Reviewed by Zheng-sheng
Zhang, San Diego State University
This review article is published in Journal of CLTA, Vol. 32-2, 1997.
HyperChinese: the Pronunciation Modules (version1.1.) by Jing-heng Ma, Wellesley College & Robert H. Smitheram, Middlebury College. Published by Cheng&Tsui Company, Boston, Massachusetts, US $79.95
Distrubuted by Cheng&Tsui, Williston, VT 05495. PO Box 576. 800-554-1963 order 800-554-1964 service. 802-864-7626 fax
HyperChinese : The Pronunciation Modules (HCPM) cd-rom is part of a larger package, which also includes two cd-roms for teaching grammar. As the name suggests, the modules consist of Macintosh hypercard stacks. But the stacks should not be opened with Hypercard but are accessed through the standalone main program HChinese Pronun.
The size of the modules is impressive, a whopping 35 megs in 57 stacks. The initial downloading of the stacks requires a cd-rom drive, but subsequently the stacks can be run from any Mac with a hard disk. To use the recording feature, a Mac with a built-in microphone, an external mike or a MacRecorder should be used. The amount of disk space required depends on the number of stacks used, but 5 meg is minimum. The amount of RAM required is 2 meg for B/W and 2.5 for color. The program runs under system 6.0.7 or higher.
Comprehensiveness is the greatest strength of the program. All the major areas of Mandarin pronunciation are covered: the major combinations of initials and finals hence most of the possible syllable types; the tones, including the neutral tone, and the two sandhi rules for the third tone (examples of tonal changes on yi 'one' and bu 'not' are included but the rule is not given); all possible two syllable tonal combinations; even rules for Pinyin spelling, r-suffixation and tone mark placement.
There are four modules. Module 0 is a general introduction, in mostly prose format, to the tones and classes of initials and finals. Module 3 serves as a comprehensive review in the form of two sound discrimination quizzes. The core of the program is Module 1 and 2. The ten units in Module 1 combine tones and classes of initials/finals to form monosyllables; and the two units in Module 2 combine monosyllables into two syllables in all possible tonal combinations. Each unit in Modules 1 and 2 has three parts: presentation, drill and quiz.
In presentations, sounds are first explained in prose with the help of approximate English sounds and then syllables containing those sounds can be selected and played individually. User's imitation can be recorded and compared with the model.
The drill stacks are basically presentations with the drill mode added, in which groups of syllables are pronounced, with pauses given after each group for students to repeat. Students' repetitions can also be recorded and compared with the model.
Most quizzes has four parts: differentiation of syllables, identification of tone, filling-in initials and finals. Test items are given randomly in audio/textual format. The response is given by clicking or typing. The user has to check the correctness of the response and, if it is wrong, either try again or get the key before moving on. A score is provided and an error log is kept, which can be viewed on the screen, printed out or saved as a Simpletext file.
Obviously, pedagogical considerations have to be most important when evaluating educational software. HPOM is quite uneven in this respect.
On the one hand, HCPM is clearly pedagogically motivated. The gadgety, 'look-what-we-can-do-with-multimedia' razzle-dazzle that plagues so many such programs is thankfully absent here. There seems to be a seriousness of purpose and the requisite linguistic and pedagogical informedness about the program. The step-by-step programmed instruction follows the fundamental pedagogical principle of selection and sequencing. The goals are also quite specific. Much of the material is targeted specifically towards the Cantonese and Min Speakers, such as initial f-/h- contrast, the i/ü vowel contrast, the final -n/-ng contrast and also between initials zh-/ch-/sh- and z-/c-/s-. The all important role of meaning is attended to with the use of characters and meaning glosses for contrastive pairs. The assumption that dialectal speakers are typically able to read characters shows that the developers are aware of the reality of current student composition. They have also adopted a rather unorthodox practice of not teaching initials in isolation. This seems rather well thought out, since initials are never used in isolation.
However, there is one glaring problem with the way in which the most important activity, i.e., practice, is conducted. Here the program has simulated a classroom in which very few students would want to stay for long. Take the example of Module 1.1. Drill, card 2, whose 16 buttons are reproduced below (the digits 1-4 are used in lieu of tone marks; / is used to separate the syllable groups originally arranged in rows): a1 a2 a3 a4/ma1ma2 ma3 ma4/ai1 ai2 ai3 ai4/nai4 nai3 nai2 nai1. These syllables will be drilled with the listen-and-repeat sequences. There are two details that should be fully appreciated about these sequences. One is that each syllable group is modeled and repeated as a whole, rather than individually. The second is that the multiple-group sequences cannot be interrupted. Both practices are questionable.
Granted that each syllable group typically consists of contrastive syllables, but there is no reason they have to be drilled in one uninterruptible sequence. The underlying belief seems to be 'contrasts make things clearer'. Practicing contrastive syllables together may create overload and, paradoxically, confusion, not to mention the possible difficulty later in pronouncing the syllables individually.
HCPM's practice of having one uninterruptable drill sequence for the whole card, with many syllable groups, is even less justifiable, since there is less connection between the groups than within them. To keep the repetition going for an extended amount of time seems to be the only purpose. As if to reduce boredom, each drill sequence is started from a randomly selected group. But the feeling of surprise is short-lived, as the direction of procession is entirely predictable, that is, from left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
This discussion brings up a broader issue for both software design and language teaching in general, i.e., the proper balance between learner and teacher control. Many computer programs err in the direction of too much learner control, which may make the learner feel lost. With the HCPM drills, the teacher-imposed selection and sequencing, coupled with randomness, has taken control entirely out of the hand of the learner. It is true that the learner has the option of not using the drill sequences but choosing to hear and repeat the syllables individually. However, the drill stacks then become redundant, as they would then be identical to presentation stacks.
While the drills are unimaginative, the quizzes are quite innovative and interactive. In fact, the quizzes are better than the drills for practice and they are better used for practice than as real tests, which generally do not allow for immediate feedback. There is another reason for using these quizzes for practice rather than as tests. If the quizzes were taken as tests, they would not articulate well with the drills: the quizzes do not have the same mode as the drills and the drills do not prepare students for the quizzes.
The quality of sounds is excellent, loud and clear, with no background noise. Only a few sounds, mostly fricatives and stops initials, are hard to make out. The background colors for the main cards are muted and elegant, having a calming effect.
The ergonomics, however, can be best described as quirky. HCPM's ad hoc card format does not conform to the practice of hypercard stacks in general. Without reading the text cues or help screens carefully, it is rather hard to figure out what is a clickable button, what is a message field, what is a status indicator and what is simply graphics, since any of these can have the same size and appearance and share the same space. This confusion is immediately noticeable on the main menu and the floating palettes used in presentation and drills. In quizzes, the same rectangular space serves multiple functions as the 'start' button, display window of help messages and right and wrong answers. When a wrong answer is given, it stays in this window, which can be clicked for hearing the right answer! On the main menu, to use color highlight and underlining to suggest the lack of submenu for a menu item is also quite ad hoc. Navigation could also be improved. In the Go To menu, while it is possible to go from one presentation/drill/quiz to the next presentation/drill/quiz, it is impossible to go from one quiz to the next presentation, a very logical step. Some possibilities are not anticipated by the program. In quizzes, if the right answer has no initial yet your wrong input has one, it will be impossible to get rid of the initial to get the answer right. If the "Check Answer" button is not clicked, errors won't be logged.
Due to the less-than-transparent mode of operation, the use of help screens, some of them quite long, is necessary. The help screen also won't disappear unless you leave the card or click at the tiny close box, which takes time and manual dexterity.
Some minor quibbles. The profuse use of phonetic terms seems gratuitous. The designation 'simple initials' for the sounds b p m f d t n l h is unfortunate, as it wrongly implies that the other initials are complex. Some redundant steps can be eliminated. While the various positive feedback messages seem a friendly touch, the negative messages 'oh-oh', 'uh-uh' can sound irritating after a while. There remain quite a number of bugs, errors and inconsistencies.
Despite problems with the drill format and ergonomics, I would still recommend HCPM, for its comprehensive scope, judicious material selection and sequencing, clear, systematic and contextualized presentation, interactive and innovative quiz format and the advanced feature of performance tracking. The quizzes, however, may have to be used instead of the drills, for practice and the initial hurdle of ergonomics should not prevent us from benefiting from this useful program.
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