Wed, May 21, 2008 - Page 14 News List

[TECHNOLOGY REVIEW] Language-learning technologies

By Jonathan Biddle  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Wenlin is the Chinese language tool of choice for academics and professional translators.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WENLIN

In four years of learning Chinese and attaining a solid “intermediate” standard, I have ploughed through a broad range of language-learning products and services. New technologies have the ability to tune the learning process and make it more relevant, easy, convenient and — crucially — fun. More than that, they can help build motivation and splice the lessons into everyday communication.

For me, language-learning technologies can be grouped into three key areas: computers, cell phones, and online services. Each has its relative strengths and weaknesses compared to traditional learning techniques. This week, we begin by looking at computers.

Setting up a Windows PC

Windows Vista is far more savvy at working in Chinese than Windows XP, and all but the most basic versions can now display and write characters. The Web site pinyinjoe.com offers fantastic step-by-step guides for Windows users. XP users take note: you may need your original installation disk to get up and running.

Several input method editors, or IMEs, are available from Microsoft, including methods for Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音) and Taiwan’s Zhuyin Fuhao (注音符號, commonly known as Bopomofo). However, Google’s pinyin input system trumps them all (tools.google.com/pinyin). In a move that will irk Chinese teachers across the island, tones are not required, and the system is able to predictably construct long sentences leaving the user free to happily bash away at the keyboard without a care in the world.

On the negative side, it’s not good if you want to practice your tones, and it does choose the wrong character occasionally as you race along — according to my Chinese tutor, this is not a valid excuse for mistakes in my homework. In summary, perhaps not the best study aid, but for those diving into MSN Messenger or sending a quick e-mail, it makes typing Chinese fun, and it is a pretty liberating experience to feel as if you are no longer completely illiterate.

Setting up an Apple Mac

For many, learning the ancient system of Chinese characters is as much an aesthetic endeavor as an intellectual one, and Mac OSX’s text-tendering capabilities make interacting with the beautiful characters a pleasure. Their prevalence in education also means there is a good range of software available, and for those setting up and optimizing their systems an excellent guide is available at yale.edu/chinesemac. All Macs are able to work in Chinese out-of-the-box.

Apple also has its own homegrown IME’s, but again the best ones out there come from third parties. Much like the Google IME above, QIM (glider.ismac.cn/RegQIME US$19.99) also offers pain-free text entry and the ability to present the characters for selection at a size that does not require a magnifying glass to see.

Dictionary for study:

Wenlin, wenlin.com, US$249, Mac OS, Windows

Wenlin is the language tool of choice for Chinese language academics and professional translators — although novices should not be put off by that. The interface is a little archaic in appearance, but it packs the most powerful and fully researched dictionary available for users of Hanyu Pinyin. The key to the software is that it allows the user to read characters in context of other characters, rather than either giving either a one-hit translation or one-by-one word delivery. For example, once you copy and paste a newspaper article into the system, you read away normally, and upon reaching a word you don’t recognize simply moving the mouse pointer over the character reveals the meaning and pronunciation. Ultimately, it allows you to work “above your own level,” and for people really serious about learning Chinese, Wenlin is a potent element in the armory.

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