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Learning is just a matter of application

Updated: 2015-06-26 09:00
By Luo Wangshu (China Daily Africa)

In a break from traditional Chinese classes, former computer programmer Wang Zhulong has designed an app that is more akin to a game than an educational tool.

Since it was launched in August, ChineseSkill has attracted 400,000 users - most of them are registered overseas - and attracted 5 million yuan ($806,000) in investment. Wang's team now has 10 full-time and five part-time employees.

"We aimed to design a fun way of learning Chinese and turn the tortuous learning process into a game. When students can answer the majority of questions in a section correctly, they are allowed to proceed to the next stage. Otherwise, they have to redo the section, just like playing a computer game," Wang says, adding that the biggest hurdle for foreigners learning Chinese is fear of failure.

His business partner majored in Chinese at Peking University, which "allows the team to understand technology and Chinese teaching practice simultaneously", Wang adds.

The app allows students to study and memorize words in pinyin - the system of writing Chinese characters in the Western alphabet. It also allows them to use characters, if they prefer to do so.

Wang says pragmatism is the priority. "For instance, traditional Chinese lessons teach students how to write characters, but that's not essential for most foreigners learning Chinese. What they need is to be capable of speaking a few sentences at a restaurant and making sense. Using the game, they can remember three words in five minutes. It's a proud, rewarding moment for learners."

The app's logo is a chubby panda. When students click on lesson one, four illustrations appear bearing both the Chinese characters and pinyin equivalents of "sky", "people", "big" and "water", and the student has to select the correct character and word for "people". If they answer correctly, the panda jumps up and down and cheers, but if the answer is incorrect the panda jumps up and down and cries in frustration.

Wang, who graduated in computer science in 2002, has completed the transition from programmer to language teacher. In 2004, while working for a multinational company, he was posted to Japan, where he noticed a growing trend of foreigners studying Chinese.

As a response, in 2006 he began to record free Chinese lessons and make them available via a podcast.

"It was super-fun and I received some great responses. Users love it because it provides encouragement. Unlike traditional Chinese lessons, our app is less serious and more contemporary because we discuss daily issues in China, such as the skyrocketing price of pork," he says.

Through this free "part-time" job, Wang gradually began to realize that most students have absolutely no knowledge of Chinese when they start.

"Ninety percent of learners are 'zero foundation'," he says. The realization prompted Wang and his team to cater to basic educational needs and reject scenario-based lessons so a greater number of "fun" elements could be incorporated into the app.

In 2011, Wang was able to quit his job and concentrate on his new career after a friend offered to provide seed capital even though he had no clear idea of what Wang was attempting. "He gave me the money because I was so addicted to what I was doing," Wang says.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/26/2015 page15)

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