by L Hau-Yoon and P M Alexander


Language is that all important key which opens doors to new understanding. By learning a foreign language, a student discovers a new world of thinking. For any grouping of people, language contains the essence of their civilisation - their culture and their customs.

Eight years ago University of South Africa (Unisa) was a pioneer in offering a Mandarin Chinese language course for non-Chinese speaking people. Every year, enrolment has increased. There is great potential for teaching Mandarin Chinese as a distance course not only in Southern Africa, but also throughout the world. Unisa students registering for Mandarin have come from America, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in Africa.

Learning Mandarin and any other non-Indo-European language can be very difficult for European language speaking persons. The Defence Language Institute in Monterey, California, divides the languages they teach into four groups, from easiest to most difficult, as measured by the number of hours of instruction required to bring students to a certain level of proficiency. The results show that while American students require an average of 720 hours of instruction to reach oral skills proficiency level 3 in French or Spanish, from 2,400 to 2,760 is required to achieve the same fluency in Chinese or Japanese (Liskin-Gasparro, 1982, cited in Samimy & Tabuse, 1992, p.390). Because the general instructional approaches for teaching Chinese are not significantly different from those used in teaching Romance languages, it would be difficult to attribute the gap between these learning times wholly to pedagogy. We must remember that Chinese and English do not share common linguistic roots. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, has dramatically different writing systems, and the average South African has only limited exposure to the Chinese language.

To augment the existing Unisa study material which consists of a prescribed book Practical Mandarin for Beginners (Hau-Yoon,1997), two study guides, 14 cassette tapes and a number of tutorial letters, a team of Chinese linguists and pedagogists from the sub-department of Mandarin and staff from the Centre for Software Engineering (CENSE) at Unisa have begun to design and develop interactive, multimedia, courseware.

This supplementary learning program consists of many interactive exercises to help learners with acquiring language skills, especially in distinguishing the sounds, learning the vocabulary and recognising the characters. It is our hope that this self-paced program will provide our students with the necessary development through interactive activities and learn to improve their listening and reading comprehension.


There are eight lessons listed in the main menu which correspond with the lessons in the prescribed book. These consists of various interactive exercises which include:

  1. Vocabulary learning

In vocabulary learning, various interactive learning activities are used. In general these are in the form of games and require the student to click on a picture or the word corresponding to the sound heard or character shown.

  1. Dialogue practice

This section is designed to help a student improve his or her listening and speaking ability. One can practise sentence by sentence or word by word. It also facilitates the recognition of characters. Each dialogue is offered in characters and Pinyin, a Romanisation system used to assist Westerners with pronunciation of characters. The characters are offered in both traditional and simplified versions. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong while simplified characters are used in China and Singapore. A student can choose either type of character to practise.

  1. Character recognition

For practice in recognizing characters, two more games are offered. The Scrabble Game requires the learner to build sentences from characters taken randomly from particular lessons. This tests both character recognition and sentence structure. The second game is designed to help a student distinguish between characters with similar shapes.

  1. Demonstrating Chinese character writing stroke by stroke

At the beginning, it is very important to show a student how to write a character in the right stroke order. The designed brush writing can serve this purpose in an attractive way. It helps a student know the correct stroke order of each character.


CENSE are currently using QuestNet as the authoring language for their IMM projects. The Mandarin courseware will be delivered to students on CD-ROM. The facilities do exist to deliver courseware via the Internet, but there are several reasons why stand alone use off a CD-ROM is preferable.

  1. Extensive use is made of audio, large graphics and some video. As a result bandwidth becomes a problem and storage of the files on the learners own hard disk is also potentially undesirable.
  2. As we are a university offering only distance education, we do not have students using a university Intranet.
  3. There are some free to view sites on the Internet offering relatively unstructured tuition in Mandarin. Currently there are no links to these sites in the courseware but they can be included.
  4. The courseware is expected to remain unchanged.
  5. The courseware is designed to be used together with an existing, printed book.


The audio files are in WAV, 11 megahertz, format. Pronunciation and tone are extremely important in spoken Mandarin and hence we took care to check whether this format was sufficiently clear. We experimented with MP3 as this creates smaller files at higher fidelity, but decided against using it for the following reasons:

  1. Using ordinary computer speakers of the sort that we expect our students to have, we could detect no improvement in quality;
  2. We have more experience using WAV and had already recorded a large amount of audio as WAV for this courseware;
  3. We are not using the most recent version of Quest and there seem to be some intermittent problems with the combination of Quest, MP3, different versions of Windows, different MP3 drivers and different hardware specifications. Hence we decided to ensure that we had a clear understanding of the issues, and could produce entirely reliable material, before using MP3.
  4. The audio is an absolutely essential part of the courseware and we could not risk it not being accessible.

We are also including video clips for the first time.


It is important to realise that, although a computer-based system cannot entirely replace a face to face learning situation with a lecturer, it goes a long way towards facilitating learning at a distance.

Through feedback from colleagues and students after using the existing courseware, we will change certain contents, modify or add learning procedures and adjust levels of difficulty.


Chen, Hsuan-Chih & Tzeng, Ovid J.L. 1992. Language Processing in Chinese. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Everson, M.E. 1995. Research in the less commonly taught languages in Research. In Hadley, Alice

Kenning, M. M., Kenning M. J. 1990. Computers and Language Learning: current theory and practice. London: Ellis Horwood

Long, Michael H. & Graham Crookes. 1992. Three Approaches to Task-Based Syllabus Design. TESOL Quarterly 26.1: 27-54.

Omaggio (ed.). 1995. Language Learning: Principles, Processes, and Prospects. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company.

Hau-Yoon, L. 1997. Practical Mandarin for Beginners. Pretoria: Unisa Press.

Samimy K.K., & Tabuse, M. 1992. Affective variables and a less commonly taught language: A study in beginning Japanese classes. Language Learning, 42(3), 377-398.