Programs can be tone-deaf, too

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 1998, 12:00am

Putonghua often is considered a difficult language to learn, for two main reasons - the writing system is complex and the tones are almost impossible to get right if you have not been born to it.

Of course, a language with nearly 50,000 characters is likely to present more of a challenge than one with 12, such as Hawaiian, and tonal languages are frustrating to learn if you are 'tone-deaf'.

The most popular and effective way to learn to speak Chinese is to fall in love with a native speaker. This is not an option for everyone, so there are books, tapes and evening schools where you can be taught.

You also can buy a CD-Rom and give the latest computer technology a whirl. TriplePlay Plus! attempts a great deal in its efforts to teach Putonghua.

Its most ambitious element is voice-recognition software. More than simply attempting to understand what the student says - as both Apple and IBM have done - TriplePlay Plus! attempts to teach tones through voice and tone recognition.

Users listen to a native speaker pronounce the tones and then record their own attempts. The computer issues a low and ugly sounding 'bzzzzz' if it thinks you are wrong, or a light and breezy 'ping' if it thinks you are right.

In one of the first examples, you click on 'wa' and hear a native speaker with a perfect Beijing accent say it in the first tone. You then click on the microphone and record your attempt.

I have been talking Putonghua for most of the past 20 years and have had little problem being understood. This may be due to the patience of those to whom I was speaking, but the message I got was that I could make a reasonable stab at the tones. A nasty surprise was waiting for me.

Certain tones such as the first and fourth are easier for most foreigners. However, every time I tried to say 'wa' in the first, I was greeted with a 'bzzzzz'.

I moved on to the second tone: 'Bzzzzz'. All right then, the third: 'Bzzzzz'. How about the easy fourth? 'Bzzzzz'.

My self-confidence and esteem were destroyed. In five or six tries, I heard a 'ping' only once.

I was not convinced my pronunciation was that bad, so I invited a native speaker to have a try. The lady in question, a former editor and well-educated woman from Beijing, fared worse than I. She got a 'ping' only once in about 10 tries.

I concluded the software was rather pathetic at tone recognition. Is it totally useless? Possibly not. Unfortunately, a learner could think he was making no progress when he could be good.

There are other games and exercises that depend on tone or voice recognition. Since it appears not to work, one must wonder how useful any of them are.

I also found it irritating that the gender of the voice changed at random. To hear a high tone spoken by a man and then a low tone spoken by a woman is confusing. Could they have put in a button to let the user set the gender? Such subtleties were not built into TriplePlay Plus! PROS AND CONS Product: TriplePlay Plus! Chinese (with directional microphone) Company: Random House/Syracuse Language Systems Program Price: About $400 Pros: It does not seem to crash Cons: Tone-deaf voice recognition