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#Pinyin Perfect

As a Chinese teacher, I feel like I am at war. The enemy is a voice in the back of my students' minds repeating "you can't do this." If they quit, the battle is lost.

In this war, time is of the essence. I must help students achieve a steady string of quick, small victories until they prove to themselves "I can do this."

Pinyin is an indispensable "weapon" for students of Chinese as a second language, who would otherwise have a terrible time reading, pronouncing, typing or looking up characters. For example, pinyin renders as "mei-you," which happens to sound just like the English short form for "mayonnaise."

Pinyin appears easy, but looks are deceiving. Have you noticed ye doesn't rhyme with de, si doesn't rhyme with di, nor does yan with dan? Then how can niu rhyme with you, shui with wei, and nuo with mo?

In my observation, most college students are not reasonably proficient in pinyin until their second year of Chinese. By then, the damage is done. Even if they don't quit in year two, most will have heard the "enemy" too many times to ever overcome it.

I have a dream. Someday, beginning students will go to their first Chinese class having already "perfected" pinyin, in advance, on their own. That's why I designed "Laokang Pinyin Trainer" an iOS app available on the Apple app store ($2.99).

By "perfect" I do not mean native-sounding pronunciation. I mean proficient as demonstrated by a score over 90 on the Laokang Pinyin Test. For more on this free diagnostic test and the benefits of pinyin proficiency, read my recent post "A Pinyin Opinion" here.

The app cuts the job of mastering pinyin into five digestible slices; to continue the analogy, it lays out a battle plan of five winnable stages. These are arranged, like levels in a video game, from the easiest to the hardest, from the most English-like to the least, and from straightforward spelling to irregular spelling.

The app uses monotone to help students focus on just sounds, not tones. It uses nonsense words so that even students with little or no vocabulary can use it. It employs a dynamic virtual keyboard to reduce keystrokes and help the user focus. It plays audio samples and records the user's voice to train both listening and speaking. Each stage of the "battle" takes only one or two study sessions to complete.

In the first skirmish, the user learns 18 consonants, so-called "initials". Thirteen of them sound and are spelled just like English (such as p, t and k). Two sound similar to their English counterparts (h and r), and three are common English sounds spelled oddly (z, zh and c). This first group is learned, practiced and tested with just a few vowels to keep it simple.

In the second conflict, the user learns 15 "finals" (vowels and semi-vowels, such as ai, an, and ang). All these sounds occur in English, and most are spelled as English sometimes spells them. These finals are learned, practiced and tested using only a few initial consonants.

In this second group the user meets a wrinkle: the "uo" sound is sometimes abbreviated to just "o". In the app keyboard, the "uo" key changes to an "o" key whenever the user taps b, p, m or f. It's the same key and the same sound, only a spelling variation, which the user internalizes after seeing the key face display switch back and forth a few times.

The third encounter is with these 18 initials and 15 finals in all their combinations. I call this "halftime", but in fact it covers more than two thirds of all the sounds in the language. After some practice, the user takes a timed test of 24 three syllable words. After just three or four study sessions outside a classroom, students are able to hear and say a majority of sounds accurately even under time pressure.

The fourth engagement introduces the sounds "yi" and "wu", which are spelled "y" or "w" at the beginning of a syllable, or "i" and "u" in the middle of a syllable. The display for these two keys switches back and forth according to the context to help the user understand this is merely a spelling variation of the same sound. In another wrinkle: after y or i is tapped, the "e" and "an" keys become "e*" and "an*" to reflect that the sounds change (the "e*" sounds "e as in egg", the "an*" sounds "en as in yen").

The last altercation, which I call "The Rest", introduces and three other sounds which do not occur in English. Admittedly, most students will need a teacher to get these right. The ji, qi, xi are a challenge, but students who first master zh, ch, and sh have less trouble with them. This section isolates these more difficult sounds for extra practice so users can more quickly master them.

The battle for pinyin proficiency, the sum of these five quick skirmishes, is sweet to win, but the war is far from over. Students must again face "the voice" when learning tones. In an upcoming post I describe how the Laokang Tone Test, a free download, accurately assesses the tone proficiency of students at any level a few minutes. A subsequent post describes how my iOS app "Laokang Tone Trainer" arms students to slay "the enemy" before it's too late.

You can do this.

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Paul Condrell

Paul Condrell, whose Chinese name is Kang Baole 康保乐, grew up in Washington, D.C., and has lived in China since 1988. He is founder and chairman of consumer products retailer 小康之家 is developing apps, under the "Laokang" brand, for Apple iOS devices to help students master Chinese. He teaches …View Full Bio

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