Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gear Review: Chinese for Travelers

The idea that you can buy a product that will act like your 24-hour-a-day interpreter sounds perfect for those who are foreign language challenged, like myself. This is what's claimed on the cover of Chinese Talking Travel Guidebook - China Edition that Parrot Learning  sent me to review.  This is all about what they coined “Point and Listen” technology, where you use a special “audio pen” to first scan the desired Chinese phrase (in either the Chinese characters or pinyin) and then the “pen” speaks the word or phrase for you. Perfect, right? Not necessarily, as you'll see. 

  The large box that arrived in the mail was bulky, packed with a three volume set of slim books organized by topics, a scanner in the shape of an ultra thick but light pen, a USB cable, earphones and a couple of neck/wrist straps. The scanner pen takes two AAA batteries (adding to the weight) and is economically constructed with just three narrow buttons: one for power on but it also toggles between the volume function, and the language switching  (English/Mandarin) and repeat function. The second button also does double duty to boost the volume or repeat the last word/phrase. And the last button both reduces the volume and allows you to switch between English and Mandarin.

There's really no learning curve with this, once you figure out the button issues (more on that below). All you have to do is first point the scanner pen on the bull's eye logo on the cover of the desired volume. (You have to remember to do this every time you switch among the four book volumes.) Then you're all set. Simply point the pen on any of the Chinese words or phrases and you'll hear the correct pronunciation in Mandarin (or you can switch to English). So, if I was feeling ill when I’m in Beijing, I'd pick up Volume 1, turn to the section on Travel Essentials and point the scanner to the phrase: wo xu yao yi sheng (you’ll note that I’ve left off all the diacritical marks) or “I need a doctor”. But the phrase was said so quickly, I couldn't determine how to say it myself. (Though I was able to slow down the speed dramatically, I still found it difficult if not impossible to mimic the spoken phrase. (I tested out my language skills in my neighborhood in Queens with native Mandarin speakers and the people I approached in the shops had no idea what I was attempting to say.) Instead, I resorted to having the pen do the talking, which it does very well.  

My opinion on using the audio pen and books to learn the language? I'd rather use Rosetta Stone. Sure, the pen is small but if I'm studying at home before heading off to a far-flung land, I don't care about small. I need something that has the kind of flexibility to deal with the myriad ways different people learn languages. I don't have a good ear and can't hear what vowels or consonants, let alone the different tones used to speak Mandarin correctly.

Yes, this system has many problems:

When someone responded to my inquiry, I was clueless as to what they were uttering. Of course, there are sections in the volumes labeled “Listening” where, if you point the scanner pen, you'll hopefully hear a phrase that matches what the person just said, such as dui bu qi, wo bu zhi dao or “Sorry I don't know”; or wo bang bu liao ni or “I can't help you”. Again, testing this out in my local shops didn’t banish my confusion when I tried to order lunch. The waitress said something that I couldn’t match with anything in the book’s restaurant section. Plus, I don’t see how using this audio pen and the accompanying books will assist you in having a real conversation, even a rudimentary one.

The only good use I see for this is to have the pen do the talking for you. But with four volumes to thumb through, you'd have to be fairly well organized before you approach someone or enter a store or hotel to be ready with the appropriate words/phrases. I'd probably have to use a set of color-coded Post-It notes to single out phrases such as “Can you fix the hot water in the bathroom” if I'm in my hotel, or “What is the price for a round-trip ticket” if I'm in the train station, and so forth. Once you've made your initial inquiry, you're on your own to carry on a dialogue after that.

And, as to these switches that have several functions, maybe Parrot Learning thought this was being economical, but what it's done is confuse things. I ended up pushing a button and thinking it will speak in Mandarin but all it does is change the volume. Then I wanted to boost the volume and, instead, I ended up repeating the last phrase.

Additionally, you have to carry not just the pen but all the books. So, those you don't check luggage like myself may not be happy about this added load. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether carrying around the pen and books for the sole purpose of having it speak for you is worth the $120 price.