The Benefits of Versioning

AllSet Learning has recently launched its own Online Store for digital products that help you learn Chinese. One of the key features of the store is its versioning system. If you use any kind of software (especially smartphone or tablet apps), you’re probably familiar with versions already. But the concept can be applied to more than just apps. It could be applied to ebooks, or even music. And it can certainly be applied to our digital products.

AllSet Learning Online Store

In a nutshell, the way it works is that any time a new version of a product is released, anyone who has purchased that product receives an email notification about the new version. Those paying customers can then download the new version for free.

There are several key benefits to this kind of versioning:

  1. You don’t have to check for new versions; you’re notified as they are released, and updating is as easy as logging in and clicking a download link.
  2. Paying customers benefit long-term from ongoing development of products. AllSet Learning is committed to continually improving its products, and as a customer, you should benefit from that.
  3. As an early adopter of new products, you can “get in on the ground floor” for a cheaper price. As products develop, their scope may expand, and their prices will increase accordingly. If you’re more risk-averse, you may be happier plunking down more money for a more mature product that already has good buzz, and that’s fine.
  4. When you give feedback on existing products, it’s often easy for us to make changes and issue an update.

We’re currently getting in touch with our customers and gathering feedback to issue a round of updates. New products are coming as well. We’re excited about growing our offerings, and we urge you to check out the AllSet Learning Online Store if you haven’t already!

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How to Use Pronunciation Packs

With the release of the AllSet Learning Online Store, we are now offering Pronunciation Packs to help elementary and intermediate learners of Chinese improve their pronunciation in critical areas. The key components of the Pronunciation Packs themselves are professional-quality MP3 audio files and PDF word lists. So how does one use these tools?

For a creative learner or teacher, the possibilities are limitless, but most of us would prefer a bit of guidance. That is why every pronunciation pack comes with an Instructions PDF outlining:

  1. How a learner can effectively use these Pronunciation Packs on her own
  2. How a teacher can use these Pronunciation Packs as pats of Chinese lessons
  3. A Chinese version of the instructions for the teacher

You can check out the current version (1.0) of the Instructions by downloading the PDF yourself:

Pronunciation-Pack-Instructions-download

Just keep in mind that all products in the store will be updated with new versions, and that includes these PDF instructions. They’ll keep getting better and more complete with each update. (The file linked to here will not be updated.)

Thank you, Chinese learners, for your support of the AllSet Learning Online Store, and we look forward to sharing new products and updates with you in the future!

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Introducing the Online Store

We’re proud to announce that the new AllSet Learning Online Store is now open for business! AllSet Learning has created iPad apps before, and even penned Chinese graded reader ebooks, but now you can also get great learning content directly from us as well.

AllSet Learning Online Store

Why a store?

Some of our users might be wondering why we made this move. For us, it’s been a totally natural transition.

From the start, AllSet Learning has served Chinese learners in Shanghai as its main business. Because each client’s needs are different and the core of our services is personalization, we’ve had to develop quite a few different types of materials to meet our clients’ needs if there’s not already an existing study resource to do the job. The Chinese Grammar Wiki started out this way as well. But pronunciation has always been a key focus of our personalized instruction, and pronunciation practice has been a key component in our clients’ lessons over the years. As clients use them and provide feedback, we’ve seen which ones get the best results, and then refined them accordingly. More than four years later, it definitely feels like it’s time to share these with a larger audience.

The great thing about offering our digital products directly through our own website is that we can literally release anything we want. We’ve got lots of ideas, but sharing what we’ve already been working on for years first is a no-brainer.

Also, by establishing our own store, we can assert certain principles we believe in. One key one is a dedication to quality, supported by versioning. Put simply, we believe our products can always be better, and we intend to keep improving them. Any time you buy a product from our store, you also receive all future, improved versions of that product for free. (We’ll be talking more about this idea in a future post.)

We hope that you find our current “Pronunciation Pack” offerings useful. We will also be releasing more products (and new versions), and if you’d like to be updated on those, please do sign up for our newsletter.

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Adventures in Chinese Haggling

Our summer intern Zach had zero Chinese when he started. That hasn’t stopped him from communicating! Here’s how he did with just “Dūo shăo qían?” (how much?) and “TaÌ guÌ le!” (too expensive!).

I started learning Chinese just 13 days ago. My vocabulary is still in the infancy (I can say “delicious” and occasionally ask for water) and my practice of tones sounds like a pitchy falsetto singer sliding around the octave. But with every new word I’ve learned, a little bit more of China has opened up for me. Ordering my own food in a restaurant has become a highlight of my day, although I do get offended when they bring me a fork instead of chopsticks.

This past weekend, I was ready to get out of Shanghai and try a bit of my local tongue outside of Shanghai. I can still only form about six coherent sentences (and one of them is “Nĭ hăo”) but in my mind, I was ready. With a train ticket to Suzhou in hand, my goal was to dive into the culture and see how much I could discover.

Realizing that haggling was a great way to get started, I prepared two phrases for my adventure: “Dūo shăo qían?” and “taÌ guÌ le!” I figured that I would ask the first question, and regardless of the response, I would answer with “too expensive.”
Walking around the souvenir shops of Ganjing Lu, I took careful attention to select the right item. With the temperature and humidity climbing well beyond my comfortable threshold from back home, I decided to purchase a fan. One particular tourist trap had a beautifully crafted selection. I picked one out that featured a picture of Confucius on one side and some hanzi writing on the other.

Nervousness settled into my chest as I realized I was about to have to talk to someone. My pronunciation is average at best. Beyond the few phrases I’ve learned, my vocabulary is almost non-existent. This could be really messy and really embarrassing, but if I didn’t give it a shot, I would never know for sure what would happen.

I waved at one of the women that was walking around and managing the store.

This was the big moment. I was about to enter the world of International price negotiation. I just had to ask one question, give one objection, and suggest a lower price. Then I was going to be the proud owner of a fan.

With a curious look on my brow, I asked, “Dūo shăo qían?”

The woman pulled a small spiral note pad out of her pocket. Cool! I thought. She understood me.

She wrote something on it and turned the pad to face me. It read 19.

Here I go!

“TaÌ guÌ le!” I said, with feigned outrage at the price. Now the real negotiating would begin.

Or at least this is where the negotiating was supposed to begin. Instead, she shrugged, put the note pad back in the pocket of her apron, and walked away.

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I think this raises an interesting point about international travel. Just because I’ve seen how a process works does not mean I know how the process works. In the end, traveling is all about meeting and working with people, and people everywhere are unpredictable.

But this also meant that as I boarded the train back to Shanghai, I had failed in my haggling mission. It was my first weekend outside of Shanghai since arriving in China, and my small limited vocabulary had gotten me nothing.

But as the train clipped along at 297km/hour, I realized the value of putting myself out there in his wildly foreign language. I turned around and noticed the woman sitting in the seat next to me had an empty water bottle wedged in the seat pocket of the chair ahead of her.

I smiled at her and pointed at the water bottle. “Dūo shăo qían?” I asked.

She looked at me and then at the water bottle. It was obvious she was confused. After saying something I didn’t understand, she silently stood up and moved to empty seat across the aisle from me and sat back down.

I did my best to keep to a straight face as I turned around and looked back out the window. Now, I was 0-2, but I was also really proud of myself. Learning a language is a hard process. It can be nerve-racking, but everybody says stupid things at first and makes awkward mistakes in the process. By hopping on trains to new places, trying to talk to new people, and looking foolish every step of the way, I’m learning a lot both as a global citizen and a language student. If shrugged shoulders and extra elbow room on a train are the worst thing that can happen, it is totally worth taking the chance to engage with people.

I look forward to learning more and testing out my skills on future adventures.

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2014 Spring Intern: Michelle

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Michelle Birkenfeldt was AllSet Learning’s first Danish intern, and she did a great job of using her Chinese skills to help with various academic tasks. Although naturally a shy person, she was here long enough to warm up to everyone and really practice a lot of Chinese. She started interning in October 2013, and continued all the way until May 2014 (with some well-deserved breaks for travel in China).

She had a lot to say, so we’ll let her do most of the talking:

I came to China as an addition to my bachelor degree in Denmark. I mainly came here to study Chinese language, business and culture at Donghua University, but I quickly found out I would need more than books to improve my Chinese as much as I wanted to. After pulling some contacts here in China I came in contact with a company that offered me a scholarship. That was when I was introduced to AllSet Learning. After working here my Chinese improved super fast thanks to the teachers in office who are always happy to talk and ask lots of questions. They were always happy and interested in knowing things about my country and me since I was the first Danish intern at this company. They were also willing to help me if I had any questions about schoolwork or other stuff.

During my 8 months internship at AllSet Learning I have done lots of different things! At first I helped correcting sentences on the Chinese Grammar Wiki and came up with new suggestions for changes. Other than that I also read different graded readers, came up with suggestions for changes, answered questions about graded readers, photoshopped images for the Grammar Wiki, checked words for mistakes in online dictionaries, looked through LOTS of dictionaries in order to find new grammar points for the Chinese Grammar Wiki, tested iPad apps, participated in teacher meetings, walked around Shanghai in order to take pictures for the Grammar Wiki, and so on.

There were always lots of tasks, so you could always be sure you had something to do, and most of the time they were also fun things. To sum it all up, it has been great working at AllSet Learning and I have met lots of new people though this place that have all been very nice and helpful. My Chinese improved a lot during my time here (definitely also because of the “only-Chinese” office rule), which was what I wanted to obtain through this internship. It has been great being a part of something that for sure one day in the future will become something very big!

You’re always welcome at the AllSet Learning office, Michelle!

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2013 Fall Interns: Logan and Ashyln

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Logan Pauley and Ashyln Weber were two Centre College students that helped extensively with testing early versions of the graded reader stories which AllSet Learning created for Mandarin Companion. Their intermediate levels of Chinese and dedicated attitudes were a tremendous help. As a result, they were even thanked by name in the books they worked on at AllSet Learning.

In addition, they both also did some good work on the Chinese Grammar Wiki.

In Logan’s words:

Studying in China for the fall semester, my main goal was to improve my Mandarin skills. Immersion and constant discussion with experienced teachers, editing and testing Mandarin Companion graded readers, and doing translations and edits for the Grammar Wiki truly afforded me an opportunity to enhance and apply Mandarin in a tangible way. During the internship, I could really see improvement in not only my knowledge of Mandarin, but also my confidence in using it.

While my responsibilities in the office had a lasting impact, the atmosphere John. Yu Cui, Renjun, and Siping fostered made the internship what it was — lighthearted and fun, but productive. Some of my fondest memories of Shanghai include being made fun of / trying to defend myself while testing graded reader discussion questions (and, later, drowning my sorrows with a Mex & Co. burrito!)

Although my time at AllSet is over, I’m truly grateful for the opportunity and really hope to revisit the office someday! Thank you so much!

Thanks a lot, Logan and Ashyln! We know we’ll see you around these parts again.

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AllSet Pinyin 2.0

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AllSet Learning Pinyin 2.0 has been released, and is now available as a universal app with retina graphics which works on both the iPhone (tall and short) as well as the iPad. We’ve actually been working on this app for quite a while. Why did it take so long? This app was a total rewrite of the original, and now takes full advantage of the new “auto-layout” features which enable it to work flawlessly on iPhones and iPads.

So what’s new that you can actually see?

  • Updated “slide-out” menu
  • New design for settings, addons, and “about” info
  • Added elements of iOS7 design
  • Fixed the audio for the “cai” syllable (it sounded a little weird)
  • STILL NO ADS

Here are some shots of the new design (iPhone 5 screen size):

Note that the app also supports Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Thai, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese. Here are a few examples of that:

Since releasing our pinyin chart app in 2012, we’ve noticed a lot of other pinyin apps released, some even clerly “borrowing from” our own carefully considered design. Many of them even add in ads to try to monetize a free app, or cripple functionality in an effort to make users pay.

We’re dedicated to making a useful app for learning pinyin, and we believe adding ads to an app like this is just too annoying (especially for an iPhone version). We’ve got plans for making this app even more useful in the future, and we hope that our users will support our efforts and help spread the word!

One way is to retweet our announcement on Twitter:

Another is to share our Facebook post announcement.

And, of course, 5-star reviews in the App Store are extremely helpful in keeping us going.

Thanks for your support!

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Story Selection for Mandarin Companion

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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:

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  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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