How Might Multimodality Help Learners of Chinese Overcome a Centuries-Old Problem

Presented by: Justin Olmanson

This presentation outlines a design proposal for adapting multimodal technologies and artifacts to develop a plugin for Chinese character input that supports non-native Chinese language learners in the acquisition and use of Chinese characters in digital settings based on their phonemic understanding of the language.

The study of Chinese is vital from a global political, economic, cultural, and historical perspective. With manufacturing as well as an increasing share of the world’s knowledge economy connected to China Hong Kong, and Taiwan maintaining or gaining an economic, academic, and political edge can be found in part through the acquisition of Chinese language and literacy.

For learners whose first language is of indo-european origin, learning Chinese presents several challenges. The low number of cognates between English and Chinese for example, the unfamiliar tonal nature of the Chinese language, and the unique cultural differences borne out in the language all create obstacles to language acquisition for Western learners. If one is able to overcome these issues, differences in the writing systems often stymie, diminish, delay, or derail Western students—stopping them from becoming literate in Chinese.

Chinese characters are part of a system without one-to-one symbol-sound correspondence, this coupled with the complex nature of writing Chinese characters leaves speakers of Western languages with the need to learn what seems to be two languages: (1) the spoken language, and (2) the written one—with the written one coming via rote memorization largely unsupported by language gains made on the listening comprehension and spoken side.

These challenges are so great for non-native speakers that in the 1950s a phonetic writing system for Chinese called Pinyin was developed to support learners in the early stages of their Chinese language acquisition. The system was so helpful that it was adopted for use with Chinese elementary school students to support their path to literacy as well.

While Pinyin has indeed made learning Chinese a more achievable goal for first and second language learners, the disconnect between the spoken and phonetic Chinese language and the character system remains a major impeding factor in restricting students in the US and Western world in becoming fully literate in Chinese and thus gaining political, cultural, and economic access that it affords.

In this presentation we* describe the challenges of becoming literate in Chinese and offer up a design approach meant to leverage emerging digital technologies in supporting students via their listening comprehension, speaking skills.

*The use of ‘we’ in the abstract gives credit to Xianquan Liu, and Shawn Hellwege who are also on the project team and, while not presenting, have contributed to the project.

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