Using Computers in Chinese Language Teaching
Tianwei Xie
California State University, Long Beach
Published in Mapping the Course of the Chinese Language Filed, Chinese Teachers Association Monograph Series, Volume II, pp. 103-119, 1999.

Introduction *

Although some uncertainty and skepticism exits, the use of computer in classroom instruction is gaining immense popularity today. Computers have become a necessity for a student. According to the Time magazine (March 2, 1998), " elementary schools, portable computers are the hottest thing since books. American schools are spending more than $5 billion this year on high tech." Some universities go as far as to require students to own a laptop or desktop computer upon beginning their studies (Bazar, 1999). Language teachers are also taking advantage of the modern high tech. Among others, English teachers have begun to use computers for their language instruction early and extensively. Boswood's New Ways of Using Computers in Language Teaching (Boswood, 1997, ed.) is a collection of papers written by English teachers describing various types of activities. These papers are extremely informative and helpful.

One of the pioneers in CALL (computer-aided language learning) research is C. C. Cheng, who has published papers and articles on this subject and has created many useful computer programs for language teaching (Cheng, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1981). A recent substantial review article of CALL programs for Chinese by Zhengsheng Zhang "CALL for Chinese - Issues and Practice," discusses and reviews the history of CALL and some CALL programs for Chinese language teaching (Zhang, 1998). Other articles written by Chu (1996, available online:, Yao (1996) and Dew (1998) further address the theoretical and pedagogical aspects of using computers in language teaching and provide detailed information on some multimedia programs that aid students in learning Chinese. Other useful resources regarding Chinese CALL include Da's webpage (Da, 1999) and Yeo's webpage (Yeo, 1997, 1999). In this paper, I will focus on practical uses of computer programs and, particularly, the use of the Internet. Bearing in mind that the rapid changing modern computer technology will certainly have moved beyond what is described here, I will confine my paper in highlighting and discussing some general principles and uses of the new media.

Why do we need computers in teaching?

Using computers in language classrooms, as in all other classrooms, is by no means a universally agreed upon practice. Many teachers are strong proponents of technology. An interesting article favoring the use of computer technology is "The 'No Significant Difference' Phenomenon" by Thomas Russell (1997, available online). This paper has collected research reports from 1928 through 1996 arguing that there is no significant difference between using and not using technology in teaching, thus pointing to the conclusion that using technology is equally as effective as traditional classroom teaching. Others are still very skeptical or cautious in this respect. For example, the Institute for Higher Education Policy has expressed doubts on the effectiveness of distance learning. In a recently published report, the Institute argues, "too many of the questions posed ... are left unaddressed or unanswered in the research, while policy makers, faculty, and students need to make properly informed judgments about key issues in distance education." (IHEP, 1999).

Despite the controversy, people are using computers in teaching and learning. One obvious advantage of using computers is convenience. Multimedia language learning programs provide texts, sound, images and interactive drills. With the help of computer software and the Internet, learners can now study languages anywhere and anytime -- in classrooms, labs, at home or even on the go. This is particularly true for web-enabled learning. Gary Staunch, director of Education for North America at Compaq Computer Corporation, states that web-enabled learning provides "anytime, anywhere access to best-of-breed curriculum." (Morrison, 1999). It is particularly convenient for those learners who live in the areas where language teachers, native speakers and learning materials are difficult to access. Computers also help instructors to update and create their teaching materials more easily. They can also exchange their products, thoughts and ideas with their colleagues using e-mail, mailing lists, web sites and other tools through the Internet.

Gary Staunch states, "in order to educate students to be life-long learners and successful contributors to the new global market, educators must change the way they teach and the way students learn. We need to remember that if we want to help students achieve a high level of competency and competitiveness, we have no choice but to make technology an integrated tool in the learning process". (Morrison, 1999). The real question is this: how do we, the Chinese language instructors, face the challenges in this cyberculture? In what way can computers aid us in teaching and learning?

Types of computer-aided learning programs

Computer programs that are useful for language teaching and learning are in two major types: textbook-dependent and textbook-independent.

Textbook-dependent programs have been developed based on certain Chinese textbooks. All the course materials, drills and exercises are based on a particular textbook. For example, Hanzi (Ogdon Inc.) is a program helping students to learn all the characters from the textbook "Practical Chinese Reader (PCR)". The program includes animated characters, drills and exercises.

Textbook-independent programs are not based on any particular Chinese textbooks. They are independent tools which can be used by students no matter what textbook they use. Chinese word-processors, electronic dictionaries and web tools belong to this category. For example, the Chinese word-processor NJStar (NJStar Software Corp.) has the capability of displaying Chinese Pinyin fonts with tone markers and it has an electronic dictionary. The Chinese learning tool Wenlin (Wenlin Institute Inc.) will read in Chinese texts in gb, big5 and unicode and provide pronunciation, English meaning and etymological information for words and characters.

Using Chinese Word-ProcessorsWord-processors are obviously useful tools in learning foreign languages. In learning English or other European languages, students can use word-processors to complete many types of assignments: composing, editing and desktop publishing. Some versatile word-processors allow students to check spelling and find words in thesaurus (Boswood, 1997). In addition to all major functions of English word-processors, Chinese word-processors have some additional functions. These additional functions help students to learn the Chinese language in various ways. Two important functions that some Chinese WPs have are Pinyin conversion and online dictionaries.

Typing Chinese texts on a computer is different from typing English texts. When one types English texts, one uses the keyboard to type what he wants to compose. Inputting Chinese characters requires one to choose from various input methods. One of the most popular and easiest input methods is using Pinyin. Many computer programs will automatically convert Pinyin words to Chinese characters. Although this process seems to be a weakness in processing Chinese texts, but is actually a good way of learning both Pinyin and Chinese characters. Using the Pinyin input method to type Chinese texts enhances the student's capability in recognizing and memorizing characters and in learning the words, for they need to know the pronunciation of words and identify the correct characters among a list of homophones to make a correct selection. At this moment, I do not have any empirical evidence to prove that using Chinese WP will substantially facilitate character recognition and word memorization, but from my teaching experience, I did seem to observe that typing has helped students. In the future, we may need some empirical research to prove this.

I suggest the following activities:

1. Typing a text. Give students a word list, a passage, or even an entire text from a learned lesson. Ask students to type and print these materials and submit their work. The instructor checks to see if the typed text is correct. Usually, the error observed in this type of exercise is an incorrect selection of characters.

2. Reading comprehension using an online dictionary. Some Chinese word-processors have an online dictionary. Instructors provides an electronic version of a text or a story for students to read. The e-version of the Chinese texts does not contain any glossary. Students are asked to use the online dictionary to learn the pronunciation and meaning of the new words. The Chinese word-processor NJStar has this function. The Chinese program Chinese Star and RichWin also have online dictionaries. When the cursor is pointed at a certain word, the glossary will appear immediately. The problem with using online dictionary is that occasionally the dictionary does not provide an accurate and context-sensitive interpretation. Some words used in textbooks may also not be found in online dictionaries. Instructors need to modify each dictionary to meet their own pedagogical needs.

3. Making vocabulary lists. Knowledge of Chinese may vary from person to person. The vocabulary list provided in the textbook may not contain all the necessary words. Students can use the online dictionary and the cut and paste functions to build their own vocabulary lists.

4. Grammatical exercises. Since all word-processors have cut-paste and copy-paste functions, instructors can provide exercises that require students to rearrange the word order (using cut-paste functions) or type in the missing words (which is more difficult than the traditional cloze test with a blank space).

5. Composing, editing and collaborative writing. Composing passages or essays is a good exercise. Typing an essay not only involves mastery of Pinyin and recognizing characters, it also allows students to edit their compositions easily. Instructors may also ask students to do collaborative writing. When one student finishes the first draft, he passes his file to the second student who edits and revises the first student's work and then the third student can participate in the same activity until the composition is completed.

Suggested software:
  Multimedia programs

There are a variety of multimedia programs for learning Chinese in the market. Some university and college professors have also developed their own multimedia learning programs. One of the advantages of using multimedia programs on disks, particular on CDs is that these programs have texts, images (static pictures or photos and dynamic video or movie clips) and sound files (voice recording and music), thus providing a vivid learning environment for students. Students can listen to the recording, view video clips and do interactive exercises. There is no doubt that the multimedia programs are good supplementary tools for classroom teaching.

Some currently available multimedia programs were developed by independent computer software companies while others were developed by language professors. For example, Prof. Li Sanpao developed Pinyin Master to help students learn the Pinyin system. It is a textbook-independent program and is practical for any schools no matter what textbook they adopt. Hyper-China is a multimedia program (for the Mac, the Windows version is under development) with ten lessons, developed by Sinologic Software ( For more information of other multimedia programs, see Yao (1996).

When selecting multimedia programs for students, instructors need to be very cautious and pay attention to the quality of the programs. Most language instructors are not capable of creating multimedia programs and inevitably turn to those conveniently available programs. It is difficult to suggest which program is best, because each program has its own merits and shortcomings. None of the multimedia programs fully meet the instructors' expectations. I suggest teachers read review articles before making their decision to purchase a particular program. In addition, multimedia computer-programs take time and money to develop. Therefore, they are usually expensive. Sufficient fund is needed to purchase multi-users license for lab use of these programs.

Using the Internet

Course material delivery

The Internet has become ubiquitous in our daily life. The terms Internet, WWW and HTML are no longer exotic to us. The word 'online' is fashionably used by language professionals (Carolyn, 1998) who are conscious of the many web sites that discuss online courses, web-delivered courses, and long distance education. In particular, the internet offers a very convenient channel to deliver course materials to students. The World Wide Web (WWW) combines many functions, such as FTP (a method of electronically delivering computer files), HTTP (a protocol or a standard that lets the web page designer easily embed formatting commands in a regular text-only file for transmission on the world wide web) and Gopher (a program that allows people to access text files stored in a remote computer). Delivering instruction on the World Wide Web is no longer a difficult task (McManus, 1998, available online Instructors can create their course homepages and upload their handouts, exercises, supplementary reading materials to their web sites so students may access their course materials anywhere, anytime. In addition to text files, image files and sound files can also be stored in web sites. There are many technical issues in creating web sites and preparing course materials on the web. Interested readers can refer to Richard Jensen's Scholar's Guide to WWW at For various activities using the WWW in language teaching, readers may refer to Tim Boswood's New Ways of Using Computers in Language Teaching (Boswood, 1997). In what follows, I will discuss two issues related to delivering course material: sound file delivery and text file delivery.

Sound Files

Sound files are extremely important for language learning. Uncompressed digitized sound files have high quality. However, they are usually huge in size and slow to transmit (upload or download). For a short file, such as a consonant, vowel or a single word, the wav or au files created by using sound recorder on one's PC or other sound recording programs for the Mac are good enough. However, for a longer recording like a conversation or an entire lesson, Real Audio, a streaming technique, is more suitable. Streaming allows users to listen to sound files as files are being downloaded. However, making Real Audio files is more complicated than making regular sound files. First, a recording must be digitized and encoded using the Real Audio encoder. Then the files can be uploaded to the server. In order to broadcast these files, one needs to purchase and install the Real Audio server program1.

Text files

Text files may be in various formats: plain text files (either in gb or big5 codes), formatted texts created by using various word-processors (such as MS Word), image files (gif or jpg files) and PDF files (portable document files).

The advantage of plain text files is that the texts are editable. That is to say, once students have downloaded or saved these files, they can use any word-processor to edit them. This is particularly useful for various kinds of exercises (vocabulary or grammar)2. Formatted texts such as MS Word documents have more beautiful fonts and they are also editable. Students, however, need to have the same software as their professors do to read and edit these documents. For example, if an instructor uses MS Word 97 along with the Chinese Star to create a supplementary reading text for students, the students need to use the same program to read and edit the texts, otherwise, they may have to change fonts and other typesetting parameters to those originally set by the professor3.

The Chinese texts can also be converted to image files for those who do not have any Chinese systems. The created image file can be read without any Chinese systems but the texts are not editable4. One of the web programs which converts gb or big5 texts to graphic files can be found at Finally, PDF files are non-editable, but they are easy to create and students don't need any Chinese software to read them. Instructors simply prepare the documents using their favorite word-processors and print the documents to PDF files using Adobe Acrobat Exchange or Acrobat 4.0 (the latest version, has more functions) which students can then view using a free Acrobat Reader5.

E-mail: keypals, student-student and student-instructor communication

Language teachers of European languages use e-mail for teacher-student and student-student communications and pen-pal programs (Lunde, 1990; Van Handle and Corl, 1998). However, using e-mail in teaching Chinese has long been problematic. One situation in which e-mail messages including Chinese text have been widely shared is the list-serv hosted by Kenyon College ( This is a mailing list for Chinese language educators to discuss the issues related to Chinese teaching. Almost never are messages entirely in Chinese. What's more, the postings sometimes are in two codes (big5 or gb) at the same time. That fact may reflect the annoyance of inputting Chinese text and/or the uncertainty that the Chinese text will be readable by all readers theoretically having that capability.

A frequent technical problem encountered on the listserv is that the Chinese text files are damaged by unfriendly mailers. Sometimes, the unreadable Chinese texts are not damaged per se, but rather encoded over again by e-mail programs. In the later case, the unreadable text can be repaired (Lunde, 1999: 207-8). The technical difficulties hindered the further use of e-mail in teaching Chinese.

A non-technical problem is the input methods. There are many input methods: Pinyin, Bopomofo, Cangjie, etc. Nobody is born knowing any of these. Students have to learn one of the input methods to type Chinese. Among these input methods, the Pinyin input is a natural and easy method to use (Lu and Xie, 1994). Those students who begin their Chinese study by learning the Pinyin system feel very comfortable using it to compose Chinese texts. However, some heritage students or the students who came from Hong Kong or Taiwan may not be familiar with the Pinyin system and they have to either learn it or select another input method to use.

Despite the technical and non-technical difficulties, using e-mail in Chinese language teaching is possible. One of the ways to overcome technical difficulties is to use the attachment function of e-mail programs. When a Chinese text is created, it can be saved and then sent through e-mail as an attachment. Since the attachment file is encoded in a way that the original file's content is preserved, the message will not be damaged. This is convenient for instructors and students who do not meet every day or are physically in various locations. For example, I used to live in Davis, California and teach a group of students at the University of San Francisco. We met on Saturdays only. Students' homework was sent to me either as an e-mail message or as an attachment. When I received students' homework, I corrected it and sent it back to the students through e-mail. The students used different Chinese programs to compose: Njstar word-processor, Wenlin Chinese learning tool and Njstar communicator. All the attached files were received without any damages.

Students can also use e-mail to communicate with their key-pals in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and anywhere all over the world. Students learning English, Spanish, French and German already use this e-mail exchange activity. Some research papers regarding e-mail usage in language teaching can be found (Van Handle and Corl, 1998). In order to obtain pen-pals or key-pals for themselves, students may consult the homepage of the Intercultural E-mail Classroom Connections which coordinates students around the world who are interested in this type of exchange6.

Mailing list

Mailing lists are automatic mail-delivery systems. A message sent to the mailing list is automatically forwarded to all subscribers of the list. For instance, class mailing list requested by a teacher for a certain course would contain e-mail addresses of both instructors and students who can then send their messages to every member in the class via the list. UC Davis has been using an automated class mailing list system. Instructors can request the creation of a class list. For example, is the mailing list for Chinese 01 class (all sections). This system automatically inputs those students' names on the list when they register. If a student drops the course, the university's computer system deletes his/her name automatically. Messages posted can be archived and stored in a web page for future access. This automated class mailing list is extremely convenient for instructors to use to send announcements, homework or any other materials to the students. It is also a good place for students to make their comments and suggestions, ask questions and discuss course-related issues.

IRC and online chat: online discussion, office hours and tutoring

IRC stands for 'Internet Relay Chat'. This is a program on the Internet which allows people to chat by typing. Both sides can view each other's comments instantaneously, therefore, 'chat' is a synchronous (real-time) electronic communication. It is particularly good for advanced level language learners. English and other European language teachers and students began using IRC or MOOs , MUDs (older forms of text-based, near-virtual realities throughout cyberspace) (Boswood, 1997). For Chinese learners, there are two hurdles to overcome in using IRC. First, students must be able to master Pinyin input method or one of the other Chinese input methods. Second, they must be proficient in Chinese (Xie, 1998).

Several activities can be used for IRC chat:

1. Specific topic discussion. Instructors can lead discussion by asking questions individually or permitting students to discuss while the instructor serves as mentors reminding students of errors.

2. Structured vocabulary or grammatical drills, translation exercises and typing exercises. Instructors provide questions regarding vocabulary, grammar or content of reading text and students can type their answers immediately.

3. Online office hours and tutoring. Instructors can have a virtual office by connecting to an IRC server and conduct online tutoring. During the office hours, students can go online and ask the instructors questions or seek help.

There are two good programs for Windows supporting Chinese codes: mIRC7 and Microsoft Chat. Microsoft Chat occasionally comes pre-installed on PCs when the computer is purchased or it can be found on the Microsoft downloading site. After downloading the program, user needs to know the addresses of IRC servers to set-up the program8. One of the Microsoft IRC servers is, port 6667. In addition to these IRC programs, one can also find some chat sites on the web. Some are html based chat-sites9, others are Java applet based chat-sites10. Html based chat sites usually support Chinese, but they are relatively slow. To use chat with another person, one types a sentence, presses the button to send and waits for the message to be posted and the window to be refreshed. Java applet based chat-sites are faster but many do not support Chinese. Also, one interesting chat server only allows Chinese learners to use Pinyin to chat11.

Online reading and interactive exercises

Reading is an important part of learning, thus instructors usually need to provide supplementary reading texts to their students. Many reading texts are now available on the web for instructors to select. Some reading materials contain a glossary and online reading comprehension exercises. Students may read the text, check the vocabulary and do online exercises after reading. Instructors may also compose their reading texts for students to download and read using Chinese word-processors or learning tools. Prof. C. C. Cheng's CORA project (Chinese Online Reading Assistant) not only provides reading text with glossaries, it also provides sound files in Real Audio format. Some texts come with comprehension exercises. Students can read and listen to the text and finally do comprehension exercises12. Professor Patrick Moran has developed "Black Dragon Curls Around China's Heart" for beginning students. In this program, new words found in the texts are linked to the glossary which is displayed in another window at the bottom13. University of Southern California's page has Progressive Reading program which provides the same stories at different proficiency levels. Other interesting stories such as humorous items, idioms and myths can also be found on the web14.

Instructors should create interactive exercises on the web. The so called "interactive" exercises are actually questions with multiple choice answers. Students read the questions and then select the correct answer from list of alternatives. When the test is finished, the test score and feedback is automatically sent through e-mail to the instructor and the student. One of the easiest programs to use is the Simple Online Interactive Test (SOIT). The program was developed by Prof. Tim Snyder and Mike O'Kane at the North Carolina State University and is free15. In order to function properly, the program must be installed on the web server. Instructors should then use a plain text word editor with Chinese language processing capability to create three files: a question file, an answer file and a simple html file. Examples of generated tests can be found at

Other useful programs are the Quiz Builder and Test Builder provided by the West Virginia Educational Network16. Another popular tool is the WebCT (World Wide Web Course Tool). However, I have found that when using these tools, Chinese texts sometimes are damaged and become unreadable when test results are sent to the instructor. In addition, developing and editing tests or quizzes is not convenient. Once a test or a quiz is created, it cannot be edited unless instructors have a good mastery of how to handle html files. Therefore, we need more sophisticated and easy-to-use web tools for language teachers in the future.

Students' Web Pages

Another good activity to enhance teaching and learning is for students to create their own web pages. They will be very much interested to see their own products on the web. For instance, students can put their compositions, poems, songs and any other texts or image and sound files they choose on the web. Once the pages are created, instructors can then ask their students to view each other's pages and make discussions and comments17.

The Internet increasingly delivers more and more information related to Chinese language learning as people interested in the Chinese language are creating a great number of web sites or multimedia programs for educators and learners to use. One of the prominent features of this cyberculture is sharing. When one person creates a program or a web site, millions and millions learners can see, download and use them. It is worth noting that among the abundant resources on the web, instructors need to make their own informative judgments. In addition, because of the rapid changes on the web, some programs or materials may be inappropriate, and some web sites "died" quickly, meaning that they can no longer be accessed or they have not been updated for various reasons. Some projects remain endlessly uncompleted or "under construction".

What can we do in the future?

Computer aided language teaching and learning is still in the beginning stage. Language educators need to continue to explore possibilities and the feasibility of using computers to teach languages. Both theoretical and practical issues need to be addressed. We need to continue to do research on the effectiveness of using modern technology and its impact on learning process. We also need new and more versatile computer software to help instructors to develop their own programs. Multimedia authoring tools on CD or on the web are particularly in demand. Authoring tools are programs which allow instructors to create all kinds of learning programs easily, without knowledge of any computer programming language. We also need authoring tools that create online exercises and tests.

The following projects are still not available or rarely to be seen now:

1. Listening materials. So far, only one web site has listening materials Ocrat's "Study Mandarin Chinese using VOA"18. This site is a useful resource for regular language courses or self-study programs to improve students' listening comprehension at higher levels.

2. Reading projects for various levels. We still need an electronic version of all reading materials. Materials for beginning and intermediate students are extremely low in quantity now.

3. Placement and proficiency tests on CD or online. Prof. Ted Yao has developed a proficiency test on Mac platform (Yao, 1995). I will be happy to see its web version in the future. Other tests such as SATII and HSK (sample tests) are not available either on CD or online.

4. Tutoring center. An online tutoring center may be a good idea. If a tutoring center for Chinese learners is established, the committed professors or instructors can take turns to "be on duty" answering questions and solving problems for learners using synchronous chat programs or asynchronous bulletin boards or discussion groups. With the development of Internet telephony programs, voice mediated tutoring online is not impossible.

These projects or plans cannot be accomplished by one person or one institution. Collaborative work is needed. In the years to come, Chinese language educators need to cooperate with each other and creatively use the modern technology in our profession.


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Notes * I would like to express my special gratitude to Prof. Patrick Moran, Madeline Chu and Elizabeth Leary who have made many valuable comments on this paper. All errors and mistakes remain my own. [back]
1. For detailed information see [back]
2. See an example at [back]
3. See examples at [back]
4. See examples at [back]
5. See examples at [back]
6. Students may find more information at [back]
7. mIRC can be found at [back]
8. For an example of an IRC server in Shanghai, connect to, port 6667 [back]
9. See [back]
10. See [back]
11. See http://zhongwencom/chat.htm [back]
12. See [back]
13. See [back]
14. See [back]
15. Instructors can find more information at [back]
16. See [back]
17. To see an example of students' composition page, see [back]
18. See [back]