I love learning languages. I speak French and German, but those are probably ranked a 4 on a scale of 1-10 where Chinese might be a 9, so when I heard from an old friend, Melinda Thompson, that she had helped create a way to teach Chinese to English speakers, I was intrigued. Could an over 40-year-old still learn with relative ease even as all those brain cell connections were diminishing daily? I made tracks to iTunes where I tried out Disney Publishing Worldwide’s clever new iPad app geared for children that teaches Chinese to English speakers and English to Chinese speakers through Toy Story 3. It makes total sense that working with a familiar story helps children easily pick up some basics of a new language while having fun at the same time. Thompson, Senior Producer, Book & Print at Disney English, sat down with me so I could learn the ins and outs of this exciting new learning tool for kids and parents that is available from iTunes in their educational section for only $4.99 in the U.S.
Not only is the LEARN AND READ CHINESE app colorful and cool to look at, but it’s so easy to use that even I, a 21st century technology dinosaur, could navigate it after clicking on the tutorial tab. In a nutshell the app works like this: in the most basic setting level , a reader would find all of the story’s words in English which is essentially 100% English. The next level introduces a child to a quarter of the words in Chinese. Level three has half the words in Chinese and next they move on at level 4 to three quarters of the words or 75% in Chinese. Before they know it, they’ve reached the last level where the entire story is in 100% Chinese.
Trying my hand at the app, I boldy went to the second level where a quarter of the words were in Chinese and noticed I’d forgotten the meaning of one of the Chinese words. First, to hear the word pronounced I just had to touch it. Then all I had to do was use my finger to flick the word down to the translation box for the meaning. You can imagine I did a lot of flicking so to my delight I learned that rather than a blinking red light warning me to start on some Gingko Biloba, I actually got a little award for the amount of flicking I had done!
In case you did not know this, the Learn and Read Chinese app uses an approach called Diglot Weave. Thompson explained that Diglot Weave teaches language by making a story based on the similarities of the different languages. In this case English and Chinese. As I made my way through the different levels she said, “you’ve probably noticed the writing is filled with repetitive words and the sentences are written in a very specific way. And that’s because we only want to use words that are easy to translate.”
I was clearly hooked by this intelligent teaching method. “We don’t want anything that’s going to be too different from English and Chinese.” She explained the nuances of sentence structure, too. “Because you are moving onto 100% Chinese eventually, the sentence structure is important so we want to minimize those instances where English and Chinese are grammatically different. For that reason we have to take grammar and the way things are pronounced into account. The way that a child goes through this is to start with 100% English and gradually go to the next level. The names of the characters are most often the easiest to recognize in Chinese.” I also learned that in written form using the English language, the Chinese used in the app is called Pinyin (created in the 1950s) because traditional Chinese, such as Mandarin, uses characters in written form. The voice on the app is speaking in a Beijing, mainland China accent.
The largest image above shows the intro page with the icons at the bottom indicating: Tutorial (how-to), Achievement Stickers, Table of Contents, My Words (glossary), and Pinyin Tonal Marks, and Information (educational explanation and credits).
Q. Toy Story 3 was selected because the app plays off the fact that it’s a story we’re all very familiar with and that also helps us learn the words, right?
A. Yes, that along with the sound effects, that helps the reader and clues them into words.
Q. I thought the images would move, but this is much more like a picture book and it’s beautiful. Everything is stationary. Are these cells taken right from film?
A. The artwork in this app was done by our publishing division when the film came out. When they turn a film into a book they always make artwork to go with the book because screen shots from film will not work.
Q. Will my prononciation be corrected if I say a word wrong or if it’s unintelligible with my strong New York accent?
A. Voice recognition is not quite there yet for this app, but there’s no doubt it will happen one day.
Q. Is there something good about getting the award, do you get a certificate? I liked the alert when I had received one.
A. You collect your awards on the Achievement page which is like a sticker book for each category you’ve completed.
Q. Is there a page that shows a Chinese learner some of the words written in character form?
A. Yes, there’s a Glossary where you can see first English, then Pinyin Chinese and then the Characters. There are around 64 words in glossary for main words used in story.
Q. Does Chinese have the same vowels as in English, a, e, i, o, and u?
A. Chinese is a character based. Pinyin was created to help people who know a phonetic based language like English understand Chinese.
NOTE: One other thing Thompson mentioned is that Chinese is based on tones and on this app there is a way to hear the tones, some easy some more subtle. Believe it or not there are five tones for the two letters MA, for example there’s a rising tone, a falling tone, and a short tone All the vowels in Chinese have different tones, too.
To sum things up, in order to use this app effectively, a child should first focus on learning to listen and speak Chinese. Next, once they’ve grasped that, they can start learning characters. This Learn and Read Chinese app from Disney mimics the way that most speakers of English and non-character based languages most frequently learn Chinese. So the key to learning is to move at a comfortable pace as there is no time limit involved. There are more than 100 Chinese words in the book so readers can learn this gradually when taking their time and going through the different levels. Thompson suggests that a child go at least five times through each different level and probably many more times than that.
Zàijiàn- Goodbye and zhù nǐ xìngyùn – Good luck!
Educational Advisor: Yuhua Ji, PhD Chair, Professor, and PhD Program Advisor,
Department of English Language and Literature, Xiamen University, P.R. China
App Developer: MegatonMedia
App Art and Design: Kurt Hartman, Art and Design
Bilingual Narrator: Elsi Eng