Dec 282012
 

IQChinese is a series of apps for children; four progressive levels are currently offered. The core of each app is a story. This is supplemented with songs, quizzes, and writing practice. I looked at iGo Chinese vol. 4 for the purposes of this review.

The app settings let you choose between simplified or traditional characters. From the starting screen, there are several options.

Lesson/Story
These are essentially the same thing. The story is 24 pages total. The lessons are this story divided into six lessons of four pages each. Each page is a still image with audio. The text of the dialogue is printed in boxes on the pages. The text always has characters with pinyin underneath. You can’t hide the text or even hide just the pinyin. But you’ll be glad the pinyin was there when you see what the quizzes are like.

A page from the story of iGo Chinese, level 4

A page from the story of iGo Chinese, level 4

You can play the story (or an individual lesson) straight through, with the audio read out and pages turned automatically, or you can swipe through page-by-page. In the latter mode, you have to tap a line of dialogue to hear the audio. You cannot play individual words. There is no option for any sort of translation. This makes the app useable by speakers of any language, but of course leaves the reader to work out what’s going on from the pictures.

The content is a “story” in a pretty loose sense of the word. Here is a summary of the 6 lessons:

  1. Some children are at school. They talk about going into the classroom and coming out.
  2. The children talk about what’s in their backpacks.
  3. Two boys talk about their favorite classes.
  4. Two boys discuss plans to draw birthday cards for a friend.
  5. The friend invites the boys to her house.
  6. They go to the friend’s house for the birthday party, but just talk about where the birthday girl’s dog is.

Apart from the fact that nothing much happens in the story, I found it oddly hard to follow. For example, in lesson 1, a boy asks if he and a girl may come into the classroom (page 1). The teacher invites them in (page 2), but then what looks like the same boy is outside again asking two other boys if they want to come out (page 3). I suppose page 3 is supposed to take place later in the day, but there’s no indication of that. Other than the general school theme, the first three lessons have little connection. The last three lessons form a more connected narrative than the first three, but even so, the plot is pretty thin.

You can probably tell, however, that there are a couple of grammatical threads running through. Expressions involving coming, going, and being located in places (进、来、出、去、在、里面 … 有) recur in various most of the lessons. Time expressions also occur several times (早上、明天、下午、四点钟).

Songs
The songs are based on the topics of each lesson and set to familiar western tunes like “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “Jingle Bells.”

You can listen to the song in two ways: sung vs. sort of rhythmically spoken to music. It took me a while to figure out what the difference even was (it’s explained in the app’s documentation) and then the difference seemed so minimal as to make it hardly worth including both versions.

The songs include words that do not occur in the lessons. There are no accompanying images for the songs, so there’s no clue to the meaning of any unknown words.

A song from iGo Chinese, level 4

A song from iGo Chinese, level 4

Quiz
At first glance there seem to be a lot of different kinds of quizzes, but this is sort of illusory; all the quizzes involve typing in pinyin, including indicating the tone with a number. The prompts can be single characters, words, or whole sentences. They can be ordered (as they appear in the lesson?) or random. And the prompt can be printed characters or audio. But no matter what the prompt, all you ever do is type in pinyin. I think that only a very motivated child will do much of this voluntarily.

In addition to the inherent tedium, there is no positive reinforcement when you enter an answer correctly. A mistake will trigger a small red “error” message or a mildly disapproving noise. Errors are marked instantly, rather than waiting for you to click some sort of “submit” button, which means that every time you accidentally hit a wrong key, it’s an error.

Error message and custom keyboard

Error message and custom keyboard

And I found it maddeningly easy to hit wrong keys since the app uses a custom keyboard that is about 3/4 the height of the standard iPad keyboard, although there is plenty of room on the screen (the orange box and space above it are bigger than they need to be) , even if you add an extra, smaller row for the tone numbers. One good thing is that the app does not allow you to flounder endlessly if you don’t know something. After about three errors, it just moves on. At the end of each exercise, you get a summary of your typing speed (?!), number of errors (with spelling and tone counted separately), etc. The detailed feedback is good, but you will need some other learning tool to work on the things that you miss, since the iGo quizzes do not adapt to the learner; you can only be quizzed in order or randomly. Good flashcard apps (like Skritter or Pleco) will test you more frequently on words that you have trouble with.

Post-quiz report

Post-quiz report

This exclusive focus on transliterating into pinyin is baffling. Why not start by matching characters to pinyin? Or have students choose the correct text for an image? Or the right image based on a bit of audio? The business of where the family dog is would lend itself to the latter kinds of exercises. There could be multiple choice (e.g. choosing an appropriate reply to something), fill-in-the-blank, re-ordering of words to form a sentence, etc. And why not build on the grammatical themes? There could be a time-telling exercise where you need to move the hands of a clock to a given time. As things are, it’s as if the only goal were to learn to transcribe into pinyin. In fact, you could read the text of the story and songs (note that some words that appear in the quiz don’t actually occur in the lesson, but only in the song) enough to learn the pinyin for each character without having the least idea what any of it meant.

Write
These sections are not accessible from the starting page of the app, but only from within each lesson. I honestly don’t understand the point of this. You are given character outlines that you can trace, but there is no feedback at all. It doesn’t correct incorrect stroke order. In fact, it doesn’t seem to care if you even write the character; you can literally write or draw anything (see image below) without any error message. Nor does the app try to teach you how to write the characters; I couldn’t find any way to get animated stroke order. And it seems as if only four characters per lesson are shown this way. This activity just seems incomplete, almost like an afterthought. I’d recommend that the developers actually add some functionality along the lines described or just get rid of these sections. If you really want your child to learn to write, I recommend Skritter or trainchinese’s flashcard/dictionary combo and their separate Chinese Writer game.

Writing random things with impunity

Writing random things with impunity

One nice feature of the app is the ability to record yourself, which is available on every page of the story and for every song (look for the microphone icon). But this is hardly unique.

Bear in mind, however, that I have not observed a child using this app. It may well have some appeal for young users (the developers recommend it for grades K-2), so parents should use their own judgment, but I hope that I’ve provided some information to help you decide whether to allocate any of your app budget to iGo Chinese.

iGo Chinese, levels 1-4, are all available on the App Store.

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