In which ways Chinese learning APPs are replacing teachers

Chinese learning APPs are quite popular. Many of them have cool features. 

I downloaded quite a few and played around occasionally. There are APPs teaching students sets of vocabularies, APPs providing reading materials, dictionary APPs with built in flash cards,  translating APPs that also work with short speeches, and as well as APPs teaching students spoken Mandarin. 

In many aspects, these APPs are of great help to students and are capable of replacing Chinese teachers.

Meanings of words

There are amazing dictionary APPs which give good English translations or explanations of Chinese words, sometimes with sample sentences available. This is the number one feature that works better than Chinese teachers. 

Students can input a Chinese word and learn many different ways that this word can be used. Students can also input an English word and learn many related Chinese words. Comparing to these learning APPs, Chinese teachers, who are with fallible human brains, can not possibly come up with so many precise answers instantly.

Readings with pinyin on or off

The next best thing a Chinese learning APP can do is to provide reading materials. Students can choose between traditional Chinese characters or simplified ones, and can turn on or off pinyin. Translations of sentences or words are also available at the touch. 

This is definitely more than a teacher can do with reading materials printed on papers. The only problem is that these readings are all very short, even the high level ones. I think the reason is that the engineers wanted the readings to fit in a screen of a mobile device.

Strokes and stroke orders

Nearly all Chinese learning APPs are equipped with the animation function showing how to write a Chinese character following specific stroke orders. Before, it was a teacher’s job to show students how to write Chinese characters. Now, this job can be done by a learning APP. 

Some learning APPs also provide some space for students to practice writing Chinese characters. It is pretty cool. The problem is that, students have to follow the stroke orders exactly as demonstrated. When students write the character following slightly different stroke orders, the APP would consider students wrong. It insists that students must follow the prescribed stroke orders. This is unnecessary. Only a computer software can be so stubborn. It does not know that there can be more than one way to write a Chinese character. Stroke orders don’t matter too much as long as students have sufficient practice.

Another problem is that, in these APPs, students can only write individual characters. They can’t really write a sentence or a paragraph. To do that, pen and paper are still the best learning tools.

Mandarin pronunciations of words

When Chinese learning APPs are teaching sets of vocabularies, they frequently use cute pictures to illustrate words, such as using a cat to illustrate “猫”, and a dog to illustrate “狗”. When touch these pictures, the words are pronounced clearly. This is a good demonstration of Mandarin pronunciations and students can follow easily. The same word is repeated numerous times as students go along with the APP. 

In this aspect, a Chinese teacher does not need, or could spend as little time as possible, to ask students to repeat after her. This “repeating-after-me” class activity can definitely be replaced by a learning APP. 

The only problem that I have with this kind of learning style is that the repetition, after a little while, can drive me mad. It could be just me.

The limitation of Chinese learning APPs

Chinese learning APPs have been developed rapidly and nicely, with cool features added on continuously. Looking at today’s APPs, the previous generations of computer aided learning look very ancient. Still, there are things that students have to work on by themselves, that no learning APPs can do for them, and that a Chinese teacher might be useful after all. It is THE core of learning Chinese, practice.

In order to make substantial progress, students must have adequate practice. In terms of listening and speaking, students must practice carrying on meaningful conversations, and in terms of reading and writing, students must practice writing meaningful Chinese texts. 

Deep and impactful practice goes beyond repeating and copying. Students must develop their abilities to structure characters and words in a way to express something, such as requesting information, describing a situation, analysing a phenomenon, or presenting an argument. In this aspect, human Chinese teachers, with their biased opinions, are better suited to the job. They can design targeted exercises, work as interlocutors, and give necessary feedbacks. 

Good practice is where the fun starts, for both students and teachers.


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