Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Computer assisted Chinese (part I)

I am learning Chinese.  Since I hate doing things by hand that can be automated (and because it's much more fun to hack with the the computer than do work), I like to use the computer to help me whenever I can.

For me, the hardest thing about Chinese is learning the characters.  Unless you're actively learning and reviewing them every day, you're forgetting.  And the techniques I've seen my classmates use (such as just writing them a few times) doesn't seem to help me.

When I was learning Chinese in 2005, I typed the word list from each chapter of the textbook into my computer.  From this, I could print the lists on labels, and make flash cards.  Each flash card had the Chinese character and the pinyin (pronounciation) on one side, and the English meaning on the other.  It took a lot of time to enter the characters, and a lot of time to make the flash cards, but I found it a very effective way of learning.  I'd stick a bundle about 6cm x 4cm and 3cm high into my pocket, and be all set to learn when I had some free time, such as waiting for a train.

I'd start with all the cards in my hand, and look at each one in turn.  If I knew the card (for example, I could write the character from memory, given the meaning and the pronunciation), I'd remove that card from my hand, and put it on my discard pile.  Otherwise I'd move that card to the back of the pile I was holding.  The cards I knew well would quickly leave my hand, and my time would be spent working on the ones I didn't know.  For reasons I don't fully understand, some characters are easy for me to remember, and others give me such trouble.  It was years before I could remember to write such every-day things as 喜欢 and 意思!  When I'm learning, I might need to see some cards ten times before it will finally sink in.

What I had implemented was a real-world form of a "spaced repetition" learning system, and it worked really well for me:


The drawback of this approach, as well as the preparation time, is that I ended up with a bag of some 22 bundles, which is a pile around 60cm high!  That was quite unwieldy to carry around, so I'd have to put some thought into the bundles I wanted to carry, and leave the rest at home.

After a while I got tired of the physical nature of the cards, so I decided to do it with a computer program.  But lugging around a laptop is not really an option!  What could I run the software on?

I eventually decided to write the app as a J2ME Java app, as J2ME programs will run on most phones.  Over the course of 2007, I worked on the program when I had some spare time (mostly on the train).  I finally released the program in 2007 as "Chutor", which is a portmanteau of "Chinese Tutor".

It shipped with the word lists from the New Practical Chinese Reader volumes I, II and III, because that was the textbook I was using at the time, but it can be tailored to take any vocab.  When I was in China in 2008, I reworked it to use the vocab of the textbooks were were using there.

Although the program has a number of non-critical bugs, I find it very convenient for reviewing characters when I have a few spare minutes:  waiting for a train, or for a few minutes before going to sleep (and yes, learning characters is very effective at inducing sleep).

The missing feature I'd like most is spaced repetition (although I really want and need it, and adding it wouldn't be hard).  At the moment, if you get a character right, that character gets dropped until you go and select a new set of chapters.  But even so, the program is useful enough.

Give Chutor a try on your phone.  Does it work for you?  Does it help?

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