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.

How does the frequency-ordered SRS character-learning gadget really work?

What is it for?

The design of a flash card library is intimately tied to what it is meant to practice. What should go on the front of the card? On the back? What does it mean to have remembered it? Flash cards can be used to remember how words are pronounced, what they mean, how to use them, how to write them, how to translate them, and the list goes on. The design of a digital flash card system, is no different.

SRS card back screenshot

In designing our first spaced-repetition flash card activity, we chose a design geared toward a very particular use case: learning and remembering how to write characters. The motivations were several:

  1. Learning to successfully write a character requires much more attention to its structure than simply learning to recognize it on the page. One notices the repeating motifs that all Chinese characters are composed of and what makes a character distinct from other similar characters.
  2. Characters quickly fade from memory. Even native speakers suffer from character amnesia. By working character writing practice into your language maintenance routine, you can count on the spaced repetition algorithm to make sure the fraction you forget is limited.

In short, the frequency-ordered SRS gadget is to help you master writing common Chinese characters and to prevent you from forgetting them.

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

How should I use it? (with pictures)

You will get the most out of the frequency-ordered SRS gadget if you use it as intended; the card design, the method for introducing cards, the spaced repetition algorithm and the bonus scheme are all optimized for learning how to master writing Chinese characters. I will explain more below, but first I would like to relate our idea for how it can most effectively be used.

  1. Practice writing the character or word before you look at the back of the card. You can write the characters into your hand (my preferred strategy), on a piece of paper (making it difficult to cheat), or into the air.
  2. This activity uses multi-character words as a way of reviewing the constituent characters. You can facilitate this by introducing a few new words after you introduce a new character. Whenever you introduce a new character, any multi-character words that contain that character (and only others you have already introduced) will be added to the word bank (the set words that are waiting in the wings). The word-bank word with the highest frequency is always introduced next. Since there are likely some common words among the words added when a character is introduced, you can often learn the new character in the context of some words that contain it. The number of words in the word bank is show in parenthesis on the button labeled "Introduce Word" (pictured below).
    SRS choices screenshot
  3. Try and keep a balance between how many new characters you're introducing, the number of words you're introducing, and how many reviews you are doing. At each presentation you get to choose one of these three choices (pictured above). If you introduce too many new characters and words, your review queue will balloon and it will become unmanageable. If you only spend all your time reviewing, you won't be making forward progress learning new characters.
  4. It's okay to leave a bunch of stuff in your review queue. You don't need to get your review queue back to zero each time you practice. Both the algorithm and the bonus scheme (described below) assume that you often won't do this. I often leave about 100 cards in my review queue. The algorithm is designed to prioritize this pile and is constantly adjusting the sequence to make sure you practice the most important things at the optimal times.
  5. Below the activity we show two histograms (one for characters and one for multi-character words), which give you a sense of how the cards you have introduced are distributed among review intervals. In total there are 12 review intervals, spanning from 2 minutes up to 8 months (roughly in powers of 2). Cards at high levels are ones that are reviewed very infrequently, and so it is normal for these bars to be the longest because they carry the least review burden. In general you will find these plots grow to look like the ones pictured below. You can keep an eye on these, and if the lower half of the plot is looking kind of empty (like in this picture) maybe it's time to introduce more new things rather than simply reviewing cards are at long review intervals.
    SRS plots screenshot
  6. Bump ahead anything you know well. It takes a lot of time to review cards when you're practicing writing the characters (about 15 seconds per card in our data), and there's no sense in reviewing cards more frequently than necessary. When you see something that you know well, you can use the "know it well" response (or the associated drop down menu) to bump cards up to higher interval durations and thus reduce the overall number of reviews required.
    SRS bump ahead dropdown screenshot
  7. Use the forget button when you have actually forgotten the card. This will give you a few reviews at short intervals and then return the card back to where it was at (depending somewhat on your subsequent responses). We know you will forget sometimes, and we account for this (more detail in the section "forgetting" below).

How does it work?

The sequence

There are many varieties of spaced-repetition. Here I will describe our particular algorithm so you can decide how best to use it. I will focus on the mode using the "Built-in SRS sequence." The SRS gadget can also be used with your own word lists, but this blog post will only deal with the built-in sequence. This is controlled by the following menu:

SRS word lists menu screenshot

The frequency-ordered SRS sequence consists of 2928 cards of which 870 are single characters and 2058 are multi-character words that consists of only these 870 characters. The 870 characters are ordered in a sequence that closely follows character frequencies from a corpus of text. In general, the more common characters appear earlier in the sequence, but frequency is not the only determinate. Other factors we incorporated include how many characters are derived using the character as a constituent component (or primitive), and how many other words contain that character. This way you will tend the learn:

  1. Common characters before rare ones.
  2. Structurally more fundamental characters before the more elaborate, composite ones.
  3. Characters that are the basis of lots of words before characters that are used in fewer words.

While this ordering is far from perfect, we hope that it helps make your time well spent.

The timing

There are 12 review interval durations, i.e., the minimum time between reviews of a particular card. These durations start at 2 minutes, followed by 8 minutes, 20 minutes, 1 day, and so on up to a maximum duration of 8 months. If you always select the blue button (often labeled "Got it!") then a card will tend to pass through each of the 12 levels. As I mentioned above, we encourage you to bump up cards as much as you can while still remembering 80-95%.

The review duration is not exactly the prescribed interval. Instead it is expanded or contracted by a random amount to better mix up the order of cards (so you don't memorize the sequence as a crutch). Also, cards are reviewed in order of urgency. The urgency score is relative to the interval duration, so if a card is overdue by twice it's interval then it will tend to be reviewed earlier than a card that is overdue by only 50% of it's interval, even if the calendar time of the latter review would suggest it should be reviewed first. This has the tendency to prioritize ones you're most likely to forget so you can get those reviews in sooner rather than later.

There are also two sources of bonuses that allow you to reduce your overall number of reviews without sacrificing learning:

  1. The first bonus takes advantage of the structure of the language. Remember that this activity is designed for you to master writing the characters, while learning a bunch of vocabulary along the way. If you say you remember a word, such as 朋友, then you also must remember 朋 and 友. Thus you will sometimes (randomly) get credit for either 朋 or 友 when you indicate you remember 朋友.
  2. The second bonus relates to the timing algorithm. If you're supposed to review a card after 4 days, but you don't get around to it until 8 days (because you're review queue is full of other cards that need to be reviewed more urgently), and you successfully recall the card, you might as well get credit for the 8-day interval rather than the 4-day interval. Thus there is another bonus for this occurrence which reduces your overall number of reviews (and greatly shortens the time it takes to get through the whole sequence, as I describe in the next section).

It's perfectly natural to forget some cards and we account for this in the timing algorithm. When you tap the "forgot" button, the card will be temporarily returned to the shortest review interval (2 minutes) but a few successful reviews will return it to the interval where you left off. Often this is many fewer reviews than it took to initially reach the point where you forgot it. Thus forgetting it doesn't mean you need to start from scratch. Instead, you can benefit from the few short intervals to re-solidify the memory, and then pick up where you left off.

Alternatives and supplements

Reviewing language using flashcards is a tried and true strategy with many available tools. This particular SRS gadget is just one and it may or may not be suitable for you. And even if it is suitable, it is designed for a particular learning angle (remembering how to write common characters) and there are many other ways in which SRS may be helpful for your learning efforts.

For all these other efforts, we recommend you check out at least two other tools:

  1. Anki is by far the most flexible, powerful flash card software (and it's free on certain platforms).
  2. Skritter is another excellent tool that you may want to check out.

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

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