Way Beyond Regular Textbooks, Tool Connects Learners to Web-Wide Resources


By David Porter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan


With China now boasting the fastest growing economy in the world, many Americans are coming to recognize the importance of Chinese language education. While learning any second language offers great benefits, Chinese is exceptional both for the extraordinary richness of the culture that it makes available and for the opportunities it presents in the global marketplace. Students and teachers are catching on. At American colleges and universities, enrollments in Chinese language classes have risen faster than in any other foreign language over the past five years. Noting this trend, the College Board has recently announced the creation of a new Advanced Placement curriculum and exam in the Chinese language to be offered beginning in 2006. Even at the elementary school level, many public school districts are beginning to provide bilingual education tracks from kindergarten onward, with Chinese offered as the second language of choice.

American-born Chinese typically have an advantage in learning to speak the language, as they’ve often had a head start hearing Chinese spoken at home. But all students, regardless of background, face considerable hurdles in the far more difficult task of learning to read Chinese characters. Building reading skills in any second language, of course, requires lots of practice with a wide variety of texts. But for students of Chinese, even the basic task of looking up unfamiliar characters in a dictionary is a tedious and time-consuming chore that can quickly dishearten even the most conscientious of students. Memorizing new characters is another uphill battle, given their structural complexity and the large number (3,000 – 4,000) required for basic literacy.

A new software product called Clavis Sinica can help learners overcome these hurdles in learning to read Chinese. Designed by a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the software combines a versatile Chinese text reader with a richly cross-referenced dictionary database, enabling English speakers to make their way through any digitized Chinese document—whether a simple story, Tang dynasty poem, textbook selection, or current news article—without the need for a print dictionary. And it helps them learn new vocabulary more efficiently by breaking words into simple parts and comparing them with automatically generated lists of related words.

Here’s how it works. You open up a digitized Chinese text (a short children’s story copied and pasted from a Chinese web site, for example) in the program’s text reader window, which displays the text in large, easy-to-read simplified or traditional characters. When you come to a character you don’t recognize, you can simply click on that character to show the pinyin pronunciation and English definition of both the character and the compound word (if any) in which it is being used. Clicking again brings up a window illustrating how the character can be separated into its component parts, and providing lists of other characters using these same component parts and of other compound words formed using this character. The program also provides simple etymologies or “stories” for many characters, explaining why they’re written the way they are, as well as usage frequency indicators, allowing you to concentrate on mastering the most commonly used characters first. Sound recordings are also built into the program, enabling you to hear the pronunciation of any word or character you see in the natural voice of a native speaker.

For students of any foreign language, reading is the key to building vocabulary, mastering idioms and nuances, and feeling at home with a foreign culture’s distinctive patterns of thought and expression. Because using a Chinese dictionary is so difficult, few students ever venture beyond their textbook for reading practice. With Clavis Sinica, learners are no longer limited in their reading practice to the limited world of textbook selections. The built-in dictionary of over 25,000 entries allows them to work their way through any digitized Chinese text, including course readings and the vast collection of literary and news documents freely available on the Internet.

The Chinese Text Sampler, for example, is a popular website featuring a selection of 85 well-known Chinese texts for student reading practice, including children’s stories, poetry, film scripts, popular song lyrics, short stories, jokes, and historical documents. English introductions are provided for all of the texts, and each text is graded to indicate its relative difficulty. Another favorite website for student readers is Chinese Reading World, which features a large collection of beginning and intermediate level reading texts. Sound files are provided for all of the texts, so students can hear them being read aloud. Any of the Chinese texts on either of these sites can be downloaded (or copied and pasted) for further study using the Clavis Sinica software.

The task of memorizing the several thousand Chinese characters needed for basic literacy is a difficult one requiring a considerable investment of time and effort however it is approached. While traditional flashcards can make the memorization process more enjoyable, Clavis Sinica makes it more efficient and rational, by helping the student understand why characters are written the way they are, and how they relate to each other as part of a consistent, logical system. With Clavis Sinica, a new character is no longer an arbitrary arrangement of strokes, but rather a predictable combination of basic elements that re-appear in other related words. By clicking on an unfamiliar character and pursuing a series of links within the program’s fully cross-referenced lexical database, the user can learn how to analyze the character into its constituent parts, what each of those parts contributes to either the sound or the meaning of the whole, what other characters incorporate these same parts, or how the whole character, in turn, is incorporated into commonly used compounds, phrases, and idioms.

By encouraging the user to explore the rich web of connections among related elements of the Chinese language, Clavis Sinica makes possible a greater awareness of its underlying structure. The recognition of linguistic patterns, in turn, facilitates far more rapid and pleasurable learning than is possible through the uninformed memorization of endless vocabulary lists. The program’s unique combination of a versatile text reader with a dictionary designed to highlight linguistic relationships and patterns allows the user to develop language skills while pursuing his or her own interests in readings and vocabulary. Whether used alone or in combination with a self-study textbook or formal course, Clavis Sinica accommodates a wide variety of individual learning styles and offers students of Chinese at any level a richer and more satisfying experience with this increasingly important world language.


Related Links

  • Clavis Sinica Home Page – Further information about the software, including feature lists and sample screen views
  • Chinese Character Test – A free, web-based applet that enables you quickly and easily to estimate the number of simplified or traditional Chinese characters that you already know.
  • Chinese Flashcards – Another free applet that allows you to drill yourself on the 800 most commonly used characters and all 189 radicals
  • Chinese News Reader – A web-based resource that allows you to read short current news stories online in Chinese without the need for a print dictionary.
  • Chinese Text Sampler – An annotated selection of 85 short, authentic Chinese texts for student readers, including poems, children’s stories, folk song lyrics, film script excerpts, jokes, essays, and historical documents.
  • Chinese Reading World – An impressive collection of 65 short texts for students at the beginning and intermediate levels. The beginning level texts are suitable for students who have learned 300-500 characters, while the intermediate level texts are for students who have learned 500-1000 characters. Audio recordings are provided for each text, so you can practice listening as well as reading comprehension.


Of Interest from the IMDiversity Career Center


David Porter, a faculty member at the University of Michigan, received his PhD from Stanford in 1996.  He has lived and traveled in China, and is the author of a book on European interpretations of the Chinese writing system entitled Ideographia: The Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe. He also edited a popular collection of essays on the first years of the internet called Internet Culture.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.