Most of my students in my weekly Mandarin classes are native speakers who require brushing up on grammar, pronunciation or perhaps fluency. As I learned Chinese in the eighties I’ve used books, newspapers, magazines and other media to keep up with the changing language over the years, but these days I rely heavily (though not exclusively) on technological tools to ensure the Mandarin I’m teaching is current.
The iPad is useful for access to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network site, as well as YouTube, blogging sites and language resources such as ChinesePod and the search engine Baidu. I follow several Chinese microbloggers on Twitter and I can usually pull together some topical dialogues on appropriate subjects that reflect Chinese commentators’ opinions on things happening that week. This helps to keep the lessons fresh and current. Back in my student days, my own Chinese teachers often used fairly dull and artificial-sounding phrases based on asking someone where the nearest post office is and so forth. It was a functional approach but it scarcely thrilled, and these days I find I can engage students more easily with lessons that take as their subject matter topics that are genuinely being debated on various web-based forums that week by authentic speakers.
Above Sina weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site. Weibo is a Mandarin term for web, although others exist.
Baidu (above) is China’s answer to Google. It is illuminating to search for the same terms on Google and Baidu and see the differences in what comes up – although it can also be illuminating and surprising to see what remains the same too.
ChinesePod (above) is a useful repository of dialogue-based learning. The accompanying podcasts vary in quality but can be very good.
Recently, I’ve also been using Siri to test my students’ pronunciation. The idea is that if Siri can understand their question and provide a reasonably coherent answer, that is the benchmark for communicativeness. If, on the other hand, Siri responds with the wrong information or simply asks the student to repeat the conversation (she is fond of the phrase 对不起我不明白! which translates as “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that”), the student needs to try again. Usually, the problem is with the tones of the language (Mandarin is a tonal language where the inflection used in one’s voice can change the meaning of each utterance), but occasionally, my students have made some amusing mistakes with the wrong word completely. These have included one student’s asking directions to Paris and ending up with a recipe for an Indonesian dish called Bami!
Here a student has asked Siri how long it would take to get to Paris. After repeated efforts to get Siri to understand the word Paris, the student hit on the idea of saying “Paris France”. Siri responded with a route map from Cobham to Paris (below)!
Siri’s welcome screen (above) suggests things you can ask her. Students can work in pairs to translate these suggestions and either ask Siri exactly what she suggests or make up their own variations.
Before the student added the word “France” to her question, Siri offered a number of solutions to the situation she understood the student to be asking about. Above, the options include directions to the Eurostar homepage (which handles train bookings and information between London and Paris), but also flight information for flights from beijing and Shanghai to Paris too.
The ubiquity of Siri means that students can practise at home on their own devices and then come in with screen shots of dialogues they have exchanged with Siri. We’ve probably only begun to scratch the surface of this instructional strategy’s potential but the students are having fun with it, and the learning is authentic so for me that’s a “ying ying” situation.