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.”


Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

In this Tuesday, July 20, 2010 file photo, former Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov speaks to the media before a reception at the U.S. Ambassador's Spaso House residence in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

  • NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death

MOSCOW: Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago — and who nearly didn’t make it back into his space capsule — has died in Moscow at 85.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website Friday but gave no cause for his death. Leonov had health issues for several years, according to Russia media.
Showing just how much of a space pioneer Leonov was, NASA broke into its live televised coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov’s death.
“A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk,” Mission Control in Houston said.
Leonov — described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No. 11 — was an icon both in his country as well as in the US He was such a legend that the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his “2010” sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday sent his condolences to Leonov’s family, calling him a “true pioneer, a strong and heroic person.”
“Infinitely committed to his vocation, he left a truly legendary mark in the history of space exploration and in the history of our country,” Putin said on the Kremlin’s website.
Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family.
The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even when he flew into space, and took colored pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.
That mission was the first one between the Soviet Union and the United States and was carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international cooperation seen aboard the current International Space Station.
But Leonov staked his place in space history ten years earlier, on March 18, 1965, when he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule secured by a tether.
“I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” the cosmonaut recalled years later. “I was mesmerized by the stars. They were everywhere — up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”
Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-wracking, according to details of the exploit that only became public decades later.
His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to vent oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch.
Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first US spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.
Leonov might have become the Soviet Union’s first moonwalker, in fact, had his country’s lunar-landing effort not been canceled in the wake of Apollo 11’s triumphant moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
On his second trip into space ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
The cosmonaut was well known for his humor. Once the US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in orbit around Earth on July, 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate, Valeri Kubasov, welcomed the three US astronauts — their Cold War rivals — with canned borscht disguised as Stolichnaya vodka and suggested a toast.
“When we sat at the table, they said: ‘Why, that’s not possible,’” Leonov recalled in 2005. “We insisted, saying that according to our tradition, we must drink before work. That worked, they opened it and drank (the borscht) and were caught by surprise.”
The cosmonaut turned 85 in May. Several days before that, two Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station ventured into open space on a planned spacewalk, carrying Leonov’s picture with them to pay tribute to the space legend. They said “Happy Birthday!” to Leonov before opening the hatch and venturing out.
Leonov’s modern-day successor, Oleg Kononenko, who was one of the two Russians on that spacewalk, told Rossiya-24 television on Friday that Leonov had tuned in to hear their congratulations from space.
“We were going to stop by Alexei Arkhipovich (Leonov) after our return and give him our space souvenirs, but you see it wasn’t meant to be,” Kononenko said.
When his crew returned to earth at the end of June, Leonov was already unwell.
Kononenko spoke fondly of the Soviet space pioneer, saying he was a frequent guest at send-off ceremonies for space crews in Star City and at the cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
“We had this tradition that he would give cosmonauts pep talks before they board the spacecraft,” Kononenko said. “We all looked forward to that, always thought about it and always wanted Leonov to be the one to send us off into space.”
Messages of condolences poured from around the globe.
NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death.
“His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible,” NASA said on Twitter.
“One of the finest people I have ever known,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted on Friday. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”
Russian space fans were bringing flowers to his monument Friday on the memorial alley in honor of Russia’s cosmonauts in Moscow.
Leonov, who will be buried on Tuesday at a military memorial cemetery outside Moscow, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren.