Hǎojíle! Tools for learning Chinese

You’ll see more posts here on teaching and learning. In the last few months I’ve taken a more active role in learning: e-, m-, and face to face. And as a personal project, I’ve started to learn Standard (Mandarin) Chinese.

Why do it? Well, Pǔtōnghuà is the official language of a rapidly expanding world power. Even if the effort isn’t strictly speaking cost-justifiable, I get to broaden my cultural and linguistic horizons.

But at heart I’m a language nerd. Grappling with tones and deciphering characters is just plain fun. Add to that the Joys of Meta – the opportunity to observe adult learning first hand – and I’ve got a great project.

And because I am also a geek I’ve assembled tools to help. Mobile learning is essential to me. I turn first to my phone and the apps on it when I’m working, whether I’m drilling vocabulary while riding BART into San Francisco or sitting at home writing characters in my workbook. I’ve got an iPhone 3GS and a MacBook Pro, and strongly favor good iPhone apps with solid desktop integration. However, some of these tools are also available on other platforms.

Here are two of my favorites.

Flashcards: Mental Case (Mac, iPad, iPhone).

Mental Case is a general purpose program for flashcards on any topic. For ease of data entry I create cards with the desktop program and sync them to the iPhone app.

Mental Case Desktop

Mental Case uses spaced repetition. It builds a flashcard Lesson based on the units (“cases”) you want to study, your desired intensity of repetition, and your success with each card. Right now I’ve got 103 cards awaiting study – the app on my iPhone sports a numerical badge saying so. I don’t need to drill nǐ hǎo (hello) any more, so it’s not in the Lesson. But hòutiān (the day after tomorrow) is there, and will even come up multiple times during the review if I make a mistake on it.

If you’re studying a popular topic or a standard text, you can save time by importing flashcards from the Flashcard Exchange website, where students share what they’ve built.

I’m eagerly awaiting Mental Case’s next major release so I can make three-sided flashcards: English, Pinyin romanization with tones, and characters.

I should also give a nod here to Anki, an open source, multiple-platform flashcard system. After a semester using Mental Case I read this informed review of spaced-repetition software culminating in a hearty endorsement of Anki. Even then there still was no iPhone app, but now there is. So, iPhone Anki and Mental Case users, any comments?

Dictionary: Pleco (iPhone, iPad, Palm, Windows Mobile).

Pleco has a long history of creating Chinese dictionaries for mobile phones. Language learners living in China give Pleco high marks, especially for the uncluttered and highly functional iPhone version.

I use the free product, for which one can buy additional modules from within the app. Module bundles are attractive and there are educational discounts. I can’t wait to upgrade to word lookup via handwriting recognition. Pleco does a beautiful job of progressively narrowing its search results as you write, even with my beginner’s hand.

And the cross referencing within Pleco is a delight. From an entry to its component characters, from a character to its component radicals, from a usage example to other words in the phrase – just tap, and more information comes up in context.


July 26, 2010 at 12:19 pm Leave a comment

ICT4D Twitter Chat, November

Wayan Vota at ICTWorks convened a lively chat today on information & communication technologies for development – or ICT4D. Expect to see another chat in December.

The hour flew by! After introductions we highlighted projects we admire, projects that have failed, and the problems with cloud computing in developing nations. (On that last point, I note that you can’t even get reliable access to the cloud in the US, depending on which smartphone you’re carrying or which highly-attended tech event you’re at.)

From the chatlog archive, here are some favorites:

The barrier is the carrier. (@jongos)

…we think lots of sun with intermittent rain then! offline needs to work seamlessly with infrequent on-line? (@meowtree)

My thoughts on cloud4d lately have steered toward a highly local, in-country cloud. Reliance on undersea cables too risky. (@downeym)

Donor agencies sobering up after being drunk on internet. (@travis_a)

…second hand, inexpensive, locally sourced equipment > new and shiney equipment that fails in dust and heat (@theresac)

Seems people still thinking, develop in West and take it to Africa who lags. Need to develop in Africa within resource & context (@africastrategy)

Technology is easy. Issues around geography, language, culture, true empowerment and paths to adoption are challenges. (@kiwanja)

Other discussion:

If you have a project that does originate in a developed country, how do you bridge the gap to the developing country? Several people pointed to stories of close on-site collaboration, even co-design, with local experts and users. Remote mentoring, say in the style of MicroMentor, is an additional tool.

How are people attracted to a new service, and what keeps them there? Agriculture, health, and education applications get the press – but it’s music, social media, sports, entertainment, and (yes) porn that have driven adoption in developing and developed nations. In terms of infrastructure, there was also criticism of mobile ICT buses (in India and Rwanda) as less effective, compared to stable ICT centers that become a predictable fixture in a community.

There are two more leads I’ll be watching. First, Cyclos, which provides free and open source banking and mobile payment tools. Second, Question Box, a project creating local information kiosks via mobile networks, has also gone open source.

Update: Take a look at Movirtu, a very smart mobile phone-sharing infrastructure for people earning less than $2 USD a day.  Users have a card plus PIN, and log into their mobile account using any phone on the same network as their account. The people who lend out the phones are rewarded with credits. And users can designate someone who is online more frequently to receive notifications, so they don’t miss important messages or money transfers.

November 13, 2009 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Boom Towns

Worldchanging’s article on Boom Towns has me thinking about the effects of an aging population on the SF Bay Area.

In 2011, the first Boomer will turn 65, an occasion that will herald an epochal demographic shift.  Just as babies boomed in the 1940s through 1960s, older adults will become North America’s – and much of the rest of the world’s – fastest-growing demographic. This imminent population shift is beginning to force a long-overdue conversation about the unique housing, environmental, and health care needs of an aging population.

Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that many of us are ill-prepared to undertake. A recent AARP study, for example, found a massive disconnect between perceptions of aging and its reality.

Aging population in USA

…These issues came to life for me several years ago, when my father, a California school teacher, started looking for his future retirement home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  His criteria for the move, “I want to get away from the crowded [city] and find a place that is less hectic…somewhere I can grow things.”

…My father simply couldn’t fathom the changes that age would bring to his abilities or his faculties. Even though he has never wanted to burden anyone, it was tough for him to envision the kind of decline that would lead to needing help with driving, shopping—or growing things.

…Eventually we found a house across the street from a hospital, a half mile from a future light rail stop, with a ramp over the three stairs leading to the front door, and with plenty of room on the property to add additional square footage or an accessory dwelling unit if my sister, our family, or his friends wanted to join him in Portland.

California is a comparatively “young” state with a high birth rate, but it is not immune to the aging boom. The proportion of residents 60+ years of age is expected to increase by 59 percent between 2005 and 2020. By then, one in five Californians will be over 60.

And then there’s population growth and the sheer number of older people, continuing to grow sharply through 2030 at least.

Aging trends in California

The state’s report “Aging California” (pdf) notes that this growth will be unevenly distributed. Rural counties currently have lower populations, but a greater percentage of seniors. This is due to the flight of younger residents to urban areas to find work, plus the influx of retirees seeking new homes away from large cities.

Looking at local projections for the future, it’s harder to see a trend. For example, the Lassen-Shasta-Trinity area is expected to age slightly less than San Francisco (39% increase vs. 43%, if that’s significant). These are in turn surpassed by Riverside and San Diego (each near the average of 59%), Contra Costa (66%), and Sonoma (86%). It’s a complex mix of birth rates, employment patterns, migration, affordability, and retirement—and I’m sure none of these numbers reflect the recent financial meltdown.

Personally, I’m becoming increasingly mindful of transit patterns in my daily life. That last bus link from home to BART is weak—nonexistent at night—which means driving to the train station. Nor does the design of my home fit the Portland scenario above. More to think about. I’m determined to do better in my next move. And I won’t be tempted by anything like my in-laws’ Prescott Valley exurban retirement, no matter how inexpensive the real estate.

October 8, 2009 at 2:51 pm 1 comment

Solar Sisters: Barefoot women solar engineers

Illiterate, poor African women aged 35-55, many of them grandmothers, leave their families to spend 6 months training in India to be solar engineers. At the Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan they work with their hands, identifying parts by color and relying on oral instruction and sketchbooks. There’s not a lot of electrical theory.

But upon returning to their villages, these women have the skills to solar electrify tens, even hundreds, of houses. Across Africa, 60 engineers have electrified 40 villages at a cost of only 1.5 million USD.

Here’s the video (via ICTworks).

The Barefoot College model is one of radical self-reliance for the poorest of the poor. Management, control, and ownership of the technology lie with the community. The village decides how much to spend on electrification, and chooses the woman who will receive the training. And it is the community itself that certifies the woman as a solar engineer, acknowledging her training and supporting her ongoing work.

The Barefoot College video points out “universal lessons” from the African project.

  • Any illiterate woman from any part of Africa, even if she has never left home, can be trained in 6 months in India to be a confident and competent solar engineer. (There are Barefoot Colleges throughout India. It would be interesting to see how the model and code of conduct translate to Africa.)
  • Prepare the community first by having them make major decisions on behalf of the whole village, and only then bring in technology.
  • Keep urban based “paper-qualified” solar engineers out of the process. A top-down approach doesn’t work. External experts don’t have the vision, faith, or courage to train women as engineers. They also lack the communication tools to speak to villagers as equals.
  • No paper certificates are issued; experience shows that in programs where men are paper-certified, they immediately leave their villages for the cities. (I believe that by training older women, the Barefoot College designers are deliberately choosing a population that will be less likely to leave for the city, paper certificate or no.)
  • A partnership model, where initial training and materials are donated but expertise and ongoing expenses reside in the village, can work to reach the very poorest.

The video glosses over the process of choosing a woman to receive this training, and the effects on her life and her family’s life. In India women of differing ages have become barefoot solar engineers. This story of 19-year-old Kausalya hints at some of the difficulties.

Kausalya of Buharu village in Tilonia, presents another heartening story. All of 19, Kausalya is adept at fixing and maintaining solar energy systems. What she is also good at is local governance. She used to attend the village night school when Barefoot College introduced the Bal Sansad, or the Children’s Parliament. The concepts of local, state and central governments were explained to school students, who were encouraged to compete for the posts of ‘MLAs’ (legislators) for the Bal Sansad. Prompted by other girls who were too timid to take on male students, Kausalya filed her nomination. She was the token candidate of the entire female electorate, and bagged the post from her school.

Then followed the prime ministerial contest in which all the ‘MLAs’ from over 50 schools in Tilonia contested. Once again she got all the girl votes, while some infighting among others got her a substantial chunk of the boy votes. Kausalya became the prime minister of the Bal Sansad at the age of 13. In three years of heading the Sansad, Kausalya’s ‘cabinet’ solved a host of problems – from the lack of electricity in one village school, to the local sarpanch trying to usurp the land of another. At the end of her term, Kausalya’s parents discontinued her education, and she took up solar training at SWRC.

Life took another turn when she came of age and was packed off to her husband’s home (she had been married when just a few years old) in Jaipur’s Pandwa village. Here too, Kausalya worked on the infrastructure of Pandwa, including solar lights and a new water pipeline. Unhappy with her ‘activism’ to begin with, her husband and parents-in-law gradually came to admire her efforts. “My husband will never say it, but I know he’s very proud of me,” says Kausalya. “Now he asks me to maintain his accounts for him!”

September 23, 2009 at 10:43 am 4 comments

Who uses mobile broadband? Guess again.

Hispanic Broadband Access ReportHispanics trail other US populations in overall internet access, but rely heavily on mobile phones and even mobile broadband. A greater proportion of Hispanics and African Americans use mobile broadband (53% and 58% respectively), with both communities ahead of whites (33%).

These figures come from The Hispanic Institute and the Mobile Future coalition. Their short white paper highlights Hispanic market opportunities for mobile broadband access and applications. It’s a market 48 million strong, and also a community in which broadband access is key to economic opportunity and social benefits.

Some other highlights from the report:

  • Hispanics are more mobile than the general U.S. population and, thus, rely more on cell phones. In fact, compared to Americans generally, Hispanics account for more minutes used and for a higher percentage of cell-phone ownership despite their relatively low incomes.
  • Given that roughly 40% of U.S. Hispanics are born abroad, in countries where wireless service often is more common than landline phones, the American Hispanic community is more open to mobile broadband than many other population groups. This familiarity makes the leap to smartphones and other connected mobile devices a more intuitive step for many than turning to wired, home broadband adoption and computer usage.
  • In 2008, Hispanics outpaced the general population in accessing and downloading digital media (music, video, audio, movies, television programs, video games and podcasts), 42% to 35%.

September 22, 2009 at 5:44 pm Leave a comment

Carnival of Mobilists #190, plus events

Caroline Lewko from WIPJAM hosts Carnival of Mobilists #190. This week’s collection includes A Mobile Learning Roundup of Sorts with news from the (Northern Hemisphere) summer season. We also get a snapshot of the fragmented world of developing for mobile – proliferation of platforms, barriers to app acceptance, and the rise of the netbook.

And a WIPJam itself may be coming to your town.

WIP (Wireless Industry Partnership) is about connecting developers to the information, resources and people important for innovation, growing your business and getting to market faster. …

Jam Sessions are interactive and definitely not boring.  We mean it when we say No PPT, No Panels and No Ties! WIP Jam sessions are a unique format for mobile and wireless developers, where we blend ‘unpanels’, with intimate discussion groups led by industry leaders and developers alike.  And it’s really very interactive – we make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard.

There’s a WIPJAM @ OSIM (Open Source in Mobile World) in Amsterdam next week, September 16, and also WIPJAM @ CTIA in San Diego, CA on October 8.

I’ll be at an event closer to home next month: Mobile 2.0. It’s really two conferences in two locations: a business day in San Francisco October 15, and a developer day in Mountain View October 16. I’m registered for the latter… but if a free pass turned up for the biz day I’d take it in a shot.

September 8, 2009 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Wikipedia color-codes consensus

Starting this fall, an optional extension to Wikipedia will automatically color-code text backgrounds to indicate how “trusted” the text is.

WikiTrust (via Wired Science)Currently, text on a Wikipedia page is agglutinated from the contributions of multiple, anonymous authors. Anyone can contribute and over-write existing text. This leaves entries open to bias, vandalism, and editing wars.

The WikiTrust extension computes the author of every word of text and determines the author’s reputation based on previous, lasting, contributions. Less trusted text is backgrounded with an orange shade, which fades to white as the text survives later edits and is considered increasingly trustworthy.

Note that trust isn’t truth, it’s consensus. If you’re a new contributor to Wikipedia, your contributions will be colored with a bright orange shade. Established contributors’ new text is colored with a paler orange. But even as an established contributor, if you write something controversial that gets edited in and out, that text will also be flagged with color.

Readers won’t be facing a sea of orange, however. The overall levels of orange text-tagging are kept low in the interest of readability. And the entire trust mechanism will be a separate tab on the Wikipedia page, so you can choose whether to view your pages with or without it.

(via Wired Science)

September 1, 2009 at 5:00 pm Leave a comment

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