it, Anki makes it possible to learn material well enough to remember it for months or even years in just ten to twenty repetitions.

My own learning experiences have made me a big fan of spaced repetition review. I have been a reasonably hard-working student ever since my last stint in college, but a depressing amount of the work was wasted. I have entire notebooks full of things I’ve painstakingly learned, probably reviewed more often in the early stages and then forgotten because failed to go over them months later. As much as I like the idea of deciding when and what to review, following the algorithm is more effective.

Differences from Supermemo

As far as the algorithm is concerned, Anki is very similar to SM2. When answering correctly, you still get three options (easy, good and hard), but there is only one option for wrong answers. Anything you answer wrong is put back into the stack, to be reviewed after you finish your other cards for the day. One very good change is that wrong answers don’t really affect the card’s “difficulty rating” before you’ve really learned a card well, i.e. to the point at which you have about a month between intervals. In other words, you won’t keep seeing a card too often a year from now just because you hadn’t really learned it before putting it into your deck.

The biggest way Anki is different from Supermemo is the clean interface. It’s a nice, simple program and it’s a joy to use. You can also copy decks to the Anki site for free (up to 10MB), and sync decks after you finish with them so that you can review from other computers. This isn’t a very important feature for me, but it would be if I had a decent cellphone.

Other features

Anki has some specific features for learners of Chinese and even more features for learners of Japanese. There are “deck models” for both languages. Each card has a field for the “question” (the word), the “answer” (the English translation) and a special third field for the reading. Upon entering a Chinese word, Anki fills in the pinyin for you! For example, if I enter the word 嫻靜, Anki fills in xián jìng for me. This is a great time saver. Unfortunately, it’s still necessary to choose the right pronunciation in the case of 破音字. The recognition for Japanese characters is far better. Anki has automatically selected the correct hiragana for the vast majority of the Japanese words and phrases I’ve entered so far. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, it would be necessary to choose from half a dozen readings on a regular basis. On other feature for Japanese study is that the program tracks how many of the Jouyou and Jinmeiyou Kanji have appeared in your deck so far. It also tells you what percentage of the kanji for each grade of elementary school you have learned.

Graphs and Statistics

Anki’s charts and statistics are outstanding.ankichart You can see charts of when cards will be up for review, of how much time you’ve studied each day, of how hard your cards are for you, and all kinds of other things. Deck statistics are similarly impressive. Have you ever what percentage of the time you answer correctly on cards you’ve been studying for a long time? Or what percentage you get right in your first review session? Anki can tell you. In fact, the charts and statistics might be a little bit too good. I’ve found myself checking them more than I really want to.

License

Anki is free software. As a proud free culture supporting geek, this makes me very happy. On the practical side, it also leads to cross-platform support and it’s easy to extend Anki. In fact, I’ve taken advantage of this by getting the Traditional Chinese localization of the program started. Damien, the original author and maintainer, was very helpful via email explaining to me how to edit the localization files. I’m sure others, with native Chinese skills, will build upon that work. If enough Chinese students get interested in Anki, I bet it will start keeping Hanzi statistics, too. By virtue of its license Anki is certain to keep improving for as long as it’s popular.

Summary

Anki is great. I’ve been using it daily for most of this month and I’ve even put in some time localizing it so that I could give it to one of my students. He’s been hard working, but continues to struggle to build his vocabulary. I’ve put all the vocabulary from my first semester CDs into Anki decks for him and have high hopes. I wouldn’t be using it myself and I certainly wouldn’t be recommending it to my students if I didn’t think Anki was the best of its breed.

Rating: 4.5/5

The very first Dr. Seuss book I have my students read is Hop on Pop. It’s easy enough in terms of phonics and vocabulary that my students can handle it pretty easily by the time they finish the first book in the Up and Away series of textbooks. Most of my first and second grade classes reach that point by their fifth week in a six hour a week course.


Many of the words in the book are words commonly taught within the first few units of EFL books, and they are well-supported in with colorful pictures.

Other words in the book are known by very few beginner level students. The pictures still provide quite a bit of support, though.

I only specifically translate a few words into Chinese as we go through the book. It can be done on the fly, but giving the students a hand out, or writing them on the whiteboard before class is usually helpful. Here are the words most of my students tend to need help with:

  • fall / 跌倒
  • all (time period) / 整 ____
  • must not / 一定不要
  • town / 小鎮
  • snack / 小吃
  • bumped / 碰
  • went past / 走過去
  • yelp / 叫
  • hill / 山丘
  • still / 仍然, 還
  • other / 另外一個

This book is especially great for phonics-heavy curriculums, such as mine. It provides quite a bit of practice for short vowel sounds, as well as the -igh- phonics rule. The only minor complaint I have is the crazy picture for “hill” on the page in which Will is still up the hill. It really could confuse students, especially in “English only” classrooms.

Related Post: Dr. Seuss is my Friend.

There are a couple of fairly new Chinese learning sites I’ve been spending some time on recently. One of them is essentially still in beta, and the designer invited me to try it out. Since it’s not completely ready to go, I’ll talk about the other: Chinese Blast. Chinese Blast is a collaborative learning site unlike any other I’ve seen for learning Chinese. It’s almost like a web 2.0 version of some of the old Anime sub-title projects the really geeky people at UC Boulder used to do… and I like it!
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Chinese Pod has changed quite a bit in the last two and a half months. Some new features have been added, there are many new podcasts, the quality of the podcasts has improved, and there have been several minor but important changes in the lessons since the last time I wrote about them. continue reading…

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Far East Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary
The Far East Book Co, Taipei, 2001
ISBN: 9576124638
Cost:NT$450 at PageOne Bookstore, Taipei
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20-30-4020-30-40Hosted on Zooomr

20 30 40 is the story of three women living in Táibĕi, a 20 year old (李心潔), a 30 year old (劉若英), and a 40 year old (張艾嘉). Aside from starring as the 40 year old, 張艾嘉 also wrote and directed the movie.

Each of the three women’s stories remain separate, but all three focus on their personal relationships. The 20 year old is a bright-eyed dreamer, who just arrived in the big city, The 30 year old woman is a stewardess who would give anything to settle down, and the 40 year old woman, in the process of recovering from betrayal and divorce, is a florist, sports enthusiast and enthusiastic bar-hopper. The movie was touching in a couple of moments towards the end, but I never found myself that caught up with it. Maybe that’s because I couldn’t relate that well with any of the characters. It would be good to get a woman’s review of this movie up here, too.

20

As far as the Chinese in the movie, it wasn’t too hard, but it wasn’t as easy as 向左走向右走 (Turn Left Turn Right). I had to read the subtitles to understand a few parts of it. My guess is that any student who’s made it through the level 5 classes at Shida (師大) and had any (Chinese) social life at all would be able to understand just about everything said in the movie.

Rating: 2/5

I guess it’s time to write what I think of Chinese Pod. Unless JT really ramps up the volume of his podcasting and gets friends to help out, Chinese Pod is the only game in town. There really isn’t any other large collection of podcasts for Chinese learners out there… yet. There’s a pretty fearsome argument about Chinese pod going on over at Sinosplice, and I want to toss in my $0.02. One commenter, named Roy, said:

I have downloaded an intermediate lesson. First thing you are greeted in ENGLISH. The Chinese person also presents themselves in ENGLISH. “I am Jenny”. Are those at an intermediate level not expected to understand “I Am” in Mandarin?

The tones used by the Chinese person are very unimpressive to say the least. I would not hire her as a private tutor. It’s like she was thinking about ENGLISH while she was speaking Mandarin or something like that. Anyhow, the above commenter already stated this. I would not listen to their casts if only for this reason — her bad “tones” and pronunciation. I am very disappointed by this.

Not only this, but it followed by the English speaker in ENGLISH. Why is it necessary for the student to her this repetition from a native English speaker (I hope) in an unaccurate Mandarin? What does this achieve exactly??

Bottom line: get a grip, focus on Mandarin and dump the English wherever you can. And decent Mandarin as much as possible.

I agree with much of what he said. I tried out Chinese pod recently, listened to a few podcasts and didn’t like them too much. I didn’t mind Jenny’s “southern” accent that much; since I live in Taiwan, it sounded “northern” to me! But, the absolute deal breaker is all the English.

First, I tried pod#37, an intermediate lesson. As soon as I started the pod, I was greeted by a loud gong and an anouncer saying, “great resources on the web, blah blah blah learn Mandarin with Chinese pod!” in English. After that, it was “Hello, welcome back to Chinese pod, ah… coming to you from Shanghai China, my name’s Ken Carol (sp?).” in English. Then, “I’m Jenny” in English. Jenny tosses one Chinese word, 加薪, into an English sentence really slowly, Ken makes a half hearted stab at duplicating it, and then it’s back to chatting about the word in English. By the time the dialogue starts, 12% of the pod is over. Between all of the random bantering in English, the damn classical Chinese stringed instrument that won’t stop, and all of the branding related stuff, I felt like even if the pod were at the right difficulty for me, less than half of the time spent listening to it would have been productive.

They did say pod#37 was a “low intermediate” pod, though. So, I gave pod#33 a try. The same gong and intro routine took about half a minute, but at least Jenny introduced her self in Chinese, sort of. I guess she doesn’t like using her real name as much as an English one. Considering that foreigners didn’t have the luxury of learning Chinese names in elementary school, that many Chinese people prefer to use English names with us, and that we have a hard time learning new Chinese names, this sucks. Still, they got into the dialogue a lot faster on this pod. The guy’s pronunciation was appalling, though. It seemed like he just freely swapped “jue”, “zhui”, and “zui” sounds for each other whenever the heck he felt like it. He reminded me of a coworker I had at an HFRB, known for barking out a constant stream of mispronounced commands to his poor students in a language nobody could quite consider “Chinese”. I couldn’t take it. I quit the pod halfway through.

Next, I tried an advanced one- Murder over a Steamed Bun. After the gong and stuff, I was greeted by “Hello, I’m Jenny and today with me is Liv (another English name). And whenever Liv is here, it’s a good lead that it’s going to be an advanced show…” all in English. She goes into a little speech about how there are lots of levels at Chinese pod, if this is too hard, pick a different one, blah, blah, blah. I understand that they’re throwing that stuff in because they’re afraid of scaring beginners away. Personally, I think the risk of some beginner getting on their site, going to the advanced section, downloading an advanced pod and then getting scared away is much less likely than the risk of pissing of potential subscribers who don’t want to hear that junk in every pod they download. Once they got started on the actual dialogue, though, it was pretty good. I noticed Jenny pronouncing “eng” as “en”, but as somebody living in Taiwan, I’m used to that.

In summary, I’ll say this: I’m willing to spend $300USD/month on Chinese self-study related expenses. However, the way the podcasts are now, I don’t even listen to them for free. For a Chinese student in the west who can’t get to a China town and doesn’t have any way of getting a conversation partner, though, Chinese Pod is the best resource there is for listening material. It could also be greatly improved pretty easily. If the English were trimmed out of the intermediate and advanced pods and replaced by written vocabulary lists and explanations, it would be a service worth paying for. I’m not sure if $30USD is reasonable to expect college students to pay, but at least the service would be a good use of their time. Here are what I see as Chinese Pod’s strengths and weaknesses:

Pros:

  • Downloading podcasts is free.
  • The selection of podcasts is growing.
  • Some of the dialogues are interesting.
  • There are no real alternatives.
  • They hired John, and he’s going to fix everything! :P

Cons:

  • Too much time is wasted with branding, sound effects, etc…
  • The constant classical Chinese music in the background is damned annoying.
  • Way too much English is used in the intermediate and advanced lessons.
  • They all use English names, despite the fact that they’re teaching Chinese lessons.
  • The foreign host doesn’t speak Chinese very well.
  • None of the hosts speak “standard” Mandarin; they’re all southerners.

Rating: 2/5
Level: Beginner to Intermediate

Update: Chinese Pod has changed quite a bit since I wrote this review. Make sure to check out my more recent review.