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Chinese Language Classes Experiment With iPads

The iPad Project seeks to determine if tablet can enhance foreign language studies

The study of Chinese at Northwestern University received a high-tech assist during winter quarter, as two Chinese language classes participated in the Northwestern iPad Project to evaluate the effectiveness of the iPad as a language-learning tool.

Students in lecturer Chunsheng Yang’s Accelerated Chinese II class and distinguished senior lecturer Hong Jiang’s Chinese I class used a variety of applications on the device to complement their study of vocabulary, pronunciation, and Chinese character writing and recognition.

“It’s very interactive, and it gives feedback to the student,” Jiang said. “I’m checking the app store almost every day to see if there are any new products that could be helpful.”

While it’s too early to be definitive about the benefits of using iPads, students and instructors agreed that it was a positive supplement to the standard course material.

Jiang’s students were new to the study of Chinese, and Jiang said the portability of the iPad made it a perfect on-the-go study device. Her class primarily used the iPads to practice and review material outside of the classroom, with students completing a detailed log so Jiang could track iPad use.

Several apps allowed students to practice concepts that Jiang said are often difficult for beginning Chinese students, such as learning the pronunciation of certain tones and specific stroke order in the writing of Chinese characters.

Chinese language classes are fertile ground for the iPad Project, as the number of students enrolled in Chinese classes at Northwestern has increased from 793 in 2006-07 to 963 in 2011-12. The Program of African and Asian Languages offers four levels of classes for beginners who have never studied the language before, as well as four levels of classes for heritage learners with advanced skills.

“My students are heritage learners, so they can already speak very well, but also very colloquially,” Yang said. “I proposed things I could do to improve their reading and writing skills and help them learn to speak more formally, especially in argumentation.”

To qualify for the iPad Project, Yang and Jiang submitted proposals to the Multimedia Learning Lab within the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences with detailed plans about how the tablet might improve the study of Chinese in their winter quarter classes.

Yang and Jiang each taught two versions of their Chinese classes -- one with iPads and one without -- allowing for a more rigorous assessment of the iPad’s strengths and weaknesses in foreign language instruction.

Yang said he sometimes used different instructional methods to cover the same course content in the two versions of the class. Students in the iPad class did some of their course readings directly on the device, with a Chinese dictionary application at their disposal to translate any unfamiliar words. The non-iPad class received paper versions of the reading assignment and a list of definitions for new vocabulary.

“The students decided when to use the dictionary app,” Yang said. “Some students use it a lot, but I encourage them to first guess the meaning and, if they can’t, then use the app.”

Since the dictionary app allowed students to tap on a word to see the definition and pronunciation, Yang said students with iPads were able to read faster and more efficiently.

Led by German professor Franziska Lys and supported by the WCAS Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation, the iPad Project began last fall in Lys’ 300-level German conversation course. For more information on the iPad Project, visit