Want to learn Chinese characters?



The University of British Columbia has entered the smartphone app market with an innovative app targeting the global demand for Mandarin, Japanese and Korean language education.

The UBC Chinese Character Tool is the first ever university East Asian language mobile application. While most language acquisition apps focus on a single language, it is the only one on the market to combine Chinese character instruction resources for Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. And with 10,000 Chinese characters that animate digitally for users, it ranks among the most comprehensive apps of its kind.

“As Asia becomes a global centre of business and culture, more people than ever want to learn these languages,” says Prof. Ross King, head of UBC’s Dept. of Asian Studies, which developed the app. “An app can’t replace in-class instruction, but it can help to improve the educational experience for the 5,000 students studying these languages at UBC and self-learners in Canada and around the world.”

The app, which launched May 10th in iTunes, includes thousands of words and characters, along with meanings, pronunciations, contextual phrases and sentences, and stroke animations. To help users practice and hone their skills, the app comes with built-in support for more than 30 different UBC language courses and their textbooks.

The app was developed by representatives of UBC’s Chinese (Assoc. Prof. Duanduan Li), Japanese (Senior Instructor Rebecca Chau) and Korean (Prof. King) language programs, along with programmer Pan Luo of UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. King says the three-language approach has many benefits for learners, especially those who already speak one East Asian language.

“These languages share many common words, so bringing them together in one app allows users to leverage any complementary language skills they have,” says King, noting that 70 per cent of students learning Asian languages at UBC can already speak at least one other Asian language. “It allows users to jump between words they are familiar with and the language they are studying.”

According to King, the most time-consuming aspect of East Asian language study is learning the characters, a task that requires years of practice since basic literacy requires the memorization of anywhere from 1800-3500 characters, depending on the language. Thanks to made-at-UBC animation software, which sidesteps the iPhone’s incompatibility with Flash animation, the app shows users exactly how characters are written, letting them also practice with their fingers at a variety of speeds.

“The app makes it much easier to practice, which is crucial,” says King, whose department’s waiting list for Chinese, Japanese and Korean classes is typically 1,000-people long. “Instead of being at a desk with a textbook, paper and a pen, you can practice characters with just using your finger, wherever you are,” he says.

“We look forward to feedback so we can make it better and better,” Ross adds, noting that future versions will incorporate audio and improve the search function, making it easier to employ as a multi-language dictionary and phrasebook. The department also plans to add more than 3,000 advanced words, characters and phrases, in addition to updating course content annually.

Although it’s a non-profit venture, King says the app’s modest price of $2.99 will support its creation and continued development. With single-language instruction apps ranging in price from free to $9.99, King sees UBC’s three-language app as a bargain, considering the quality of its content and animation capabilities.

“Like the app market generally, the quality of apps comparable to ours is extremely uneven—there are so many options that it can be difficult to know who to trust,” he says. “So I think our pedigree, as a department with a 50-year reputation for excellence in teaching these languages, within one of the world’s top universities, will provide a level of assurance to people.”

King hopes the app will advance East Asian language education in Canada. “Despite the overwhelming demand for Mandarin language education in Canada, there has been a spectacular lack of investment,” he says. “This is especially true in B.C., which is lagging behind other provinces on this, despite our significant Asian populations.”

“We believe this app can improve how our students learn, give self-learners outside UBC an important new resource —and ultimately, help to make Asian language instruction a greater priority in B.C. and Canada at all educational levels,” says King.