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iPads become learning tools for teens learning Mandarin


iPads become learning tools for teens learning Mandarin

Aided with iPads and specialized apps, local teens are immersing themselves in Chinese language and culture.

 By Amy Yuen

Incoming ninth graders from Palo Alto, Gunn, and other neighboring high schools, armed with iPads loaded with specialized apps, have been participating in a month-long immersion program in Mandarin Chinese language and culture. The 23 beginning Mandarin speakers—who have all elected to study Mandarin as their high school language in the Palo Alto Unified School District or another neighboring district this fall—have been learning to read and write commonly used Chinese characters, and becoming familiar with the complex tones and phonology of the spoken language for five hours a day for the past four weeks.

“This program is designed to ‘front-load’ the students with the kind of preparation that will enhance their learning experience in the fall,” said Duarte Silva, director of Stanford’s California Foreign Language Project, which is co-sponsoring the program with the Palo Alto Unified School District. “We believe that this experience will greatly increase their ability to learn Mandarin during the academic year,” said Silva.

A similar program organized by the co-sponsors has been implemented in the district before, but this is the first year students are using iPads to help immerse themselves in authentic Chinese cultural learning contexts.  Each student was issued an iPad, loaded with several apps to help them explore Mandarin language and culture, for the duration of the month-long program.

“The program has been designed to provide a seamless movement through the day,” said Norman Masuda, the program’s lead instructor. “We use iPad-delivered linguistic functions, cultural concepts, phonological sounds, and writing prompts, and then allow students to work individually and in groups to develop their own communication and cultural projects.” The apps were designed by a local Palo Alto publisher, Better Chinese.

In addition to classroom learning, students are also visiting local Chinese businesses and restaurants, viewing the Asian art collections at the Stanford Cantor Art Center and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, and touring San Francisco’s Chinatown. The field trips also have an experiential learning component: students are required to use their newly-acquired Mandarin speaking skills to complete a series of tasks, including requesting information from local merchants or museum docents, and demonstrating culturally-appropriate behavior in their interactions.

The project also offers a practicum for teacher candidates and those new to the teaching field to observe the program’s veteran instructors, and further develop their own teaching skills. “This has been a rich experience for these new teachers," said Helene Chan, who oversees the teacher professional development component of the program. "They are observing how one can immerse students in the target language, using technology to help optimize a language learning environment.”

The immersion program is taking place this year at Lucille Nixon Elementary School near the Stanford campus. The program is part of STARTALK, a project of the National Foreign Language Center and federally-funded by the National Security Language Initiative. The California Foreign Language Project (CFLP), based in Stanford University School of Education, and the Palo Alto Unified School District are jointly sponsoring the program locally. Professor Amado Padilla serves as the project's principal investigator. For additional information, contact CFLP Executive Director Duarte Silva at

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