Putonghua is child's play
When banker Lee Tau Shen and his wife, Winnie Chong, relocated from Singapore, they were concerned about how their sons would learn Putonghua.
Matthew, six, and Benjamin, three, are still deepening their grasp of their first language, English. In Singapore, they were introduced to Mandarin as a second language.
Now, they are exposed to Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters, both sources of potential confusion. One way the Lees expose the boys to Mandarin as learned in Singapore is to let them play with an app called Mandarin Madness.
Using electronic media to entertain children is sometimes a means of keeping them occupied. But the Lees, like many young parents, also understand how the use of mobile computing can help their children. Many are moving past the guilt of using technology as a babysitter and embracing it for the educational benefits.
Even though more than 80 per cent of the top-selling paid apps in the education category on Apple's iTunes store cater to children, finding good-quality Chinese-language learning apps for them can seem like searching for a needle in a haystack.
The best apps should teach explicitly and provide a fully immersive language experience, using the language itself to convey information. The multisensory approach of Mandarin Madness - audio, text and quality graphics - makes playing the game an effective way to learn the language.
The challenge is to make the connection between how a word sounds and what it looks like without having to know how to write it. There are bonus levels and hidden challenges to unlock; these rewards give the app an addictive appeal.
Lee, a bank manager, says he is happy when Matthew asks to play Mandarin Madness. He says being forced to recognise words to win the game motivates Matthew to learn. Most parents would be thrilled to have their self-motivated children take learning into their own hands.
Another useful app is Steve Glinberg's 123 Color, International Edition, Talking Coloring Book, which became the No1 ranked app on Apple's online iPad education storefront on the mainland.
A parent himself, Glinberg realised that the iOS' touch interface and visual and audio appeal could spawn a new class of teaching tools.
The human brain attaches memory to the senses. When information is presented, our brains construct a framework to organise that data, creating neural pathways that we retrace when trying to recall material. By learning through a variety of senses, the brain establishes several routes along which information can flow, thus cementing it into the memory. Good developers of educational apps know this and build it into them.
In 123 Color, children have 200 pictures and 17 languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese, to choose from. These pictures have numbered sections in the selected language, corresponding to colours on the template. Touching a number on the picture triggers the audio in the target language. So children see the number as written, hear it spoken and then become engaged by colouring in the space.
Daisy Wong, a private Putonghua tutor, uses loveChinese with her pre-kindergarten students. The flashcard sticker book app for toddlers teaches them vocabulary ranging from colours and animals to vehicles, in packages available for purchase after the free download.
Parents can set the number of flashcards per session and number of correct answers needed to reward learners with electronic 'stickers'. You can also select the audio and script to display depending on your child's familiarity with the language. Choose to learn in English and have the words displayed in Chinese script, pinyin or even jyutping if you download the loveCantonese version of the app.
Whether colouring pictures or pasting stickers in on-screen books, children do most of their learning when engaged in play.
Stuart Brown, author of the book Play, says the apparently purposeless activity, which is fun and pleasurable, is the brain's best form of exercise and means of development. The best type of play is one that encourages curiosity, imagination and the freedom to make mistakes.
Elizabeth Tan from the United States, who has three sons, aged one, three and six, says there are not enough fun and interactive apps for learning Putonghua on the market.
Her oldest boy, Gabriel, attends a local school that encourages pupils to get additional Chinese practice using a Pearson education website. But navigating a website in Chinese, even one catering to schoolchildren, requires a vocabulary she doesn't have.
Since the activities on the website are optional, Tan does not force Gabriel to do them. She says the exercises lack the creativity and interaction essential for holding the attention of primary school children.
A few language apps released recently take advantage of 'gamification' in education, marrying the appeal of games with learning. These apps cater to children who already turn to their smartphone and mobile game consoles to kill time.
One such app is Learn Chinese (Mandarin) by Mindsnacks. The objective is to keep users engaged in acquiring useful knowledge while they play. As Mindy Eve Myers, the firm's director of education, puts it: 'The games are played in short bursts because we wanted them to fit into those moments when you've got a couple of minutes to kill. So instead of playing Angry Birds, you can practise Mandarin instead.'
The app comes with one free level and six different games, the last four requiring completion of challenges in order to be unlocked. In Fish Tank, you have to match an English word with its Chinese equivalent before the water empties out of the fish tank.
Another game, Galactic, helps learners practise the tones of Putonghua. The target words or phrases are read aloud, and the learner has to identify as many tones as possible before the timer runs out. This adds auditory feedback, which many developers have yet to include in their apps but is necessary in learning a tonal language.
At the end of each game, learners receive feedback on which words and phrases they have remembered well and which ones need more practice. The points from the different games add up until the learner has a big enough score to proceed to the next level.
Fun and games
Discerning parents know that the best educational apps use sound teaching practices.
Kids learn best through playing, so the app has to be fun. It should keep them engaged and allow different modes of play, such as modelling, storytelling and recreation.
The benefits of immersion over translation are widely appreciated, and language learning apps should create fully immersive experiences to ease and speed the learning.
Ideally, the app should cater to the different ways humans learn and remember information. Better learning happens when the same information can be processed through the different senses.
The experience of technology should enhance and not distract from learning. The app should provide an experience that otherwise could not be replicated and have the ability to merge play and learning.