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General Description | Evaluation | Summary | Producer Details | Reviewer Information
CALICO Software Review
CALICO Journal, Volume 18 Number 3, pp. 618-628

Beginning Cantonese

Peter Yang - Case Western Reserve University


Product at a glance
Product type: Multimedia language learning software
Language: Cantonese as a foreign language
 - Level: Beginning
 - Activity: multiple choice tasks, vocabulary completion tests, audio flashcards, pronunciation practice, and listening dictation tests
Media format: 2 CD-ROMs
Computer platform:Windows 95/98 or Windows NT 3.51/4.0
Hardware requirements:PC: 486 +
 RAM: 16MB (minimum)
 Hard disk space: 9MB
 CD-ROM (2x speed)
 SVGA or better; sound card; speaker; microphone (recommended for recording)
Price:Individual copy: $69.95 US
 Site license: The distributor does not currently offer site licenses for the Critical Languages Series including this program.

For volume purchases, call the UAP at 1-800-426-3797 or Email:

Info on how to order:

General Description
Beginning Cantonese, a multimedia courseware package for beginners of Cantonese, is part of the Critical Languages Series ( for less commonly taught languages. This two-CD-ROM courseware program was developed by Dana Bourgerie in collaboration with the Critical Languages Program (CLP) at the University of Arizona ( and the National Association of Self Instructional Language Programs (NASILP) ( It can be seen as stable mate of another in the Critical Languages Series: Beginning Chinese. The Cantonese courseware not only has the same types of exercises as other language packages in the series, but also its topics and dialogues are almost identical to those of Beginning Chinese. The major difference between the two is that the Cantonese package uses Cantonese romanization as the primary writing system[1] for its dialogues and simplified or traditional Chinese characters for its secondary writing systems. The Chinese package, on the other hand, uses only the traditional and simplified Chinese character systems.

The double CD-ROM package Beginning Cantonese contains twenty lessons (or units) for the beginning learner comprised of video dialogues and readings by native speakers, thousands of audio recordings, graphics, and extensive notes. Handy browser features enable users to easily review words and pronunciations, and to access five types of exercises which enable users to test and improve their knowledge of each lesson:

Learners with microphone-equipped computers can record and play back their own voices, then compare their pronunciation with that of the native speaker.

Figure 1

Table of Contents of CD-ROM 1
Table of Contents of CD-ROM 2
1: At the Zhongshan University Cafeteria in China 11: Introducing Friends
2: Family Members12: Seeing the Teacher Yesterday
3: Renting a Room13: Clothing
4: At a Friend's House for Dinner14: Travel
5: Eating at a Restaurant15: At the Bank
6: Weather16: Seeing the Doctor
7: At the Bookstore17: Finding Work
8: At the Department Store18: At the Post Office
9: At the Food Market19: Karaoke
10: Discussing Study Plans20: Seeing Someone Off


As Figure 1 and the Table of contents of the CDs show, the topics of the Cantonese package focus on students' living and study experience in the Cantonese environment. The courseware can equip students with both survival linguistic skills in Cantonese and knowledge of the Cantonese speaking culture.

As previously mentioned, the program primarily uses the Yale romanization system to display dialogues in audio and video. Each lesson has a link labeled "This lesson with Chinese Characters" on the bottom of the Cantonese page, which allows students to view dialogues in either simplified or traditional Chinese characters[2]. The CD-ROM package uses a Hyperlinking Multimedia Browser for Language Instruction, MaxBrowser, illustrated in Figure 2:

Figure 2

MaxBrowser allows students to browse through text with grammatical or cultural footnotes attached; listen to native pronunciations of words and sentences; record their own voices and compare them to native pronunciation; and obtain further information about the material through the completion of exercises.

Students can listen to each dialogue by word or by sentence and quickly switch between them by pressing the <Word> button (or simply W) or the <Sentence> button (or simply S). They can record their voices, and compare their own responses with correct answers.

Figure 3

In each lesson, the cloze exercises ask students to fill in words or simply a few characters in the blanks. The correct answers are shown along with the score when the test is done. Cloze tests can help students check their language ability. Here, the student must use the context of the entire passage to make the correct selections. During the test, the student is so-to-speak emerged in the target language. The students' previous experience with the text provides additional clues in filling-in-the-blanks.

The multiple choice exercises of each lesson ask questions about a word or phrase in the text the students have been studying. Learners are given immediate feedback on the correctness of their answers when they are done. They can try again to correctly answer the questions they missed until they get all responses right.

In each lesson, students are given sentences to listen to and then type in what they hear. They have the opportunity to compare their own answers with correct responses.

Pronunciation exercises are designed to help students improve their pronunciation of words and sentences. These exercises first play the native speaker's voice, and then prompt the student to say the same thing (while the appropriate text is being highlighted). Students record each word sequentially, and then the whole sentence. After the recordings are completed, the native speaker's voice and the student's voice are played sequentially so that they can be compared. In this process, students don't have to press any keys as the length of time of recording for each word is automatically determined by the length of the native speaker's recording.

Figure 4

There is no hard copy documentation. However, the Help documentation and Notes on the program are very comprehensive.They contain very useful information to students and instructors about the program, content, topics, grammar aspects and linguistic functions involved with each dialogue. At the beginning of the program, there is also a suggested activity list to allow learners to adjust activities to their personal learning strategies.

Technological features
Beginning Cantonese comes on two CD-ROMs . Installation of the program is easy. The structure of the software is simple and options are limited to basics. The browser makes the navigation of the program intuitive and the learning curve of the program is fast. The program progresses from simple topics to relatively more complicated ones. Pedagogically it is very well designed and conceived. The voices are all from native Cantonese speakers. Dialogues are very clear and sound quality is high. The speed of speech is slightly slower than normal in order to facilitate comprehension, but not so slow as to sound artificial.

The courseware loaded very easily on the different computers the reviewer tried. The program is designed only for the Windows platform and was tested on different computers with different versions of Windows. There was no significant difference in the performances of the program on the various installations.

The appearance of the screen is uncluttered. Cantonese and Chinese texts appear in separate resizable windows, which allow them to be displayed one above the other or side by side. This is an excellent feature for those who want to study Cantonese by comparing both texts. However, two limitations need be considered in using this feature. First, the video window is dependent upon the parent text window. If the video is being played, this prevents students from scrolling up or down the texts in windows arranged one above the other. Second, if arranged side-by-side, the fixed widths of both texts will exceed that of most screens and part of the aligned texts appears off the screen. These problems could be solved for most monitors if the producers were to make the video window independent of the parent text window or limit the width of each text to 320 pixels. The location of chapter related notes and the text in Chinese characters at the bottom of the page seems inconvenient. A button on the toolbar that can pop up a floating bar with these items would make access to these items more user friendly (Pusak & Otto, 1997). The current version of the program needs closer editing to eliminate some obvious mistakes, e.g. the "Hong Kong Weather Report" and "Chinese Weather Report" in Lesson 6. The former turns out to be "A Sample of International Weather Report" and the latter is in fact the "Taiwan Weather Report." Both are written in Chinese characters.

Activities (Procedure)
Students can listen to the title of the lesson and watch the video. At this initial stage, they can simply guess the meaning of the dialogue of the lesson by contextual clues such as gestures and facial expressions. Subsequent listening to the dialog in Sentence mode while watching the video can reinforce the student's comprehension. After having understood the dialogue in Cantonese as a whole, checking the English translations of words and sentences might help the student understand linguistic details. The footnotes (text or pictures) attached to the text can provide additional information. Then the student can watch the video again, this time without reading the text, and try to understand the conversation as much as possible.

Once students attain an overall understanding of the dialogue, they are ready for the exercises. The various types of exercises (flashcards, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank cloze, dictation, and pronunciation) can be selected or repeated as many times as needed until learners get all answers correct: After which they can move on to next lesson.

The language skills addressed by Beginning Cantonese are mostly listening comprehension and pronunciation with an area focus on discourse and syntax. The courseware can be used as a supplement to any Chinese curriculum. Dictation, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank exercises provide scores and positive feedback to the learner. The flash cards and pronunciation exercises do not, because they are designed for learner practice rather than evaluation.

Figure 5

Teacher fit (Approach)
Beginning Cantonese consists of dialogues. The basic situations of the program are common to most teaching contexts. The underlying pedagogical assumptions of the program are communicative. Therefore, this courseware can be easily incorporated into classroom based curriculum. At the same time, the program is multimedia, non-sequential and modular in structure to accommodate varied learning patterns and to allow an integrated approach. Beginning Cantonese courseware similarly offers a language experience very close to a real one, in a well-prepared and controlled learning environment. Beginning Cantonese can be used for practice in a lab or at home with listening comprehension; the twenty thematic lessons can easily accommodate any curriculum needs.

Both communicative aspects of the target language and constructivist pedagogical assumptions (Radzik 1997) are underlying pedagogical considerations of the courseware. It allows Cantonese learners to take part in the dialogue, after appropriate modeling, with their own voices. The same role-play activity administered to a small group of students could lead to a freer and wider reconstruction and personalization of the learning material. All the dialogues have great linguistic accuracy and authenticity, while the socio-cultural representation is almost neutral.

Learner fit (Design)
The thematic organization of the program would be suitable for both students or self-learners of Cantonese who wish to further practice their listening and communicative skills. After a short learning curve of the organization of the program, Cantonese learners should have complete control over the courseware. They can employ an integrated approach to achieve the instructional objectives of the courseware to comprehend authentic and native dialogues. They can listen and read as many times as they want, explore texts by word and sentence, or check their comprehension by completion of selected exercises-- multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, audio flashcard, pronunciation, and listening dictation of each dialogue. There is no progression between dialogues; therefore learners can enter and leave the realistic situations at any point.

The use of Chinese characters in addition to the Yale romanization system is a reasonable solution because it gives students who read Chinese characters an additional tool to comprehend authentic native Cantonese. It also gives those who want to learn Chinese characters a convenient opportunity. However, there is an inconsistency in presenting the Chinese character version. On the one hand, it is introduced as "lesson text in which spoken Cantonese is written in standard Chinese characters, which many Cantonese use" (see "Getting Started"). However, it is not made clear that the dialogues in the Yale romanization system and those in Chinese characters are not identical. They use different vocabularies. While the latter use standard Chinese vocabulary in Cantonese pronunciation, the former use colloquial Cantonese vocabulary. Thus, the dialogues in Chinese characters can be seen as more formal conversations[3]. Moreover, the Chinese character version is referred to as a "written" or "citation reading" version (see section II of the introductory lesson), which is separated from the colloquial version written in Yale romanization system.

A solution that would both provide more consistency, simplicity, and learner convenience would be to use Chinese characters to transcribe colloquial Cantonese dialogues as is the case for the Yale romanization system. If there are no standard characters for certain Cantonese words, special Cantonese characters could be used (see section II of the introductory lesson) and the corresponding standard Chinese characters could be shown as written variations either in Notes or pop-up windows.

Beginning Cantonese is a valuable courseware program that concentrates on the improvement of learners' Cantonese listening comprehension and communicative skills. The software is pedagogically well designed and provides very useful exercises in addition to grammar and lexical notes within the program. In short, it is user-friendly, linguistically and pedagogically very sound, well conceived, and quite affordable.

Scaled rating (1 low - 5 high)
Implementation possibilities: 5
Pedagogical features: 4
Socio-Linguistic accuracy: 5
Use of computer capabilities: 4
Ease of use: 5
Over-all evaluation: 4
Value for money: 4

1. Users of this software package need to understand that the Yale romanization system is not a writing system for Cantonese speakers although it is used in this package as the primary written form in this software package. This writing system is however used for names of people and places and book titles in international documents and catalogs. It is also used for non Cantonese speakers as a learning tool just like Pinyin as a romanization writing system to help learn Chinese. [Return to text]

2. Switching between the Chinese character systems is not possible after the program has been started. The student must close the program and change the writing system by selecting Start->Programs->UofA Language Courseware->Font Configuration, then choosing either Simplified or Traditional before pressing the Save button. [Return to text]

3. There is no video to accompany dialogues in Chinese characters in each lesson. The video of each lesson only reflects the dialogue in the Yale romanization system. [Return to text]

Producer Details
Developed by:
Professor Dana Bourgerie
Brigham Young University

Produced by:
University of Arizona Critical Languages Program
1717 E. Speedway Blvd., Suite 3312
Tucson, Arizona 85721-0151, USA

Phone: (520) 626-9209 Fax: (520) 621-3386

Distributed by:
University of Arizona Press
1230 N. Park Ave., Suite 102
Tucson, AZ 85719

Tel: (800) 426-3797, (520) 626-4218 in Arizona and outside the US
Fax: (800) 426-3797

ISBN: 1-929986-04-1

Reviewer Information
Peter Yang is Jesse Hauk Shera Assistant Professor of German, Chinese and Comparative Literatures and Director of the Language Resource Center at Case Western Reserve University. He has published several books, many articles and websites on German Language and Literature, Comparative Literature, Instructional Technology, and other topics. He is a member of MLA Committee on Computers and Emerging Technologies in Teaching and Research.

Reviewer Contact
Case Western Reserve University
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Cleveland, OH 44106-7118

Phone: (216) 368-2234
Fax: (216) 368-2216

Pusak, James P. and Sue K. Otto. (1997). "Taking Control of Multimedia. "Technology-Enhanced Language Learning. Ed. Michael D. Bush. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company. 1-46.
Radzik, Andy. (1997). The Generative Model for CALL Development: