The New Digital Playbook for Learning Mandarin Chinese

Photograph by Joshua Lutz/Redux

David Moser, the academic director at CET Beijing Chinese Studies, remembers the bad old days of Mandarin-learning methodology in the 1980s and 1990s. “Before we could even look up a new word in the dictionary,” he explains, “we had to spend at least six to 12 months learning more than 200 radicals,” or base components of written Chinese characters. As a result, he adds, “For most students, it took two to four years before they could even start to read a newspaper in class.” Among teachers and students, it has long been a truism that studying the Chinese language is at least a “five-year lesson in humility.”

Learning Mandarin is no cakewalk today, but new digital technologies—including translation-software extensions in Web browsers, optical character-recognition apps, Chinese-character dictionaries embedded in e-book software, text-to-speech translators, and all-purpose language-learning apps—have radically expanded the possibilities for teaching and learning written and spoken Chinese (as well as Arabic, Japanese, and other languages).

Because Chinese characters are not phonetic, there is no obvious link between the written and spoken language. Being able to say a word does not mean you can write or recognize that word, or vice versa. Each of the 8,000 or so characters included in the standard Xinhua News Agency dictionary has a basic component called a radical, and for centuries dictionaries have arranged Chinese characters into grids based on their radicals and the number of pen strokes used in writing them. “But if you guessed the wrong radical, or miscounted the number of strokes, looking up just one word could turn into a five or 10 minute steeplechase,” explains Moser.

In China, the official standard for literacy is bifurcated: In urban areas, the ability to recognize 2,000 characters makes a person “literate”; in rural areas, it’s 1,500 characters. To read a Chinese magazine or novel easily, one must know 4,000 to 5,000 characters. Even for native speakers, acquiring literacy takes several years of diligent study. By about third grade, most American students have internalized the main spelling rules of the English language and can write down most of the words they can say. Many Chinese students, meanwhile, are still learning to recognize new characters throughout junior high school or even high school.

Today’s digital tools allow Mandarin learners to leapfrog some of the hurdles to using the language, even before they’ve fully mastered the entire system of radicals and stroke order. Google Chrome has an extension that provides a quick and dirty online translation from Mandarin Chinese to several other languages. While the output is far from perfect, the software is continually improving. For identifying single Chinese characters—in newspapers, menus, or even on street signs—smartphone apps such as Waygo enable optical recognition by hovering a smartphone camera over the text. Many e-book editions of Chinese classics now have built-in dictionaries so students don’t have to pause too long to look up an unknown character here and there.

Maura Cunningham, a PhD candidate in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, is now conducting her dissertation research in Shanghai. While she is a fluent Chinese speaker, she nonetheless, while conducting archival research, often encounters unfamiliar words and “unsimplified” Chinese characters from an earlier system of writing. She now uses Pleco, a popular language-study app, which allows her to draw an unfamiliar character on the screen of her iPad or iPhone to look up its meaning and pronunciation—a process that takes about 15 seconds. “In today’s world, a paper dictionary is a huge time-waster,” she says, “although it’s still good to know how to use it for backup.”

Instead of waiting years to begin reading Chinese newspapers, a beginning or intermediate Mandarin student can dive right into People’s Daily or Southern Weekly and use social-media apps such as Weibo or Weixin by easily looking up unknown words in Web-based dictionaries. It makes for slow reading, but the ability to focus on current texts can make a huge difference in student engagement. “Before, students were limited for the first few years to canned textbook materials and a teacher’s vocabulary lists,” recalls Moser. “Today, learning Chinese doesn’t have to be a horrible, front-loaded nightmare anymore.”

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