Many newcomers to China arrive with the sincerest intention to master the local language. As the realities of a busy work schedule set in, however, many efforts to study Mandarin fall by the wayside.
Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of Chinese learning websites that offer engaging and personalized lessons that can be downloaded and taken anywhere.
“Learning Chinese is a great challenge, but it’s made worse in many cases by inefficient teaching methods,” said Ken Carroll, co-founder of ChinesePod, a language-learning website. “The traditional approach is to teach Chinese to a foreign adult like teaching a Chinese child. There’s an overemphasis on teaching grammar and Chinese characters. It is often not very practical, sometimes with obscure stories about ancient China that are of no use to a businessperson.”
Reaching out to Western learners requires creating new means of distributing learning materials. Ryan Fioresi, business development manager of ActiveChinese, thinks that grammar-centric teaching excludes people who learn by seeing.
“What makes us stick out is the visually appealing nature of our lessons, which are all flash animated,” he said.
Another method ActiveChinese uses to make the language more familiar is placing Mandarin’s four tones on a musical scale to clean up pronunciation problems. Meanwhile, a feature called “culture shockers” teaches different aspects of Chinese culture and etiquette. Sites like ActiveChinese also use voiceover IP software, like Skype to connect native speakers of Chinese with learners anywhere in the world.
Using the internet to distribute audio content is crucial to a number of online Chinese schools. The hallmark of ChinesePod, for example, is a daily mp3 podcast. Every day a new lesson is released as a free download. Since each one only lasts between 10 and 15 minutes, the lessons are short and manageable.
Lessons range from dealing with survival issues like ordering breakfast to discussing economic growth of Chinese cities with your business companions. Yet the focus of the 800-plus lessons is always practical, allowing the student a wide range of learning options.
“It’s not tied to a text book,” said Carroll.“With this approach the user can choose what they want to study, and off they go.”
Portability is the great advantage of having lessons on digital audio files. “Mp3s provide on-the-go learning capabilities,” said ActiveChinese’s Fioresi. “You can listen to it on your iPod anywhere, in the gym or on the plane.”
What’s free and what you need to pay depends on each individual site. With ChinesePod, the podcast is free to download, but there are extra features – such as dialogue transcripts, grammar and vocabulary drills – that require payment. ActiveChinese requires learners to buy courses as packages, with a different price depending on how much coaching the student needs. Beginner courses start from US$99.
Though online schools exist only in cyber space, they still strive to add a human touch.
China-8 is a social networking site that brings together fellow Chinese learners. Johnny Sahr, China-8’s founder, believes that when learners get together it motivates them to stick to their studies better than they would studying alone. An element of competition could also be at work – as the site occasionally offers rankings for the top Mandarin students.
Yet the overall goal is nurturing a communal environment as well as an interactive one. A China-8 student can get involved as casually as posting advice on the site’s forum, to providing new lessons to go alongside the site’s own, or even use the site’s virtual classroom to hold a class.
“We have some users who have reached a good level of Chinese and they use the site regularly. They are very keen to pass on their knowledge to people who are just beginning their studies,” said Sahr, reflecting on the collaborative nature of the site.
Social networks are an important part of ChinesePod as well, said Carrol. “[The site] is like concentric circles – at the center are the experts. They demonstrate the skills and help others learn from them. Other people gather round that and they too become proficient. Eventually you get a situation where learners are learning from other learners.”
Red star avatar
Social networking and lessons on mp3s are just two ways that Chinese websites have managed to use the most recent online trends to distribute their content. But the internet’s next big thing is always just around the corner.
ActiveChinese is considering creating a Chinese learning environment in the virtual world Second Life. The plan would be to develop different areas within the 3D digital world, said Fioresi, each focusing on a different topic to discuss in Chinese. Learners could send their avatars to talk Olympic prospects or Chinese dynasties anywhere with other residents.
Before long, it might be a possible to study Chinese online without touching a computer at all.
“The next revolution will be when all of this migrates onto the cell phone. In two years, you will be able to do everything you can do on a website on a phone,” said Carroll.
Another company of his, ODT, already provides one-minute English lessons for new Nokia phones. It’s proving popular, and Carroll only thinks it is a matter of time before Chinese learning makes the same jump.
There’s no doubting that Chinese is one of the most difficult language to learn, but the excuse of being “too busy” doesn’t seem to be good enough anymore.