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General Description | Evaluation | Summary | Producer Details | Reviewer Information
CALICO Software Review
CALICO Journal, Volume 18 Number 3, pp. 629-639

 Beginning Chinese(Mandarin)

Tongtao Zheng - University of Tasmania, Australia

Product at a glance

Product type:

Multimedia language learning software


Chinese (Mandarin)

- Level: Beginning

- Activity: multiple choice tasks, vocabulary completion tests, audio flashcards, pronunciation practice, and listening dictation tests

Media format:


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)


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
Summary of features
As its title indicates, Beginning Chinese is a learning software program designed for Chinese (Mandarin) beginners. Its main features include an integrated system comprised of text, video, and audio files. It contains 20 lessons on two CDs, over 6800 native speaker audio recordings, and 32 native speaker video dialogues including poems and games. Each lesson contains five different exercise activities: multiple choice tasks, vocabulary completion tests, audio flashcards, pronunciation practice, and listening dictation tests. One of its best features is that it allows learners to record their own speech through a microphone, and then compare their speech to that of the native speaker recording in the CD set.

Background information
Beginning Chinese is a second language learning program in the Critical Languages Series which includes five other languages: Beginning Cantonese, Kazakh, Turkish, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese. Each program employs a large number of video and audio clips integrated with texts, which enables learners to not only see, but also hear and speak as they learn the target language. The CD set is designed to be flexible, and to be used in a variety of settings inside and outside the classroom, either as a supplement, or as a self-instruction tool. Beginning Chinese is claimed to be equivalent to a first-year Chinese textbook.

Printed manuals
Beginning Chinese has a written lesson guideline that instructs the learner how to study each lesson. Instructions and technical information are provided on the cover of the CD set.

Online help
The opening screen of Beginning Chinese contains a Getting Started section, a general help function, which explains how to use the CD set and gives general advice about how to learn Chinese. At the beginning of each lesson, an Instruction advises learners how best to tackle the content and exercises of the lesson. The on-line screen manual is another good feature of this CD set. By clicking the mouse on a selected item, the manual automatically displays the relevant help text. The learner can also get help from the University of Arizona website (

Technological features
The instructions for System Requirements, located on the back of the CD set, recommend that the program be run on "Windows 95 or higher", but does not mention other Windows platforms. In fact, the software can be run not only on Windows 95 or 98, but also on Windows NT.

The program was first installed on a Pentium 200 PC with English Windows 95. Installation was very easy and performance faultless. The program was also run on a Pentium 200 PC desktop machine running Chinese Windows 98; an AMDK6-2 400 PC Server with Windows NT 4.0 (Service Pack 4) system; and a Pentium 233 notebook running English Windows 98. All machines ran without problems. Installation is automatic when the CD is inserted into the CD-ROM drive. It starts by copying necessary files for running programs from the CD onto the user's hard disk, running only one section of the program at a time, which is perfectly adequate in most situations. It requires about 9MB of free disk space for installation. A 8x, 16x, and 24x speed CD-ROM all worked well when viewing the video clips and graphics with a VGA or SVGA monitor at a 600x800 or higher resolution. The synchronizing of the visual and audio activities between the CD-ROM and hard disk also function well. The quality of sound is clear on any 16-bit MCI-compatible sound card. A microphone can be plugged into the sound card of the computer to record speech.

Navigation and User Interface
The opening screen in the first CD contains five options - Continue, Exit, Getting Started, About the Critical Languages Series, Credit. The learner can click a button and enter any of these options. If users click on the <Continue> button, they enter a page that contains Lessons 1-10. The CD lacks a device that can change window resolution, thus allowing the learner to maximize/minimize English words on the screen. The words that appear are rather small, though most people shouldn't have a problem in reading them.

Navigation between hyperlink-like screens is easy and responsive. However, a <Goback> button in all sections of the CD would make it more user friendly, and would improve the design of the interface. For example, in each Cloze and Dictation section, the user has to click <X> (cancel) in the right top corner of the screen in order to return to the previous screen. The rest of the sections, however, all contain a <Goback> button.

Activities (Procedure)
The user interface and learning environment of Beginning Chinese are generally delightful, welcoming and encouraging. Once the learner has entered a lesson, there are 9 choices from which to select: Instruction; Video play; Audio play with text; Flashcard; Multiple choice; Cloze; Dictation; Pronunciation and Goback.

The Instruction option advises the learner how to approach the lessons. The Video play option displays conversations between native speakers, while the Audio play with text option allows the learner to view the text whilst listening to the recording. The Flashcard option contains all words used in the lesson. Here the learner is able to study each individual word with its proper pronunciation. The Multiple choice option tests the learner's knowledge of grammar and understanding of the text. The Cloze option tests the ability of users to select appropriate vocabulary, and their conceptual understanding of key words. In the Dictation option, the user's ability to recognise each relevant character is tested. In the Pronunciation option, learners can record their own speech and then compare it with the native speaker's recording. The Goback option allows the user to return to the main menu, which lists lessons 1-10.


Figure 1

The design of the CD set is very flexible and helpful, as the learner can freely choose the appropriate section to work from. Moreover, the CDs cover such useful topics as shopping, eating, going out, at the hospital, and asking about the weather, which provide the learner with basic language skills for survival in China.

The audio and video assistance provided by the CD set is one of its greatest strengths. The user has access to the sound for any word or sentence in any lesson. The video clips can be viewed alone or combined with the text. It helps the learner to visualize the characters whilst simultaneously listening to their pronunciation. In this way, the linkage between the visual and phonological clues of the texts is established. There is, however, a problem with screen design in that the user is unable to compare the text and audio with the video conversation, since part of the text is covered by the video window. Although the video window can be moved by dragging it with the mouse to reveal any text its default position may obscure, when it is moved to a new position, the video window still continues to cover part of the text no matter where it is moved. The user is also unable to follow the text whilst dragging around the video. Furthermore, while the video conversation is taking place, the user is unable to scroll down and view the text in its entirety. The synchronization of the text and video would overcome this problem.

Figure 2

The English translation of all words and sentences is also available. A learner can hear either the English translation of a single word or utterance or of the whole text by right clicking the mouse. The words, utterances or text can be played in real time sequence, or randomly by selection. This is an extremely helpful learning feature of the CDs.

Cultural and linguistic information is provided in a number of ways. For instance, information can be obtained from the "Introduction to Chinese Language" and "Supplemental Materials" sections, as well as from the footnotes found in each lesson. The "Introduction to Chinese Language" section contains 19 special sections of linguistic and cultural information including Chinese Family Relationships, Housing, Basic food, and some common vocabulary. Two language games, three poems and two tongue twisters are also introduced in the "Supplemental Materials" section. These extra activities add an element of entertainment and relaxation compared to the previous formal learning tasks. There is also a section entitled "Standard Chinese Writing System," which explains some basic structures of Chinese characters in order to illustrate their origin, thereby providing invaluable information on Chinese values and culture. Some useful websites are also provided in this CD set, such as the University of Arizona and the Chinese Language Teachers Association websites. However, some of the more comprehensive and popular sites such as "China Education and Research Network"[1] (, and "The Complete Reference to China/Chinese-Related Web Sites" ( are not included. Although websites and website addresses can change, these will not necessarily change at more frequent intervals than the websites recommended by the CD set. And even in the eventuality of some websites and addresses changing, the learner will have no difficulties finding the new address or site. Giving learners a more extensive range of websites and addresses to supplement their learning can only serve to enhance their study. Furthermore, since the CD set is being marketed worldwide, and is concerned with the Chinese language and culture, it is important that learners be able to access not only the CLTA and University of Arizona websites, but are also major Chinese websites as well.

One of the main drawbacks of this software is the irrelevance of the video clips to the content of the lessons. The video clips are always performed by two or three native speakers in a recording room, regardless of what the lesson is about. For example, the topic of Lesson 12 is "Travel," so the user would expect to learn the language whilst viewing a real travel situation. However, the travel dialogue is conducted solely within the recording room. This occurs in nearly all of the lessons. The purpose of the video clips should be to help the learner understand how special utterances are used in real communication.

The pronunciation of speakers in the video clips is of high quality, and can be heard very clearly. However, the speakers' facial expressions remain impassive, and the delivery of their speech is stilted. The learner is presented with conversations that give the impression of being read, rather than with natural, fluent speech. Perhaps this can be attributed to a lack of adequate preparation before the lessons were recorded. It should also be noted that there is a minor error in the software in lesson 8. In this lesson, the word "zheli" (here) is pronounced as "zher".

Teacher Fit (Approach)
The approach adopted by the authors is generally a combination of direct immersion, structuralist, and behavorist approaches with a minimal amount of grammar study. This combination of approaches is used through features such as visual observation, phonological repetition, flashcard option, and para-linguistic feature learning. The Flashcard option is most certainly a well-designed feature in this CD set. It displays the concordant relationship of each keyword (word being learned), and allows the uer to relate the keyword to its neighboring words, therefore facilitating understanding of its utterance patterns.

The pronunciation of words and utterances in Chinese, and their English translations also help the learner to understand meanings quickly. Another good feature of the CD set is that it makes it possible for the learner to imitate the pronunciation of a word or an utterance through the well-designed Pronunciation recording exercises. These exercises enable the learner to contrast their pronunciation with that of native speakers. Other self-evaluation activities also help facilitate learning procedures. For example, the Cloze Tests reinforce the learner's ability to understand the missing word's grammatical status, and it's semantic relationship with neighboring words. The Multiple Choice sets help the learner to eliminate possible learning errors by choosing the correct answers from each task. Put together as a whole, all of these self-evaluation sets can quickly improve the learner's linguistic competence in the four-macro skills.

Socio-cultural representation
The definition of "Southern Mandarin" is questionable, as Beginning Chinese refers to Southern Mandarin as being spoken in Taiwan. It ignores the difference between Taiwanese Mandarin and the Mandarin spoken in southern China, where there exist many different dialect groups. It is, for example, oversimplifying matters to say that all southern Chinese will use "Jiao-da-che"(bicycle) and "dian-nao (computer), even though this is the case for Taiwanese Mandarin speakers.

The following statement made in the CD set is also likely to create a confusion about the social status of southern Mandarin speakers: "In any case, not using the *er* suffix carries little or no stigma. In contrast, merging *zhi,*chi*, shi* with *zi*, *ci*, *si* can be seen as a mark of lower education, especially in mainland China" (Variation). The fact is, however, that merging blade-palatals *zhi, *chi*, shi* with blade-alveolar is merely an indication of geographical difference among Chinese dialect groups in China. That is to say, in some areas of southern China, blade-palatals phonemes do not exist in local dialects. It is therefore misleading to assume that these people come from poorly educated backgrounds. As a matter of fact, many prominent Chinese scholars are not Northern Mandarin speakers. For example, both the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, President Jiang, and Premier Zhu are not speakers of northern Chinese Mandarin.

Learner Fit (Design)
Beginning Chinese provides a very helpful and effective means for the independent learning of Mandarin. However, despite its title, this CD set does not provide the most fundamental elements for the ab initio learner (e.g. Pinyin convention, IPA pronunciation, basic stroke training etc.). Instead, it starts with actual conversations. For example, Lesson 1 begins with "At Nanjing University Cafeteria in China." Either the necessary fundamental elements should be incorporated into the program, or it should be given a more appropriate title.

The written lesson guideline provides the user with useful learning strategies. Any new learner who follows this guideline will be able to get onto the right track of the learning process. The software emphasizes the importance of the contextual variants that play an important role in word and utterance learning. All the situational settings of each word in this software are listed and easy to retrieve. The para-linguistic features are also another focus of the software: the video clips are designed for the learner to observe facial expressions and gestures (but see above). Cultural notes are also provided for better understanding of the text.


Figure 3

The writing of characters is not a concern of this CD set. It focuses only upon character recognition, and the characters' syntactic correctness (word order). It would be of even greater benefit to the user, however, if during the exercises all utterances and words in each lesson could be assessed by the learner at will, rather than only those determined by the CD set. This is due to the fact that individual learners may have different levels of proficiency in the language, so their requirements for assessment will also be different. Free choice in access would therefore be of great benefit to all learners.

As a self-contained interactive multimedia Chinese learning package, Beginning Chinese is a well-designed and useful program compared to other Chinese self-learning software, and is perhaps one of the best software programs that has come to the attention of this reviewer. Its strength lies in the interactive features between the learner, and the program's audio and video recordings, and text. It provides a flexible and effective way of learning Chinese. The producers' claims that the CD set is the equivalent of one year of university-level Chinese are in fact warranted. Special emphasis is placed upon its feedback mechanism, which includes various types of well-designed self-evaluation exercises. The video clips are its main weakness in terms of their lack of naturalness and relevancy to lesson content. The socio-cultural accuracy of the program is also in need of improvement. Nevertheless Beginning Chinese is an excellent program which would give great pleasure to the individual user for whom it is designed. Its greatest strengths are its excellent sound features, video, graphics and user-friendly interface.

Scaled rating (1 low - 5 high)
Implementation possibilities: 5
Pedagogical features: 4.5
Socio-linguistic accuracy: 4
Use of computer capabilities: 5
Ease of use: 4
Overall: 4.5
Value for money: 5


1. "China Education and Research Network" can be viewed in either Chinese or English. However, in order to display Chinese characters, an add-on program such as Nanji Star, Chinese Star, or Richwin is required.[Return to text]


Producer Details
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: 1-929986-03-3

Reviewer Information
Tongtao Zheng (PhD) is a lecturer in Chinese in the School of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania. He is trained in both applied linguistics and computer science. He is particularly interested in CALL and designing internet-based language learning systems.

Reviewer Contact
Dr Tongtao Zheng
School of Asian Languages and Studies
University of Tasmania
PO Box 252-91, Hobart, TAS 7001

Phone: (+61 3) 6226 2556
Fax: (+61 3) 6226 7813