Story Selection for Mandarin Companion

MandComp+AllSet

The AllSet Learning team handled the story writing for the hot new series of Chinese graded readers, Mandarin Companion. As a result, we also had to wrangle with some serious academic issues. One of the questions frequently asked about these new books is how we chose the stories. People find it odd that we chose to write adapted versions of western classics rather than just using Chinese stories. Well, there are good reasons for the choices (and there’s no ethnocentrism involved!)

Reason #1: Traditional Chinese Stories Are Difficult

Sorry, but it’s true. Traditional Chinese stories often involve ghosts, monsters, spells, emperors, war tactics, and all kinds of really cool themes. The only problem is that each of these brings with it some pretty complicated vocabulary. To make matters worse, a lot of these words are written with rare characters. When you’re writing a graded reader (especially at Level 1, the 300-character level), impractical vocabulary is a no-no, but the use of obscure characters is absolutely taboo.

One potential workaround is to “adapt” the Chinese stories themselves. “Simplify” them. This seems like a good idea at first, but serious simplification is always needed, and that usually requires some pretty serious compromises. Character identities and whole plot points might need to be drastically altered. While the average reader may be fairly forgiving in this department, the average Chinese person may be less tolerant. To many Chinese, such changes amount to making the story wrong, to slandering sacred Chinese culture. Obviously, that’s not our intent, but significant changes to Chinese classic stories can upset people for cultural reasons.

So when you add up vocabulary/character challenges and cultural barriers to story modifications, our conclusion is that you’re better off avoiding the traditional Chinese material for the lowest levels. We wish it wasn’t so!

Reason #2: Western Classics Are Easy

It’s not that the stories themselves are inherently simpler, it’s that classics like The Secret Garden already have a long tradition of translations, simplifications, and adaptations. As westerners, we’re used to it. It doesn’t bother us (even when they’re really wacky, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). When we tell prospective readers that we have Chinese versions (fully adapted to the Chinese context, with all Chinese characters and Chinese settings) of classic western stories like The Secret Garden and Rip Van Winkle, the reaction is usually, “cool!” It often deepens reader interest, sometimes to the point of interest becoming how we adapted this particular story to the Chinese context. That’s a reaction you can’t get from your audience when you use unfamiliar Chinese stories, and we’ve found that our Chinese would-be-allies tend to be somewhat skeptical about westerners tinkering with the inner workings of Chinese classics.

We’re fine with all this, really. It just means that…

Conclusion: Western Classics Are a Better Starting Point

It’s not that we think it’s a bad idea to ever do Chinese classics. We want to. It’s just that for the lowest level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Rather than cramming more obscure characters down our readers’ throats, we’d prefer that they just got started reading earlier. That means the simplest possible content conducive to compelling stories for Level 1, and the content that works best at those levels.

Mandarin Companion does have plans for simplified Chinese classics as well as original content (sci-fi, anyone?) at higher levels. We’ll be happy to help them make that happen!

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Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.3

The Chinese Picture Book Reader version 1.3 has finally hit the app store! This version addresses what we’ve been hearing the most: the app needs more content. So it’s got it, both free and paid. Here’s what’s new in this version of the app:

PBR-Q6-screen01

  1. The app is now both iOS6 and iOS7 compatible, and entirely RETINA (iPad 3+), and all new books support retina.
  2. The big change is lots of NEW BOOKS, both free and paid. Fee content has been updated to a new, retina style.
  3. We’ve added a nifty new parallax transition effect to the textbox as you swipe between pages.
  4. The app home has been refreshed a bit and made more consistent with the rest of the app.

New books include:

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  • Life in the Countryside, a narrated photo set featuring the work of China-based photographer Sean Hanratty
  • College Kid Interview #4: “What Chinese city do you like most?”
  • College Kid Interview #5: “Who is your hero?”
  • College Kid Interview #6: “In the past 10 years, what do you think has been the biggest change in China?”
  • College Kid Interview #7: “What do you think is the best way to pursue someone you like?”
  • College Kid Interview #8: “If you want to live pretty well in Shanghai, how much do you think your salary should be?”

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If you enjoyed any of the “college kid interview” series content before, you’ll definitely appreciate this update. There are now more voices, photos, and real handwriting, all in a new high-res design.

We hope you like the updates. More to come!

Get Chinese Picture Book Reader for iPad

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Word Boxes on the Chinese Grammar Wiki

In our endless endeavor to make the Chinese Grammar Wiki useful and accessible, we’ve added yet another feature: word boxes. Word boxes? That’s right, on all of our keyword pages we have added a box that automatically links up to other websites that can help you get a deeper understanding of the vocabulary and usage of each individual word. Websites like MDBG are great for understanding the definitions of words, while Jukuu and Weibo can show you the words in real sentences. These are more resources to help you on your way to Chinese fluency, and we are glad to help you find them.

Word Box on the Chinese Grammar Wiki

Word Box on the Chinese Grammar Wiki

The word boxes do not necessarily have specific ties to any individual grammar point. Instead, the word boxes link to different kinds of websites: dictionaries, explanations, and example sentences. This way, if you are unsure as to the actual function of a word, you can look it up and clear up the confusion before you study the concept. Additionally, the example sentences are a great way to see the word and its related phrases in action. If the examples on the Grammar wiki aren’t sufficient, the examples sentences from other websites will help show you the correct usage and their contexts.

Here’s an example of how a learner might use the word boxes for :

  1. The learner is browsing the article on “Zai” following verbs
  2. The learner clicks on the keyword “在” in the box at the right, taking her to the keyword page for 在
  3. The learner clicks on the links in the word box at the right, getting lots of extra examples using 在

The Grammar wiki will still be the go-to resource for Chinese grammar, but we are happy to link to other websites that offer excellent additional information that we’re not in the best position to provide. The information on all of these websites complements the information that we provide on the Grammar Wiki, providing a fuller, deeper understanding of how the words fit into Chinese grammar. We can provide the explanations for the constructions and then we show learners where they can read and practice the constructions that they’ve just learned.

The new word boxes create a network with the Chinese Grammar Wiki spreading out and connecting to other Chinese learning websites. This way, your Chinese learning experience will be more complete, and your comprehension of the grammar concepts will be better for it. Check out the new word boxes and let us know on Facebook or Twitter (@ChineseGrammar) what you think of them!

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2013 Summer Intern: Ben

Intern-Ben

American Ben Slye was recommended to AllSet Learning by previous intern Parry, and turned out to be a great fit. Through a variety of duties, Ben proved that he was an industrious addition to the AllSet Learning team for the summer. (Our teachers in the office also thoroughly enjoyed joking around with him as they helped him improve his Chinese.)

Ben’s projects included graded reader research, graded reader testing, app testing, taking Chinese “training lessons” with AllSet Learning teachers, assisting with blog post writing, and editing and enhancing the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Ben had this to share about his internship experience:

My time at AllSet has just flown by. I thought a summer would feel longer than this, but the people in the office always made it fun. Between making me do translations for the Grammar Wiki to giving feedback on any new materials, I was always surrounded by Chinese, which was just the way I wanted it! Most of my time here was spent fine-tuning the Grammar Wiki, making it more connected and more accessible. I was also able to participate in some of the teacher training programs, giving a student’s perspective on the way that they taught. I loved seeing those meetings and how a consulting business like AllSet conducted them.

Of course, having native Chinese speakers to work with really helped my speaking ability. Just being able to talk to them every day, making jokes or asking about their weekends, it was always possible to practice Chinese. Plus I was talking to teachers, so they knew how to get me to learn better! Every time I tried they would be able to correct me or give me some new vocab, so there was always more to learn. I filled pages of my notebook with new words, and I always made sure to use any new grammar they taught me (although not necessarily correctly). They would keep correcting me, and I can see a definite improvement since starting here.

Although my stint at AllSet is over, I am so grateful for the opportunity, and so happy to have met the wonderful people that I have in Shanghai. It’s been great!

Thank you for everything, Ben! You were truly a powerhouse when it came to Grammar Wiki editing, and we all loved having you around full-time. The office definitely felt emptier when your internship ended. (Good thing you left your precious notebook behind so we have something to remember you by….)

P.S. Yes, of course we got his precious notebook back to him!

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2013 Summer Intern: Brandon

Intern-Brandon

Texan Brandon Sanzhez was this past summer’s CET intern. While at AllSet Learning over the summer, Brandon worked on a range of projects, including audio editing for the Chinese Picture Book Reader, social media promotion, graded reader testing, app testing, taking Chinese “training lessons” with AllSet Learning teachers, and Chinese Grammar Wiki editing.

Brandon brought a sense of humor and positive attitude to all he did, and everyone in the office enjoyed having him around. (Too bad he had those pesky Chinese classes in the mornings…)

Brandon’s take on the experience:

I came to Shanghai with hopes of learning Chinese culture and language, but didn’t really know what to expect. John’s compassionate and motivating personality provided comfort and encouragement in a very unfamiliar environment. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous flying halfway around the world to intern, but AllSet provided a stimulating and friendly work environment that soothed my nerves.

I absolutely loved the variety of tasks I was given throughout my internship at AllSet Learning. One week I could be working with audio software to analyze Chinese tones; the next, I am offering suggestions for AllSet’s future products and submitting UI design ideas for upcoming apps. My ideas were met with enthusiasm, and I truly felt like a part of the AllSet Learning team.

My two months in China zoomed by, and I enjoyed every moment of it. AllSet Learning was an invaluable aspect of my experience in Shanghai, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such kind, open, and passionate individuals.

We appreciate all you did, Brandon. Keep up with your Chinese studies, and we’ll be happy to buy you another coffee on your next visit to Shanghai!

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Lots of New Content Coming to the Chinese Picture Book Reader

The AllSet Learning team has been hard at work for some time now on the next round of new content for the Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app. A blog post on Sinosplice helped provide some ideas, and summer intern Mei helped with the graphic redesign of the “College Kid Interview” series, which now supports high-res “retina” iPads.

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Keywords on the Chinese Grammar Wiki

Keywords   Chinese Grammar Wiki

When studying Chinese, it’s always good to have a few keywords that can unlock a host of grammar structures. Lucky for you, we have them, on our new Keywords page on the Chinese Grammar Wiki! By linking up the words to the grammar points that they are related to, we’ve made it so that you can see what sorts of constructions they’re a part of. Keywords can also be found in the Grammar Box at the top of the articles, just in case you wanted to see other related constructions for that word.

This page is particularly useful if you know that a phrase contains a certain word, but you don’t know what other kinds of situations it belongs in (or what the structure means in the first place!). If this is the case, all you need to do is find the word in the list and it will take you right to that page. Another option is using the search bar. We have pages in both pinyin and hanzi, so you can search for either one. Then the wiki will take you to a disambiguation page, allowing you to choose the right topic. It’s just another way to make the Wiki easy to navigate and makes finding grammar that you want to study simple.

Another way the Keywords page is useful is if you want to study the many uses of a particular word (I’m looking at you “了”). If this is the case, all you need to do is type in the word, and you will find a list of all the constructions that use that word. In the case of “了” you might be there a while, but by the end of it you would know all about its various uses. (Sidenote: We’ve also added a special “Uses of le” page, because it’s a point that really deserves special attention.) Finding keywords is a great way to kickstart your memory and learn a lot of different ways to express yourself with just one piece of vocabulary. Don’t pass up this opportunity.

If you are confused about a specific use of a word, or if you want an overview of all of its uses, the new Keywords page will meet that need. Here are a few keywords to get you started:

Find the full list of Keywords on the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

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2013 Summer Intern: Mei

Intern-Mei

This summer we really enjoyed working with our first ever design intern, Mei (May) Tong. Still a design student in Toronto, Mei came all the way to steamy Shanghai this summer for work experience. We had plenty of design work saved up that we were happy to work with her on!

Mei is originally from China, but has been living in Canada for most of her life. As a company always working to bridge cultures, we appreciated the dual-culture perspective she provided.

Mei’s description of her internship with AllSet Learning:

I returned to Shanghai to learn about China’s taste in design and the role of a graphic designer in Chinese companies. AllSet Learning was an ideal company to experience this, due to the mixture of American and native Chinese employees. I was able to get feedback on my designs from everyone, which helped me grasp what worked and what didn’t.

In the short time I interned at the company, I was able to design a logo and some iPad app content. The logo took a considerable amount of time as we explored many, many options such as color, placement, type, and size. After finalizing the logo, I moved on to re-designing the look and feel of the Chinese College Kids content for the Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app.

Apart from the designs, the office was a great environment to work in due to the always entertaining and unusual conversations that happen to come up. It was also great to be able to work on the designs in the office with John so that he can participate in the process and give me his opinions along the way. The people at AllSet were always friendly and helpful, which made it a fun place to work. I was able to practice my Chinese during our talks at lunch, where I learned that I have an accent (probably from living in Canada). That was the first time I had heard this, making me realize that I still have a lot to learn.

Thanks for joining us this summer and creating with us, Mei! We look forward to seeing what you do in your career as a graphic designer.

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Chinese Picture Book Reader 1.2 Released

Chinese Picture Book Reader

You may have been wondering when new content will be added to the AllSet Learning Chinese Picture Book Reader iPad app. Actually, recently, we have been too! It was always our plan to add more and more content to the app, but in this case, a technical curveball was thrown our way. This is a short story about how technical issues related to apps can have pretty unfun consequences for small companies like us, who would just like to produce more good content for our apps, if we had the choice.

You see, originally, the Picture Book Reader app offered in-app purchases (iAP) through Urban Airship. So when you buy an additional picture book through our app, the iTunes App Store first verified the payment, and then the app authorized the download to your iPad of the iAP picture book content. Originally, this iAP content was stored on Urban Airship’s servers, and all the authorization/verification/whatever technical communications took place through Urban Airship’s API. It was all a relatively complicated process, but it was made complicated by Apple, and Urban Airship actually did a pretty decent job of making it a smidge easier for developers.

But then Apple decided to get into the iAP-hosting game. And once Apple gets into the game, Urban Airship knows it is going to lose a huge chunk of its market share. So Urban Airship did the sensible thing and decided to bow out of the iAP hosting service and focus on its other business. The only problem was that Apple “got into the game” without providing full documentation or support for the poor developers that had to figure out Apple’s complicated iAP hosting process. This means instead of following a detailed spec, developers are doing lots and lots of internet searches and programming by trial and error. Really not fun.

For us, this was a pretty big deal. It meant that our developer had to completely rewrite the most complicated parts of the app’s code, and make it work with Apple’s barely-documented iAP service. We had to make sure that all users that had ever purchased iAP content through the Chinese Picture Book Reader app would still have easy access to it (ideally in a totally seamless transition), and that meant lots and lots of testing.

Fortunately, we did it, and with a whole 10 days to spare before Urban Airship totally sunset its iAP hosting service on July 1st. All that testing seems to have paid off, and the app is working just fine, in-app purchases and all, but if you experience any problems, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at apps@allsetlearning.com.

In this latest update we also made the in-app help screens less annoying, and updated the app’s icon.

Coming in the next few releases:

  • Bug fixes related to tricky text switches and matching audio
  • Total retina support for the whole app (it’s about time!)
  • New content (both free and paid)

Thank you to all our supporters out there! More is coming soon, and we really appreciate your patience so far. And if you don’t have it yet, go download the app.

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2013 Spring Intern: Erick

Erick with the iPadErick Garcia, a senior in the Nanjing Chinese Flagship Program, has recently completed the longest and most productive AllSet Learning internship to date! Erick helped standardize and upgrade the ever-growing Chinese Grammar Wiki, and was also able to use his excellent Chinese skills to start work on the forthcoming Advanced (C1) grammar points.

Besides the Chinese Grammar Wiki, Erick helped with iOS app testing (both the Pinyin and the Picture Book Reader apps), and was even able to help lead our efforts to localize the Pinyin app in multiple languages. Erick also reviewed new iPad apps and other potential study materials, took demo classes to provide feedback on new teachers, and helped develop some of AllSet Learning’s new products. He was an important part of the team over the past four month.

Erick’s description of his time at AllSet:

I have been a reader of Sinosplice for a few years now, so I was familiar with AllSet Learning almost from the beginning of the company. I have always been passionate about Chinese, language learning, and technology, three things that are at the core of AllSet Learning. I was glad to have the opportunity to intern while participating in the Chinese Flagship Program.

In short, you can say that I learned a lot. I learned a lot about how wikis work with the Chinese Grammar Wiki, learned about social media marketing, learned how to properly beta-test apps while testing the Pinyin app and the Picture Book Reader, learned about interviewing potential teachers and reviewing resumes, and learned how to train other interns and write up training materials.

I was able to use my Political Science training in statistics to help analyze customer data and suggest possible data visualizations, and able to use my Chinese knowledge while laying the foundations for the advanced section of the Chinese Grammar Wiki. I was able to take a few test lessons, and I did my best to push my Chinese abilities. I was able to contribute by suggesting ideas for apps, and give suggestions and ideas for future projects.

I definitely learned and relearned a lot of Chinese grammar, and appreciated being able to speak Chinese all the time.

My wife and I enjoyed living in Shanghai. We think it’s a fun city, and it’s more fast paced than Nanjing. We loved living here and we have had many opportunities to meet interesting people and of course, eat lots of fantastic food!

We really appreciate everything you’ve done, Erick. You’ve always got friends at AllSet Learning!

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