Teaching and Learning Chinese on an iPad (part 2)

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.

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Above Sina weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site. Weibo is a Mandarin term for web, although others exist.

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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.

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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.

再见! 🙂

Learning Chinese on the iPad

The summer holidays, as always, is a chance to reflect back and project forward.  The new school year starting in August will be the first where we introduce large numbers of iPad Airs, and the first where we begin the year with Casper as our MDM system.  Further afield, we have collaborate research projects set up with Hurstpierpoint College and with our sister schools in the ACS group, and invitations to present our research at several international conferences.

But I’m keenly aware of how easy it is for the researcher to become too intensely focused on the mechanics of the research process itself, and to lose sight of the connection research must have with real life.  This is a danger to which researchers whose day to day school role is in administration, not teaching, are especially susceptible and so the subject of this month’s blog is deliberately pragmatic and stems from my classroom experience teaching my weekly Chinese class.

Language teachers commonly complain that there are no decent apps for teaching language. This may be true (although the picture with all apps is so fast-changing that it is difficult to make definitive statements about anything), but it misses the point.  The conversations I have had most recently with teachers of French and Spanish at my school certainly leave me better informed about apps like Linguascope and Duolingo, but they also make it very clear that the most engaging activities that teachers appear to find effective are those where the students are using the target language incidentally, rather than as a conscious exercise in mastery.

When I was training as a language teacher more years ago than I care to mention, the prevailing (but at that point untested) thinking was that the best way to master a language was to study something other than the target language through the medium of the target language.  At International House, where I studied for an RSA Diploma in TEFL, I observed students in a film studies course whose fluency in both spoken and written academic English developed as they pursued their learning about film.  My own mother-in-law developed her English through studying a higher degree in Education. So we have known for a long time that making the target language incidental to the learning can be effective, and the lesson for teachers teaching with iPads is to make the iPad the tool to achieving tasks other than directly learning French, Spanish or, in the case of my own students, Chinese.

In my Chinese classes I have been known to set the odd quiz in Socrative, but I admit that these serve little pedagogical purpose beyond giving the students a mental break from other tasks.  The biggest benefit I have seen in quiz setting (other than giving the impression to some parents – and a recently-departed education minister – that real learning was going on when it wasn’t) is the experience it can give students in mastering test-taking techniques. But passing a test, rather than acquiring mastery of the learning the test is supposed to assess, is a very limited horizon for which to set one’s course.

This is where one needs to consult the research and adapt pedagogies and instructional strategies that we know assist language acquisition.  These include (but are not limited to) the following:

Hands-on activities
Project-based learning
Reciprocal learning
Student-centred learning
Simulations & Rôle Play
Reflect & Write
Anything involving Rhythm, Rhyme, Music & Rap
Graphic (visual) Organisers
Collaborative learning

I’ve written on most of these before, but in the context of teaching Chinese there is a resource I am prepared to endorse that I have used for about six years now and which, with a bit of tweaking, allows the teacher to cut out a lot of the donkey work involved in lesson planning.

The resource is called Chinese Pod and it started many years ago as a podcast. You could download the podcast and listen to it on your iPod as you got on with your day. It often involved conversations about topics that were in the news or of general interest to ordinary folk at the time. Therein lay an important difference between Chinese Pod and even the best textbook – it was fresh and unpredictable; relevant and topical. You couldn’t flick ahead and see what was coming. Although pre-recorded, it felt live and the presenters (typically two – a waiguoren and a native Chinese speaker) didn’t worry about the odd slip of the tongue. It had the feel of people enjoying themselves.

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Allied to the podcast was a webpage from which you could download and print off dialogues at different levels. I’m actually a great believer in dialogues as a way of learning languages. I learned Chinese this way myself and occasionally even today I find myself slipping into phrases I learned wholesale from those days. Chinese Pod’s dialogues ran the gamut from Newbie to Advanced, with pinyin support available where appropriate.  They discussed things like pop music, St Valentine’s Day and who was going to win the World Cup – the very conversations I knew my students were having in the recess playground.  

Today, these dialogues are still there on the Chinese Pod website, and subscribers can make use of Lesson MP3s, Dialogue MP3s, Audi Review MP3s or just a straightforward pdf transcript of the dialogue.  We use all of these in my classes, and my students access them via their iPads either before or during the lesson, but they also give me ideas for prompting my students to write their own dialogues, and we record or film these after they have had a chance to practise them.

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Today, students can produce sophisticated translations using Google Translate (see above – and also on their iPads in the form of an app), and can have the phrases modelled for them by a native speaker to guide their pronunciation and tones, but this really doesn’t matter. Students get a buzz out of seeing themselves and hearing themselves speaking Chinese, and if they keep the recordings, they can use themselves as revision aids or teachers in the future.   

Of course, I also encourage the students to use the Chinese keyboard on the iPad, and we have had some success in the past with the app iChinese as a way to encourage students to master the correct stroke order (although it has been admittedly mixed success as it is time-consuming – and I have to say I sometimes get stroke order wrong myself even after years of learning Chinese), but it’s probably fair to say that reading and writing Chinese are the last two skills to be mastered (albeit, there is a thrill to be seen on the students‘ faces when they manage to translate a piece of text written entirely in characters!)

To that end, there are a number of apps for both iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch that have proved effective over the years.  Here are some I still swear by.  

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The Flashcards app can be especially addictive – in a wholly positive way.  Many years ago I would spend hours on trains across China taking a pack of flashcards out my my jacket pocket and trying to commit them to memory. Those I knew I would transfer to my right-had pocket; those I didn’t, I would shuffle to the bottom of the pack and try again when they surfaced.  The Flashcards app (see screenshot below) is the modern equivalent of that. So with that in mind, I’m now going to roll the clock back and see how well I do on the advanced set.