FourthTone Mandarin is a Chinese learning platform that provides level based content that aims to make learning Chinese easier and more enjoyable. Learning Chinese can be difficult and time consuming largely due to its writing system. In Chinese, words are made up of a characters. Some words match up to a single character where others are composed of many characters. Chinese contains no delimeters such as spaces to show where one word ends and another begins. All of this makes it quite chalenging to students. Rather than students needing to waste time segmenting and looking up characters/words, FourthTone does the work for them. Students simply click on a character/word they don’t know to view a popup with pronunciation and definition. They can also click more to see additional information such as how the character is written and how that character is used in sentences. Below is a video showing the basic functinality of FourthTone.
In addition to making it easier to learn new words FourthTone also provides a learning system. Students can save new vocabulary words into one of their lists. The learning system will then remind them when to study and review all of their vocabulary.
The learning system is based on the spaced repitition learning methodology. The general idea is that it takes people a few encounters with new words spread out over time before they are truly able to internalise them.
After initially learning the word the student is reminded several times to review the word. Each review of the word comes after an increasing duration of time. For example the first review might be 12 hours after learning the word, then the second review 2 days after the first review, the third review 1 week after the second review, etc. If a student has difficulty with the word during the review then that word will be reviewed again the next day and the delay to the subsequent review delay will be set based on the students stuggle with the word.
Vocab Lists and Study Reminders:
The platform provides two main types of content, articles and courses. Articles are stand alone. They are categories by level and topic allowing students to select articles suiting their abilities and interests. Courses are comprised of lessons that build on top of each other. They provide a more structured approach by highlighting key vocabulary and grammar. The lessons gradually introduce students to more vocabulary and grammar as they progress. Both Articles and Lessons also include audio recording so that students can work on the lestining as well.
For students coming in to the platform who are unsure of their level. They can take a HSK level assesment test. The test uses 30 questions to determine the students level. The questions are a combination of picking the correct definition for a character and completing a sentence by filling in the blank.
FourthTone uses a Freemium subscription model. There are always some free articles available, up to 3 per level, allowing users to try the content before having to register or pay. Additionally all subscriptions start with a 14 day free trial during which users can easily cancel their subscription if they decided they don’t want to continue with the platform.
There were a lot of challenges encountered up to this point. The most significant of these being working with the Chinese language. In Chinese the relationship between pinyin, characters, pronunciation, and meaning is fairly complicated. Lets look at some examples:
The character 她 is represented by the pinyin tā and means she/her. The pinyin enables learners to figure out how to pronounce the character, and what tone to use. The symbol above the a in tā identifies the tone.
There are several other characters that use this same pinyin (他, 它, 踏, etc.). There are also some characters that have several different pinyin. For example, 着 can be represnted by zháo, zhāo, zhe, and zhuó. In each case 着 has a different meaning or group of meanings.
Further complicating things, Chinese writing doesn’t contain delimeters like spaces, so there is no way of knowing where one word starts and another ends unless you know all or most of the words. This means all texts must first be segmented before the characters can correctly have pronunciation and meaning related to them. 我是美国人。The following sentence, 我是美国人, contains all of the following possible segments 我, 是, 美, 美国, 国, 美国人, 国人, and 人. Depending on how the text gets segmented a user might see the following translations, ‘I am beautiful fellow country man’, ‘I am America person’, or ‘I am American’. While the last two are about the same and either would allow the user to understand the correct meaning of the sentence, the first translation would likely leave a user confused.
All of these factors made it fairly complicated to design a system where there was a balance between ease of inputing content via the content management system and the utility provided to students using the platform.