Monday, 15 November 2010

Review of "Talk Now", a CD-ROM for learners of Mandarin Chinese

Further to my November 2010 posting on MYLO, in which I criticised the pedagogy underlying the MYLO project and described my (failed) attempt to use it to learn Chinese, I decided to have a look at an existing commercial product, namely “Talk Now” Mandarin Chinese by EuroTalk, to see how it fared. Here is my review:

The package was extremely easy to install. It is supplied on CD-ROM and all I had to do was pop the CD into my computer and then most of the process was automatic. The package has the following features:

- You can choose which language you want to learn FROM. The default is English, but you can also choose to have the interface and translations of the Chinese in a huge range of other languages. This means, for example, that if you are a native German, French, Spanish or Polish speaker you don’t have to struggle with English as the “Tr√§gersprache”.

- The interface is simple, and the screen is clear and uncluttered.

- I signed in as “Graham”, the name under which my scores and progress would be recorded. Records are carried over from session to session, so that you can see how well you are doing and what you already know. If other students were using the package at the same time they would be able to sign in under their individual names and sign back on from session to session.

- I was presented with a choice of learning words and phrases in the following categories: First words, Food, Colours, Phrases, Body, Numbers, Shopping, Countries, Time. I chose First words.

- I could click on the English translation of each word and hear how it was pronounced both by a native male and native female speaker. At the same time each word and phrase was presented to me as pinyin text, as Chinese characters and with an associated cartoon. The sound quality was excellent.

- I was able to click on a microphone and practise pronouncing each word and phrase as many times as I liked in order to hear how I sounded, using the male or female native speaker as a model.

- I was able to print a full-colour list of the words and phrases that I was learning as pinyin text, Chinese characters, translation into English, and with a cartoon image associated with each word or phrase. I sat down in a comfy chair and read through the words and phrases after I had finished practising pronouncing them on my computer.

- I worked my way through four game-like quizzes at increasingly difficult levels that tested how well I could remember the words and phrases that has been presented to me. I discovered that the program remembered my weak points and homed in on them so that I was offered additional practice.

- I was able to click on a button that stored all the recordings of the words and phrases in iTunes on my computer, and I was then able to transfer them to my iPod and iPhone so that I could listen to them while walking around.

So what’s missing? There’s a lack of explanations about the tone system, the pinyin writing system and how to recognise and write Chinese characters. I also missed images and videos showing real people in China speaking Chinese, and something about Chinese culture – but I found all this at the BBC Languages website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/chinese/

I needed explanations of Chinese grammar too, but I found it difficult to find anything on the Web that explains Chinese grammar in simple terms. I also needed a dictionary. This was easier to find. The “Useful links” section at the BBC site led me to http://www.clearchinese.com/. Other links can be found here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/chinese/real_chinese/mini_guides/links/

My verdict: “Talk Now” is not perfect, but it’s not at all bad, and it does an efficient job. After a couple of hours of practice I was actually LEARNING Mandarin Chinese. I could recognise and pronounce about 50 words and phrases, and one day later I could still remember around half of them. “Talk Now” is good value for money at £24.99 for a single-user licence or £110 for a school site licence, but it needs to be backed up by other resources. There are other packages for more advanced learners and the range of languages on offer is enormous. There is already a EuroTalk Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/EuroTalk, and EuroTalk products will be going online early next year. For further information see
http://eurotalk.com/en/

I am not alone in criticising the MYLO project. A lively discussion is currently (November 2010) going in in the Linguanet Forum.

Regards
Graham Davies

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