Learning Chinese Characters with Animated Etymology

Learning Chinese Characters with Animated Etymology

Jian He, Hui Huang
DOI: 10.4018/ijcallt.2014040105
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The study was an attempt to investigate the effect of animated etymology on English speakers' learning of Chinese characters. Twenty-one Chinese language beginners at an Australian university were randomly assigned into three groups using three different types of instructional materials to learn Chinese characters: a) paper-based plain text material with only English meanings; b) paper-based material with English meanings, pictures and static etymological information; and c) CALL material with English meanings, pictures and animated etymological information. The effects of three materials were tested under two task conditions: a) picture-enhanced tasks and b) non-picture-enhanced tasks. Through both within-group and cross-group comparisons, the statistical results indicate that the group using computer-based materials involving animated etymology significantly outperformed those using the paper-based materials with and without illustrated etymological information in both tasks and the advantages of paper-based illustrated etymological information over the paper-based group without such information are limited to the tasks involving pictures.
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Logographic characters, such as Hanzi in Chinese, Kanji in Japanese or Hanja in Korean, are notoriously challenging and laborious for foreign language learners, especially those whose first language is a Romanisation-based language. Since the 1980s, a method based on visual mnemonics demonstrating the relevant pictures has become a popular instructional practice for teaching characters among many teachers teaching Chinese as a second language. A series of mnemonic cards for character learning has been published since then (e.g. Mnemonics for 1600 Chinese Characters Schmidt, 2010) which provide detailed information about characters including the etymology, structure, stroke order, pronunciation and meaning, etc. However, such paper-based mnemonic cards have such obvious disadvantages as difficult access and inconvenient indexing. For example, if a teacher wants to demonstrate a particular character emerging in the teaching, it will take a lot of time to find it from a thick stack of cards. More seriously, the overloaded information on a single card makes it difficult to be noticed and effectively processed by students within a short time period.

In an attempt to overcome the disadvantages of paper-based cards, a computer-assisted language learning (CALL) animated instructional material for learning Chinese character was designed on the basis of multimedia learning principles and second-language learning theory to integrate multi-information of a character such as picture, semantic notes and etymological information into one single interface. In the study, this animation-based material was compared with two paper-based materials to examine its effects on learning Chinese characters. It was hypothesized that CALL software, which integrates rich etymological information of Chinese characters into animated multimedia materials, would reduce learners’ cognitive load and therefore facilitate Chinese character learning.

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