Y. Wang, D.F. Campbell, C. Pritchard

Dublin Institute of Technology (IRELAND)
ChAT (Chinese with Audio Technologies) is an EU Lifelong Learning-funded project which helps learners of Mandarin Chinese to improve their spoken ability efficiently online. It is based on high-frequency phrases and frequently encountered scenarios, and is motivated primarily by the need for a more learner-oriented approach supported by audio technologies and delivered online. It mainly focuses on the twin problems of tones and word formation, and deals with them in a structured and enjoyable fashion.

Whereas spoken Western languages have vowels and consonants, Chinese also has a third dimension – tones. There are 4 main tones in Mandarin Chinese, and their main purpose is to distinguish between words with the same sound but with completely different meanings.

While Chinese has only 400 syllables (1,277 if the tones are included), a Western language such as English has over 8,000 syllables. Therefore the same sound can be written in many different ways, so that Chinese characters cannot be entirely ignored, even in a programme dealing with speech, since the characters help to keep the meanings of these similar sounds apart. In Chinese, however, there are no convenient spaces between the characters to show where the words are. ChAT allows users to learn how to segment characters into words in an engaging fashion.

ChAT’s Tonal Assessment System addresses the problem of the four tones of Mandarin Chinese. It offers immediate graphical feedback on user performance as well as a score.

While listening to the Chinese dialogues, users can choose to view the corresponding transcript in their mother-tongue, Pinyin or Chinese characters. Individual phrases and single characters can be slowed down to 40% (without tonal distortion). This makes the tones clearer and easier to imitate. Learners may also engage in role-play.

While it can function as an intelligent phrase book, and as an engaging adjunct to formal language classes, ChAT also sets out to provide insights into how Chinese works. It is a dictionary, grammar, phrase book and video player all in one, and also provides insightful cultural and linguistic tips.

The use of audio and other technologies supported by HTML5 provides an innovative, web-based language learning tool which could migrate to mobile platforms.