Sunday, October 31, 2010

Current state of Chinese CALL

Summary: This very dry post summarizes which areas of Chinese learning are adequately covered by CALL tools, and which areas still need better tools and content.

Hamming's essay for choosing research topics describes CALL spot on, if you replace "research paper read by thousands" with "learning system used by thousands". Finnish Annotator would have passed Hamming's scrutiny, since annotators had already proven useful in Japanese and Chinese, but none was available for Finnish. It aimed at the core of Finnish reading comprehension.

The downfall of FA was partly due to inadequate openness, feedback and networking. This was also predicted in Hamming's essay:

Some people work with their doors open in clear view of those who pass by, while others carefully protect themselves from interruptions. Those with the door open get less work done each day, but those with their door closed tend not know what to work on, nor are they apt to hear the clues to the missing piece to one of their "list" problems. I cannot prove that the open door produces the open mind, or the other way around. I only can observe the correlation. I suspect that each reinforces the other, that an open door will more likely lead you and important problems than will a closed door.

Let's take Hamming's advice to the conclusion and make a list of important problems in computer-aided language learning. This list only covers Chinese, which has the special challenge of learning the characters. It also ignores collaborative learning methods and concentrates on single-user teaching machines.

Why ignore collaborative learning?

The currently dominant learning theory is Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). People use language to achieve communication goals like buying a ticket or describing a problem. CLT claims that also in teaching, each sentence should be part of a speech act with a communicative aim. Modern first-year language textbooks achieve communicative context by describing situations, where tourists achieve communication goals.

CLT is trivially true in the sense that sooner or later you have to move from isolated sentences to communication, for example talking, email exchange or searching for information (and not just reading for the sake of language). However, you have a long way to go before you can read books or write blogs. Before CLT forces itself through the door, you have to bootstrap the language skill somehow. I'm not at all convinced that CLT is necessary in the initial phase. The situation I see on the ground is that the Japanese/Chinese self-study scene is blithely unaware of CLT and still achieves good results.

Don't get me wrong: communicative context is nice, and the best kind of context you can have. But it is hard work to achieve communicative context. You have to make compromises in other areas. CALL scene is nowhere near the level where the presence or absence of communicative context would make a difference.

Finally, a word of warning if you try to achieve communicative context by collaborative learning. B.F.Skinner, the father of behaviorism described the problems of collaborative learning methods already in 1953. What's the point of making CALL tools at all, if you just digitize the same old problems?

Skinner's children were growing up. When the younger was in fourth grade, on November 11, 1953, Skinner attended her math class for Father's Day. The visit altered his life. As he sat at the back of that typical fourth grade math class, what he saw suddenly hit him with the force of an inspiration. As he put it, "through no fault of her own the teacher was violating almost everything we knew about the learning process." In shaping, you adapt what you ask of an animal to the animal's current performance level. But in the math class, clearly some of the students had no idea of how to solve the problems, while others whipped through the exercise sheet, learning nothing new. In shaping, each best response is immediately reinforced. Skinner had researched delay of reinforcement and knew how it hampered performance. But in the math class, the children did not find out if one problem was correct before doing the next. They had to answer a whole page before getting any feedback, and then probably not until the next day. But how could one teacher with 20 or 30 children possibly shape mathematical behavior in each one? Clearly teachers needed help. That afternoon, Skinner constructed his first teaching machine.


Area Status Method is
Reading, 0 - 1000 characters Jury is still out on correct approach Mixed
Reading, 1000 - 3000 charactersSolution is known but not implemented Spaced repetition systems with immersive sentence decks
Reading, 3000+ characters Solution implemented, room for improvementReading natural texts through an annotator and using example sentence search for new characters and phrases
Writing Not even started Translation sentences, chatbots (neither exists)
Listening Solved Listening internet radio or simplified podcasts
Speaking Solved Talking face to face or through Skype

Beginner phase: 0 - 1000 characters

First of all, beginners and advanced students should use very different methods. When advanced students learn a phrase, it integrates naturally with their existing knowledge. They can immediately use the word in different contexts. Beginners are only forming those knowledge structures.

For valid historical reasons, current CALL tools are not very good for beginners. In many cities elementary courses are available for Chinese and Japanese, but courses stop after that. Beginner phase also lasts for shorter period. Therefore there is less demand and less tool development for elementary tools. In the intermediate and advanced phase, it is important that the tools scale and can teach large amounts of phrases and accommodate different skill levels. This also means that a software package only needs to implement one scalable method well, for example dictionary search or flashcards.

For beginners, my unjustified gut instincts is that learning games like Slime Forest Adventure are the way to go. (1) Beginners forget things more quickly, since their knowledge structures are just forming. Therefore intensive teaching methods are good and immersive approaches which give little time to forget are preferable. (2) Beginners need to look at the language from several different perspectives (sentence comprehension, syntax, word inflection, communication) all of which are completely new to them. Game programming has the tradition of subgames, which have their own set of rules. I don't see such tradition of variability in other types of software.

Reading comprension in 1000 - 3000 characters

The software is there, but content has plenty of room for improvement. Annoatotrs enable reading easy texts and spaced repetition systems with sentence decks are good for learning characters. Regarding content, I haven't seen any easy reader texts except in Chinesepod. The sentences in my HSK deck were pretty random: they were ripped from the example sentence collection in an online dictionary and then automatically classified by difficulty.

3000+ characters

At this point you can read natural texts and start to read for content. An annotator and example sentence search are all you need. They already exist.


I haven't met any CALL tools for training writing skill. The only method is to "jump to the water and swim" by just starting to write emails and blog posts. This is comparable to practising reading comprehension by just taking a dictionary and a foreign-languge book. Sure, you can do that, but it requires a lot of motivation and willpower.


There are many free radio stations available, and Chinesepod offers easier dialogs. You can listen to them while you clean or cook. There is nothing to improve, since we are already at zero time commitment. This is the ultimate in efficiency.


Speaking is the only way to learn to speak. I don't see how CALL tools could play any role in this. Skype already works.

In Tampere University Alakuppila cafe ther are regular meetings, where Chinese exhange students talk with Finnish language students. For those who live in less forutnate places, there are various commercial services, some of which offer free samples.

No comments: