Ismael Benmoussa had trouble in his Putonghua class at Canadian International School of Hong Kong last year, but no more. His improvement isn't because of the Chinese tutor his parents hired, but because of a new audio pen his class has been trying out.
Now he says: "I love learning a new language and trying out new things, but sometimes it's bad because it's too hard."
Ismael, an eight-year-old in Year Three, turns to his "pen friend" whenever he faces challenges.
The pilot project using the Ting smartpen ( ting means "hear" in Putonghua) is the brainchild of Penny Pan Lixing, the school's director of Chinese studies. Experienced in teaching Chinese to non-natives, Pan believes audio pens could be the answer for students who can't get help from their parents.
Battery-powered audio pens aren't a recent invention, but these pens stand out because they're customisable and work with any teaching materials.
At Canadian International School, Chinese is taught using an approach called Teaching Proficiency Through Storytelling. Students improve their language skills by exchanging stories with teachers. So, old-fashioned audio pens - which may be pre-programmed with a certain publishing company's materials - won't work because teachers prepare their own materials. Ting director Ivan Owyan Loong-shui works closely with them to produce tailor-made notes and worksheets.
Teachers first write the lessons, indicating places where audio assistance is available. The paper is specially coated, allowing the pen, which is connected to a computer "cloud", to pick up the signals and transmit the sounds in perfectly spoken Putonghua. And since the transmission is downloaded into the pen, which has 2GB of memory, students can practise at home, too.
Pan says it's hard for students to pick up proper pronunciation, but they love to sound out the words when printed in pinyin - the system of writing that uses the Roman alphabet.
"When you put pinyin on top [of the Chinese characters], the kids will only look at the pinyin, but not the characters," she says. "When they look at the pinyin, they read like English, and they lose all the tones and pronunciations," she says. Putonghua uses four tones and a "non-tone", and while you'll see pinyin in printed material such as books, newspapers and signs, the spellings don't include the tone markings. By introducing the audio pen, Pan says: "You can take away the pinyin and force kids to look at the characters and listen."
"It's very helpful because sometimes I read Chinese without the pinyin labels. I can just write it with the pen and hear the words," says Ismael. So if he forgets how to say the word for "today", for example, he can use the pen to help him out.
But the pen goes even further than that. Zhang Miyan, the Chinese teacher in charge of the programme at the school, says stroke order when writing Chinese characters is another challenge.
Memorising the correct order of the strokes is tedious but necessary.
With the Ting pen, students get an interactive copybook-writing exercise in their notes and homework. They write and hear praise from the pen when they make the right decision on the stroke order.
Students can practise that at home also, leaving Zhang more time to focus on the story-based curriculum in class.
David Larson - the father of Zoe Larson, one of Ismael's classmates - credits the pen with his daughter's progress. "It's really helpful for her to have the proper pronunciation at hand," he says.
The family used to live in Shanghai, and although mum and dad studied Putonghua while there, "we're not up to native level. We still have an accent and limited vocabulary."
The most encouraging thing about the pen, he says, is that Zoe's questions can be answered "right away, without having to wait till the next day to ask her teacher in class".
Pan says that although feedback on the pen from families has been largely positive, she still sees problems. "It tends to work better with beginners, but students with higher language proficiency may not find it as effective," she says. Another drawback is the pen's inability to provide visual cues, which Pan strongly believes are essential to facilitate learning a language.
"It's not perfect. We are still thinking that we'll need an app later on down the track. But it's the most suitable technology for the time being," she says.
If the pilot programme for Year Three is deemed successful at the end of the school year, Canadian International School will extend it to all grade levels. That means, by September, all non-native Putonghua learners from years one to six could have a "pen friend" to hang out with.
A range of audio pens (often accompanied by books) are available for children, including:
Languages: limitless, depending on which language publishers and schools use.
Features: open platform for different publishers, capable of producing customised materials. ting.eu/
Rass Language i-Pen
Features: associated with a series of books that teach English through bedtime stories, rhyming poems and folk songs. Also publishes phonics materials. rasslanguage.com/
East Readbook E-9000
Languages: English, Cantonese and Putonghua
Features: an abundant library of materials, especially for English and Cantonese. Reasonably priced.
Features: part of a comprehensive programme. Interactive explanations are voiced by teachers when users encounter problems with worksheet exercises. dr-max.com.hk/