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LEARN NC launches digital textbook of Mandarin Chinese

Photo of bridge in China

An illuminated bridge in northern China.
Photo from Stefans Photos

Many Americans know China for its Great Wall, built centuries ago to ward off foreign invaders. Today’s China is far more open, to the extent that North Carolina schools are scrambling to add Mandarin Chinese courses so students can communicate with the most populous nation on earth.

To respond to the increased demand for Chinese instruction, LEARN NC, a K-12 outreach group within the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education, has produced Mandarin Chinese I, a free online textbook for introductory-level Mandarin Chinese.

The word “textbook” might conjure images of heavy tomes full of information that is static and unchanging, sometimes bundled with costly supplemental materials or workbooks. Mandarin Chinese I is in many ways the opposite of this idea.

LEARN NC took great pains not to simply post pages of text on a Web site, according to LEARN NC Editorial and Web Director Dr. David Walbert. It incorporates audio and video to aid student comprehension and speaking skills. Updates and corrections can be made at any time, without having to wait for a second edition. And the book is free and open to the public.

Project history

LEARN NC developed the Mandarin Chinese I textbook in a partnership with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to develop a five-course, online Mandarin Chinese program. The program was funded by a Foreign Language Assistance Program grant, which stipulates that whatever materials are created from the grant must be made available to anyone who asks for them. As such, LEARN NC and DPI made the course shareable, and LEARN NC converted the course content into an open textbook format.

Languages are meant to be spoken and heard. In Mandarin Chinese, this is especially true, as minute changes in the tonality of a word can cause drastically different meanings. However, an online course can’t rely on several staples of face-to-face teaching such as tone of voice, facial cues, and real-time explanation.

To address this challenge, the Mandarin program incorporated audio and video so students could see and hear Mandarin speakers use the language as it was meant to be used. In addition, language coaches worked with groups of three to four students via Skype, an online telephony service, fine-tuning their pronunciation and tonality.

Digital advantages

For the Mandarin Chinese I textbook to be effective, it too needed to incorporate the audio and video aspects of the course. As such, Mandarin Chinese I uses professionally shot videos  to give students better context for each lesson, as well as easy access to audio files to help them with pronunciation and understanding.

“Every word is pronounced for you,” Walbert said.

“The textbook plays an audio file of a phrase in Mandarin, then breaks down sentences one word at a time,” said Dr. Bobby Hobgood, LEARN NC’s head of Research and Development/Online Curriculum and Instruction. “This way, students can hear a phrase as many times as they need to get it right. It allows for differentiated instruction, satisfying individual students’ needs to replay or review the content. It’s a lot more convenient than having to rewind the cassette tapes we used in my high school French class.”

What next?

LEARN NC has other digital textbooks in the works as well, most notably North Carolina History: A Digital Textbook, a textbook for North Carolina’s eighth-grade history curriculum. It will be available for the 2009-2010 school year. Walbert indicated that Mandarin Chinese II is currently in production, and that LEARN NC will eventually publish digital textbooks for the complete Mandarin Chinese program. Future language textbooks will include Arabic and Russian.

For the time being, LEARN NC is excited about what they’ve accomplished with Mandarin Chinese I, as well as the opportunities for knowledge it creates. “A friend of mine shared the textbook with her daughter, who’s entering high school,” Hobgood said. “After exploring the textbook, her daughter decided on the spot that she wanted to take Chinese.”