One of the most important steps I took in learning Chinese was to find a cell phone that I was able to use properly, in other words one that did not require knowledge of Zhuyin Fuhao (注音符號, or Bopomofo) to type characters. The small, cigarette-length periods of time in the day are perfect for sending an SMS to a Chinese-speaking friend or checking a couple of dozen flash cards, and having a dictionary with you everywhere you go makes learning far more interactive.
Cell Phones and PDAs:
Sony Ericsson, sogi.com.tw, from NT$2,000
Palm, pdaking.com.tw, roughly NT$12,000
There are few cell phones that can type traditional characters while using the Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音) system. After experience with several manufacturers, including Nokia and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile Smart Phones, Sony Ericsson and Palm Treo products come out on top.
Sony Ericsson’s input system requires knowledge of Mandarin’s tones, but does help by giving a choice of characters that commonly follow the first one. It is also pretty quick at switching between input methods on the fly and includes support for both Bopomofo and Hanyu Pinyn. While it does open the possibility of sending text messages, dictionaries and flash cards are out of bounds, except on the more expensive Symbian OS models.
After using a number of PDAs, or personal digital assistants, the move to a Palm-powered cell phone meant SMS messaging became a core learning resource. Jumping between a text message and dictionary definition, and then loading new words into flash cards makes mobile communication convenient and fun. The Treo’s PalmDragon Chinese-input system supports both written input on the touch screen and phonetic input on the keyboard and also allows installation of third-party software. However, for the more fashionable students of Chinese (they do exist), Palm’s rounded-brick design for the Treo looks ugly and old-fashioned.
For those prepared to wait, Palm recently launched the Centro line of products in the US, which offer improved styling, reduced bulk and lower prices. But these are not yet available in Taiwan. Apple’s iPhone also does not have a confirmed release date for Taiwan, and while it does support display of Chinese characters as standard, it does not yet have an official input system. A small army of amateur enthusiasts are rallying to develop input methods, but it may be best to wait for a formal release of the product in Taiwan or China before risking “bricking” the unit.
Supermemo, supermemo.com, US$19.95, Palm and Windows Mobile
Software flash cards help make the tedious activity of rote learning more like a computer game, statistically tracking the characters learned. The downside is that it is easy to slip into the trap of focusing excessively on vocabulary growth, rather than the more important activities of building patterns of words and phrases. The tool that I use is Supermemo, and although it has its downsides it has formed part of my daily routine — indeed, the Chinese-learning community has already gathered vocabulary lists from National Taiwan Normal University’s textbooks, and it’s quite a motivating feeling to be able to “activate” a new chapter from the books as you progress through Chinese-language study.
Pleco, pleco.com, US$59.95 to US$119.95, Palm and Windows Mobile