Chinese language apps make learning a game

Updated 31 January 2015

Chinese language apps make learning a game

HONG KONG: Philipp Mattheis knew his gaming app was addictive when he realized he kept checking his phone — hooked by the brightly-colored reminders telling him to play again or risk falling from the triple-figure level he had reached.
Yet gripping the German journalist’s attention was not Candy Crush, but one of a new generation of Chinese language apps that are using tricks traditionally employed by online games to get users hooked on learning.
For years the thrill of studying a new language has been tempered by the tedium of rote learning and repetition required to be truly accomplished — particularly the case for memorising a character-based system — but now language apps are increasingly turning to the same praise, reward and challenge format that games such as Candy Crush use to such devastating success.
Shanghai-based Mattheis is an avid user of the app Memrise, which offers courses in standard Mandarin Chinese and several dialects, and has 25 million users.
“We’ve turned learning into a game where you grow a Garden of Memory,” the firm says. The premise being that when users learn words, they plant virtual seeds, which grow and bloom the more they review and practice. If they forget, then reminders are sent that their buds of knowledge are wilting.
“It’s so quick, it doesn’t feel like any effort,” Mattheis told AFP. “I learnt a few hundred characters without really trying.”
Memrise, along with rivals Skritter and ChineseSkill, all feature interactive tools that entertain as well as teach — a trend known as “gamification” — pioneered by the big daddy of education apps, DuoLingo.
“In a lot of Western countries we now see ourselves as competitive with Candy Crush. We want to be a very popular game and we want people to play when they’re bored,” Gina Gotthilf, a DuoLingo spokeswoman, told AFP.
DuoLingo does not currently offer a Chinese course, leaving a gap for language learners keen to capitalize on a rising China, and Mandarin as a lingua franca in smartphone-hooked Asia.
“Candy Crush is effective because it adjusts the difficulty level to just the right level for you,” said Ben Whately, who worked on Memrise’s Chinese courses.
“Adapting to a level where people feel clever is a great way to keep them playing...That is exactly what our learning algorithm does: adjusts when you are tested so that you always have to struggle a little bit, but you are generally successful.”
Users commit Chinese characters and definitions to memory with the help of animations and mnemonics, and are notified to review the characters each time they are just at the point of forgetting them, a technique known as “spaced repetition.”
“Within a couple of hours of study you can read most of a Chinese menu. Every time you go to a Chinese restaurant or walk through China town, you re-engage with that. You feel like a hero,” Whately said of his app.
Daniel Blurton, a director at a paediatric mental health clinic in Hong Kong, said he enjoyed the ability “to see immediate progress and track how much you’ve accomplished,” making the daunting task of starting Chinese seem “manageable.”
This sense of reinforced achievement is also evident in the app ChineseSkill, which features a cute cartoon panda that punches the air with happiness when you remember, for example, that “ren” means “people.”
ChineseSkill uses the classic videogame tactic of “unlocking” levels only when you get enough multiple choice answers right, bringing users back again and again as they try to beat their own memory.
A lesser-considered obstacle in Chinese learning is learning to write characters correctly, a time-consuming technique that greatly enhances one’s ability to remember them.
Skritter instructs users on the order and direction of strokes with bright graphics and feedback that flashes when you miss, recalling another popular game called “Fruit Ninja.”
“The only way to quickly learn lots of characters is to write them over and over (20-30 times),” Hong Kong-based businessman Brad Jester told AFP by e-mail.
“I started by doing this on paper, but Skritter is better because it replays them for you in a better timed sequence.”

A key question is whether these methods work any better than traditional immersion in a native-speaking environment or a traditional classroom.
Jester, now a fluent speaker, commented: “People sometimes think they can take the easy route of using flashcards and dictionaries to learn Chinese but that is 100 percent not the case.
“Until these apps shame you into studying harder, they will just be helpful tools that reinforce lessons learned,” he said.
Linguistics expert Dr. Peter Crosthwaite of the University of Hong Kong believes such apps may facilitate memorization — an important aspect of language learning — but cannot offer the holistic approach a good teacher would deliver.
“Due to the continued growth and expansion of China’s economy, more people than ever are wishing to learn Chinese,” Crosthwaite said.
However, “There are very, very few examples of the Internet being used to teach someone a language from a beginner to advanced level of proficiency,” he cautioned.
“The gamification of (language) learning is, in my opinion, a welcome approach — particularly with children — although one must be careful to focus on the learning aspect of the tasks, rather than the point-scoring.”

All eyes on historic UAE space mission

After completing his role as a second flight engineer, Al-Mansoori will return to Earth on board a second Soyuz-MS spacecraft. Al-Mansoori said he applied for the astronaut’s program because it was his dream as a child and “our leaders encourage us to achieve our dreams.” (AFP)
Updated 16 September 2019

All eyes on historic UAE space mission

  • Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansoori to blast off into space on Sept. 25 from Kazakhstan
  • Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman blazed a trail 34 years ago for others to follow

ABU DHABI: Come Sept. 25, Hazza Al-Mansoori of the UAE will become the third Arab to travel into space. On that day, at exactly 6.56pm, Al-Mansoori will blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft. With Al-Mansoori making the historic journey with two other astronauts, an American and a Russian, the hope is that he will be inaugurating a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.
The honor of being the first Arab in space goes to Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, who was one of the astronauts on board the space shuttle Discovery as part of a NASA mission 34 years ago.
Two years later, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the second Arab to journey into space.
Al-Mansoori is currently in quarantine alongside the other two crew members — Russian commander Oleg Skripochka and Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir — at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
In a statement, Yousuf Hamad Al-Shaibani, director general of the UAE’s Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Center (MBRSC), acknowledged the support of NASA, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos.
“The UAE’s first mission to the ISS is the result of extensive efforts by dedicated individuals and organizations in the UAE,” he said, “and also the result of important strategic partnerships with major global space agencies … who spared no effort in preparing our astronauts and providing them with all the support and training they need.”
A father of four with a bachelor’s degree in aviation sciences from Khalifa bin Zayed Aviation College, Al-Mansoori previously said he applied for the astronaut program because it was his dream as a child “and our leaders encourage us to achieve our dreams.”
Al-Mansoori and his comrade Sultan Al-Neyadi — the UAE’s chosen backup astronaut — were selected from 4,022 applicants to the UAE Astronaut Program after a series of advanced medical and psychological tests as well as personal interviews conducted to the highest international standards, according to UAE state news agency Wam.
On being handpicked, Al-Mansoori said: “When I was told I was selected for the program, it was difficult to express how proud and honored I felt. I was euphoric.”
Before applying for the program, Al-Mansoori — who has amassed more than 14 years of experience in military aviation — was a pilot and flew the UAE air force’s F-16 Block 60, one of the world’s most advanced jet fighters.


38th - UAE’s place in list of nations to have sent a citizen to space.

3rd - Arab astronaut honor will go to Hazza Al-Mansoori.

34 - Gap in years between first and third Arab in space.

562nd - Person to be sent into space will be Al-Mansoori.

18 - Total number of countries whose citizens have been to ISS.

He was also one of the first Arab and Emirati pilots to take part in the Dubai Air Show’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the UAE armed forces.
“A lot of things are happening in my mind from now till the launch,” Al-Mansoori was recently quoted as saying. “I’ve prepared for this mission but not only from here,” he said. “It started from my childhood, from how my parents raised me, the confidence I gained from my life; thanks to our leadership for giving me this opportunity today to represent my country.
“I will try to remember each second of the launch because it will be really important for me to share with my country, with the world and the Arab region that experience.”
A similar sense of wonder and excitement gripped the Middle East when Prince Sultan became, at the age of 28, the first Arab astronaut. Currently the chairman of the Saudi Space Agency, Prince Sultan, son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, was the first Arab, Muslim and royal to travel into space on June 17, 1985.

Also read: Our interactive story about Saudi Prince Sultan, the first Arab in space in 1985

Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a seven-day mission during which Prince Sultan helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).
During a special one-on-one interview with Arab News in the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Prince Sultan, recalling his remarkable journey, said: “Brave people are people who feel fear but still go forward.”
On July 22, 1987, Faris, the Syrian military aviator, joined the elite club of Arabs in space when he blasted off on board a Soyuz craft of the USSR. Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, carried with him a vial of soil from Damascus and conducted scientific experiments alongside Russian cosmonauts.
To date, 563 people in history have gone to space, starting with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the Earth on April 12, 1961. American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. While Al-Mansoori will be the first Emirati to travel to space, he will not be the last. Backup astronaut Al-Neyadi has been promised the next spot on a UAE mission to space.
The UAE also has plans to launch an exploration probe to Mars to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation in 2020. The Emirates Mars Mission will launch its Al-Amal, or Hope, spacecraft from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.
Al-Amal is designed to orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.
Elsewhere in the region, Morocco last year launched its second Earth observation satellite, Mohammed VI-B, while space programs have been established in Algeria and Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, institutions such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) are playing their part in educating Arab space scientists of the future.

When a Saudi went to space
Prince Sultan bin Salman speaks exclusively to Arab News about his 1985 NASA mission and how he became the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space

The Saudi Space Agency was set up by royal decree on Dec. 27, 2018. In comments to Arab News in July, Salem Humaid Al-Marri, the MBRSC assistant director general for science and technology, said: “The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost Arab presence in the space industry. Space is bringing Arab nations together.”
For now, final preparations are underway for the UAE’s Sept. 25 voyage, after the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in Star City, Russia officially gave the green light for the mission on Sept. 5.
Once Al-Mansoori reaches the ISS, he will present a tour of the station in Arabic and will conduct Earth observation and imaging experiences, interact with ground stations, share information, as well as documenting the daily lives of astronauts at the station.
Al-Mansoori will study the effect of microgravity compared with gravity on Earth. The effects of space travel on the human body will also be studied before and after he completes his mission. It is the first time such research will be carried out on an astronaut from the Arab region.
He will not be missing traditional Emirati food as three dishes have been prepared for his journey — the madrooba, a salt-cured fish seasoned with spices; saloona, a traditional Emirati stew; and balaleet, a sweet Emirati breakfast dish of egg and vermicelli.
After completing his role as a second flight engineer, Al-Mansoori will return to Earth aboard a Soyuz-MS 12 spacecraft.
With just days remaining before he makes history, Al-Mansoori is taking the words of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, with him: “A historic space flight, the ambition of the UAE and a new challenge. Keep your morale high and embrace the challenge. May Allah bless this landmark mission.”