Picking up My Chinese Coach (for Nintendo DS, Ubisoft, $29.99), I knew it would take more than a gamer’s worth of finesse to beat this program. I actually would have to learn something.
No doubt, the Chinese language is difficult to master and this program strives to help the user. As a coach, it provides a three-tiered, lesson-structured approach that displays the word in English, Chinese “pinyin” form and character form.
Students learn by taking advantage of the DS’ great interactivity, recording their voice to compare the spoken word, tracing the characters to learn stroke sequence and conquering 12 games designed to reinforce through repetition. For example, in the first lesson, the program begins with familiar conversational words and greetings then moves on to lessons that include colors, pronouns, nouns and verbs, always building toward conversational sentences.
Sitting down with my 9-year-old son, who has studied Mandarin for more than two years, we were able to progress through the early lessons quickly. However, it still took more than five hours to work through 11 lessons, beating the games before I felt comfortable with words and characters already very familiar to him. (By the way, the program is for teens and older.)
As you work on a word group lesson, the English word is side by side with the Chinese character. Clicking on the green characters activates an audio pronunciation of the Chinese word. Click on the Speak icon and you can record yourself saying the word, replay your pronunciation or play your pronunciation at the same time as the coach.
This is crucial as the language must be spoken in tones, or inflections. With the word “ma,” for example, the coach explains that it has four different tones and meanings. My Chinese Coach ably teaches these tones through a system that includes listening to the word, speaking the word and finally comparing your pronunciation with the coach’s pronunciation.
For the game fan, the selection is fun and challenging. For example, one tests tone-deciphering ability, one of the hardest aspects of learning to speak the language. With four tones listed, the user hears the word and has to select the corresponding “tone” or inflection.
The Fading Characters challenge is the most difficult and frustrating. After seeing a character quickly written on the screen, the player must trace over it, reproducing the same character from memory. One complaint: On the DS, the characters are often so small it is sometimes impossible to really see their defining strokes.
With lessons mastered, more games are unlocked. During our time, we also unlocked a flashcard game that has players listen to a word pronunciation and then choose the correct English translation, a great way to get the brain thinking in both languages.
Students can review and practice past lessons or visit the dictionary under the program’s Reference section. The multimedia dictionary can be searched in English and customized to have only the words students have mastered appear on the screen.
My Chinese Coach delivers a surprisingly enlightening experience. However, difficulty levels are high and patience is mandatory amid the fun interactivity.
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A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in communications, Joseph Szadkowski has written about popular culture for The Washington Times for the past 17 years. He covers video games, comic books, new media and technology.
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