Chinese listening through adventure games

Listening comprehension is probably the most important aspect of learning Chinese. There are several reasons for this, but the two most important ones are:

  1. It accelerates learning, including in other areas. This is because it increases the opportunities for incidental learning and because it expands the amount of time you have available for learning since you can combine listening with almost any activity, which is not true for reading, for example.
  2. Listening is important because it's socially much more frustrating to have no idea of what 's going on compared to not being very eloquent yourself.

Still, listening is the area students tend to find the most difficult, at least if we exclude the initial confusion when it comes to learning characters. This can probably be attributed to lack of practice; students simply don't listen enough. However, putting all the responsibility on the student isn't fair either, because there certainly isn't a lot of accessible, engaging listening material around. Listening practice is often reduced to passive listening, which can work in large quantities, but can be hard to focus on.

Adventure, audio-only

To address this problem, we have created an audio only version of our first text adventure game, Escape. Instead of reading the text, you hear recordings of each description, action, or conversation. You have to listen very carefully, perhaps more than once, to understand enough to make the right choices in the game.

All this means that the whole game is like a listening comprehension test, with the critical difference that it's fun and engaging! In audio-only mode, you are not initially shown the text. If you fail to understand a passage, you can always peek at the text version and look up any unfamiliar words, but don't do this too often. Even if a passage is difficult to start with, listening to it many times will help you break it down and finally understand what it means. Only look at the text if you must!

You can play the text and audio version of the game in any order, but in general, it's best to focus on listening first since it tends to be harder to find good listening practice than it is to find good reading practice. You can also listen while you read, play part of the game in audio first, then with text and so on. It's up to you!

When audio-only mode is enabled, the text will only be shown if you request it:

You can enable audio-only mode by scrolling down towards the bottom and toggling the switch, so that it looks like this:

Go play

Want to see what it's like?

Not sure you want to buy the audio or try audio-only mode? Here's a two-minute screencast showing how you use audio-only mode and how the game feels in audio-only mode.

We hope you'll consider buying the audio to go along with Escape, and try out the audio-only mode. Good luck and happy language practicing!

Go play

Goal-driven dialog study

Short dialogs featuring everyday language has long been a mainstay of language-learning practice.

We offer a slight twist in our newly redesigned dialog activity by making it goal-driven and allowing your to track your progress toward meeting each goal as you work through each dialog.

The value of a goal

Olle has written extensively about the value of setting goals over at Hacking Chinese (e.g., Introduction, long-term, short-term, and micro goals) so I'll only briefly summarize.

Setting goals is a great thing to do, and is effective tool for advancing your language ability. This is largely a result of the powerful effects goals can have on:

  • Your intrinsic motivation
  • What you do and how you approach a task
  • How focused you are at a task
  • How much time you're able to spend at something
  • How you perceive your progress and accomplishments
  • Your resilience in the face of obstacles
  • ... And much more

In order to help you capture some of these benefits, we've rebuilt our dialog activity so that it involves an explicit goal-setting step, and provides some tooling to help you track and evaluate your achievements.

Setting a goal

Before beginning a dialog, you're asked to think of a goal for how you want to study the dialog. A study goal for one dialog probably qualifies as what Olle describes as a micro goal. Maybe your goal is simply to read through the whole dialog. Or maybe it's to find new words and make a word list.

We make the process of choosing a goal explicit. You can select one of several goal suggestions or create your own goal.

Your goal will be displayed along the way while you study the dialog so that you can remember what you want to focus on.

Once you're done reading a line, you can tick off ways in which you studied that line of the dialog.

These markings are a reminder of ways you can focus on the material. You can mark as many or as few as you want.

At any point you can review how you've studied:

Maybe you want to make one pass just listening. Then go through a second time and study each line carefully. Or maybe you want to first skip the hardest lines, and come back later and study those. By marking how you study you'll be able to return later and study more or using a different approach.

At the end of the dialog, you can rate how you fared. Did you meet your goal with flying colors? Or did you skimp and want to remind yourself to return later and work more on this dialog?

These ratings can mean whatever you want them to mean. They are for your own reference to help you monitor your practice.

The goals you've created will be shown below each dialog in the Dialog Index.

At present, we have 12 dialogs. In the coming weeks and months, we'll aim to release one dialog per week as we try and keep up with your voracious language-learning appetite.

We hope that by encouraging you to think about your micro study goals, and helping you remember them along the way, you'll get more out of your language practice and be more likely to reach your long-term study goals.

Go try the new Dialogs activity

Completely rebuilt Pronunciation Recall activity

We took one of our oldest activities, Pronunciation Recall, and completely rebuilt how it works.

The Pronunciation Recall activity is now perhaps the best way on WordSwing to review words you have been learning. It now pulls words from any combination of your word lists, and drills you using a spaced-repetition algorithm.

We hope that this activity may find its way into your core study routine.

Adjusting your active word lists.

What you want to review may change from moment to moment. Perhaps you want to:

  1. Review material you've just discovered, or
  2. Polish up material you've known for ages to make sure it's not lost is some deep brain crevasse, or
  3. Focus on material from a particular dialog or a text game.

Now this is easy! You just select some combination of word lists reflecting the sort of studying you want to do, and voilà! These words will be showing up in the Pronunciation Recall activity.

Select word lists screenshot

In addition to practicing words on word lists you have created, you can also use the automatically maintained word lists, such as those for each learn stage level or the Newly Discovered list, which keeps up to 100 new words you've encountered recently.

WordSwing maintains one master list of your study progress so regardless of which list a word appears on, when you're reviewing, WordSwing will know when you last reviewed a word and how well you've remembered it in the past.

We also maintain one list of "active word lists" for each student. Which word lists are active is used in both this activity and the Frequency-ordered character-learning activity. This way you can go back and forth and practice the same set of words. Just be aware that if you want to practice different words in each activity, you'll need to switch the active word lists accordingly.

At present there are ~99,000 words and phrases you can practice using this activity, about 10x the number in the original version. But don't worry, only words on the currently active word lists will be introduced and show up in your review queue.

Responding to a prompt

When you're typing pinyin, you'll get an autocomplete box that will convert numeric pinyin (e.g., pin1) into diacritic pinyin (e.g., yīn). The gray letter or digit on the right-hand side is something you can type next to continue typing the displayed diacritic pinyin. You can also click/tap on the drop-down menu to select a suggestion.

After entering a response, you get three buttons. The default, "I think I'm right", will check your answer and if you're correct take you to the next step, and if you're incorrect, let you try again. If you can't figure it out, you can use the "I'm not sure" button to see the answer. The "Skip" button lets you burry the word for some duration.

If you are incorrect, you get two choices, "Continue", which will adjust your review interval (more on this below) and continue to the next activity, and "Skip", which will prevent this card from rearing its ugly head again for some duration.

If you are correct, you just get one button, "Got it". More on this in the next section.

Pronunciation Recall is spaced-repetition-based

The Pronunciation Recall activity is now explicitly based on principles of spaced repetition. The old scheduling algorithm had a spacing component, but it tried to juggle too much and didn't work that well. So we're going back to basics with this update, and I suspect you'll find it works much better.

There are 8 spacing intervals: 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 1 day, 3 days, 9 days, 1 month, 3 months, and 8 months.

The activity attempts to balance introducing new words from the active word lists and reviewing words that are ready to review in your review queue. Words are introduced roughly in frequency-order (more common ones first). When you get an answer right, you have the option to bump up the review interval using the drop-down menu on the "Got it" button:

This will advance the word to that review interval so you can avoid reviewing words that you already know well.

What's next?

Revamping this activity is part of an effort to make word lists a more useful and central part of how you can study and practice Chinese on WordSwing. Expect much more in this vein in the near-future.

We're also hard at work on two new text games, so stay tuned!

So, come over to WordSwing, and try out the new activity.

Our text adventure game, Escape.

We're pleased to announce that the first chapter of our first text adventure game, Escape, is generally available.

Ready to make your daring escape?

Escape is an interactive graded reader that begins with the main character (you) trapped in a room for unclear reasons, and you must find a way to escape and avoid getting caught, all the while exploring the world of the game in Chinese.

Our goal in designing Escape was two-fold:

  1. Provide an interesting and entertaining narrative through which to explore and practice Chinese, thereby circumventing some of the boredom of typical learning materials.
  2. Keep the text accessible by carefully writing all the text to target intermediate learners of Chinese.

Try it out!
(You'll need to be signed up, which is free.)

We have made a short video to introduce the game:

How do I play?

The game consists of a series of choices that allow you to direct how your character responds to each situation.

As you make your way through the game, the "game conversation" will show descriptions of the scenes, describe the results of the actions you take, as well as show dialogs that occur in the game. Things you say or do are shown in green and appear towards the left, while things other characters say or do are shown in blue, and appear towards the right, kind of like a messaging app. Messages are presented one at a time so you can have time to read and digest each one.

Escape game screenshot

You make a choice by tapping on one of the numbered buttons next to the choice. Some of the choices are clearly bad, once you understand the text, but others are more subtle, so read carefully.

Some parts of the game have a more linear narrative structure, while other parts resemble small puzzles with somewhat complicated logic that needs to be worked out in order to get through. So be persistent and keep trying!

The more you play the more practice you get

We encourage you to play the game several times, as the more you play the more practice you will get, and the more comfortable you will become with the language.

Even if you have already seen the description of a scene before, you may find it helpful to read it each time you see it, as language is somewhat of a performance art, and the practice will help increase your reading fluency greatly. You may also want to read out loud to improve your speaking fluency.

There are several routes through the game so see if you can find different ways to get to the end, as well as several ways your game can end prematurely, and often rather badly for your character.

The first chapter involves about 2-5 hours of game play. There are 411 distinct characters, and ~5600 characters of text overall.

You are given points as you make your way through the game, either when you do things that move the game forward or when you learn things important to the story. The points help you see that you're making progress. It is possible to complete the chapter without scoring all the points, but you may want to play again to find what you missed.

Is this game right for me?

Escape is designed for intermediate to upper-intermediate students of Chinese, although an even wider range of students may also find it fun and useful.

The game focuses on a manageable subset of Chinese (e.g., only 411 distinct characters), with the same characters and words appearing many times. Thus you will undoubtedly become an expert reading these characters and words as you explorer the game.

The game is playable if you know at least 200 characters, but you may find yourself relying heavily on the built in dictionary and other drill-down features. If you know closer to 500 characters the game is probably right in the sweet spot of what will be most interesting and challenging. Even if you know 1000 or more characters, the game will still likely be good practice and fun.

You can get a better sense of whether the game is right for you by having a look at our infographic.

Escape infographic

Listening practice

All of the text has audio recorded, which is available for purchase as a media bundle. Some of the audio early in the game is free, so you can get a sense of whether you would like to buy it.

Adding audio to the game makes for a wholly different play experience and may be particularly helpful if you want to improve your listening comprehension or your character knowledge doesn't fully cover all the text in the game.

To purchase the audio, just tap the locked play button, and our media store will open in the drill-down pane.

Buy/play screenshot

After you purchase the audio, all of the game content will have play buttons:

Purchased audio screenshot

In addition to getting tons of listening practice, by buying the audio you are able to help us support WordSwing and keep it alive and largely free.

Checkpoints and saved games

Your game is automatically saved after each choice. And so long as you haven't reached one of the terminal scenes, your most recent game will automatically be restarted when you come back to play again. If your game is over a new game will start next time you return.

There are also four checkpoints where a copy of your game is saved so that you can start again from that point. Thus, if you have thoroughly practiced the first part of the game, you can skip ahead and work on exploring the latter parts of the game.

Checkpoints screenshot

We are aiming to encourage replay by not having too many checkpoints, but at the same time have enough that you can explore the parts of the game you want.

What's next?

At present we have released one chapter of the Escape story. If enough students like this game we will release both additional chapters to this game as well as other text games with different stories. The possibilities are endless, so let us know if you like this and whether you find it helpful for practicing Chinese.

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