Chinese Learning Made Easy

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Chinese language learning continues to rise in popularity around the world, but picking up the language can be a challenge for non-native speakers who are not familiar with the script. Unlike alphabetic languages that use a set of letters, looking up a Chinese word in the dictionary can be daunting for beginners who do not have a good grasp of stroke counts and pronunciation.

New app helps students of one of the oldest living languages

The Education University of Hong Kong’s CKC Centre for the Development of Information Technology in Chinese Language Teaching recently developed a smartphone application which incorporates optical character recognition (OCR) technology into its online Chinese dictionary.

The CKC Centre aims to facilitate Chinese language acquisition through the application of cutting-edge technology. “With OCR, the task of digging up the word is passed to the electronic device. A user has to simply upload a picture containing an unfamiliar character or take a picture of the word, then the application provides the meaning and the pronunciation of the word. The application has been shown to reliably identify images of typed, legible handwritten or printed text of both traditional and simplified Chinese characters, with over 99 per cent accuracy,” explained Dr Tse Ka-ho, Deputy Director of the CKC Centre.

For ethnic minority students in Hong Kong, the lack of Chinese proficiency can pose problems in the long run, from securing a job in the city to integrating into mainstream society. “To cater for students from ethnic minority backgrounds, the dictionary provides an explanation in Hindi and Urdu for frequently used words. Moreover, audio files in both Cantonese and Mandarin are provided to facilitate learning,” he said. The database contains over 24,000 words, including rarely used characters such as “龘” and “驫”. He added, “The comprehensiveness of the database content ensures that learners, regardless of their language proficiency level, have something to learn.”

The free mobile app is available on iOS and Android. The team is currently working on enhancing the app so that it will be able to identify compound words and eventually provide the meaning and pronunciation of sentences. A version with Vietnamese is also in the pipeline under a partnership with the University of Languages and International Studies in Vietnam. Dr Tse expects the search engine can be further adapted to support more languages spoken in Belt-and-Road countries, including Russian.

“We are targeting every person who is interested in learning Chinese. We want to make learning this language, which is considered difficult, easy and fun,” he said.