Web-Based Audio Eases Elementary Chinese

Since the late 1990s, interest in learning Chinese in the United States has increased rapidly. This can be seen in the increased enrollment in Chinese language classes in four-year colleges nationwide. A recent study of 951 institutions of higher education showed the number of students enrolled in Chinese language classes increased 7.7 percent between 1996 and 1998, from 12,542 students to 13,592 students.
In light of such growth, it is important for universities to provide effective language learning material to new students of Chinese. In particular, it is essential that students of elementary Chinese acquire good listening skills. This is usually done through audio exercises and listening practices, with the instructor and fellow students in the classroom. However, because of the limited amount of available class time, students often rely heavily on independent practice outside the classroom to hone their listening skills.

Some students find conversational partners, but others listen to audiotapes at a language lab or at home. However, the sound quality of such tapes often degrades over time, and students often find it time-consuming and frustrating to have to fast-forward and rewind tapes several times before they can locate a specific exercise. Others may not find it feasible to go to the language lab because of a long commute or a scheduling conflict.

With recent advances in computer and Web technology, however, audio exercises can be recorded and saved as audio files on a designated Web server. Language students can then access the files online on their own time via workstations on a network.
In the fall of 2000, I recorded selected exercises from Practical Chinese Reader (PCR), which has been the most widely used textbook of Chinese language for the past two decades, using the digital audio recorder of a program called Sound Blaster AWE64 by Creative Technology Inc. This program can also edit audio files, but I found another program—Digital Audio Editor from GoldWave Inc.—
to be more user-friendly. Because the audio files were recorded in WAV format, they needed to be compressed so that they would occupy much less memory space.

To do this, I converted the WAV files to MP3 compressed files using software called MP3&WAV Converter, a shareware program available at www.mp3convertors.com. Through trial and error, I obtained the best results by setting the bit rate at 56 kilobits/sec and the mode at 16 KHz in stereo.

Using this recording, editing, and compression process, I created 21 exercises and saved each as an MP3 audio file. The exercises are located at http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/khsu2/audio.html. They are each hyperlinked to a corresponding audio file that has also been uploaded to the Web server. Because a digital audio player is required to listen to the exercises, I also included hyperlinks to download Winamp and RealNetworks Inc.’s RealPlayer, two widely used digital audio players.

The development of the PCR audio files proved useful. While the language lab was closed for renovation, students could practice listening by accessing the audio files from a computer at home or on campus at any time. Students commented that the sound quality of the Web-based exercises was better than the audiotapes at the lab. Furthermore, they could scroll through the files to advance, back up, or locate a point in a given exercise. They could also swiftly repeat each exercise without having to wait for a tape to rewind.

In the winter of 2001, I used the same recording, editing, and compression process to create Chinese p'etry audio files in both WAV and MP3 formats. They are located on the Internet at http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/khsu2/p'etry2.html

The timely development of the p'etry audio files benefited several students who participated in a p'etry recitation contest in the spring of 2001. By listening to online p'etry recitation, they were able to improve their pronunciation, intonation, and expression.

The dynamic multimedia environment was engaging, and it sustained active learning. Student comments included the following: “On your Web site, I enjoyed listening to the p'etry audio clips that you included, and these helped me understand the proper tone and inflections of Chinese p'etry performance.” Or, “These p'ems were wonderful. Being able to hear the p'em read back to you is definitely a great feature.”

Web technology has created countless possibilities for online instruction and learning. Web-based audio files have become a useful resource for language learning and acquisition of listening skills beyond classroom walls.

The Chinese-language audio files were a benefit to students who would otherwise not be able to practice listening because of time constraints or distance from the classroom and language lab. The ease of use, the speed of operation, the quality of sound, and the multimedia environment all contributed to the enhancement of language learning.

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