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Outsmarting my phone

Here's a riddle for you: what do the following phrases have in common? "Where is the restaurant?" "Will the weather be good tomorrow?" "What is a dinosaur?"

The answer is that if I say them in Chinese to Mandarin Siri, my iPhone's voice-operated assistant, she behaves as if she has understood me.

You see, I have become an adult learner - if I was ever anything else - and have been trying to pick up Chinese for the past few months. Why I want to do so is a story for another time.

I have enjoyed the learning experience so far. Not only can I talk to my phone in a new way, I actually wrote an email to a real person in a foreign land in a modern language. At school, I only ever wrote to fictional people. On reflection, this was probably just as well.

Best of all though, learning Mandarin on my smartphone has allowed me to reinforce all my ill-informed prejudices about games-based learning.

I downloaded an app - or ying yong cheng xu, as we geeky Chinese learners would say - that promised to teach me lots of phrases through games.

At first, all was well and I did indeed learn some phrases. One of the games was a bit hard, but I found that I could make progress by doing well in the others, so I ignored the tricky one. I avoided it despite the fact that it was testing the part of the language - the tones - that I found most difficult to master.

I told myself that I'd play on, complete all the levels and then go back and learn the tones at a later date. But I soon caught myself developing other strategies that allowed me to reach new levels, gain high scores and unlock new words without having to go to the bother of learning anything very much. It was a case of learning-based games rather than games-based learning.

In truth, learning phrases doesn't work for me. I need the grammar, prepositions and common verbs. I then dig out the nouns as and when they are required and apply the rules to make sentences. I do languages like I do basic physics.

Once I discovered those rules elsewhere, the app became much more useful as I forced myself to deconstruct the phrases - before going on to not learn them by playing the games.

Putting silliness to one side, as I did with physics, I discovered a beauty and charm in Chinese. As with physics, it maybe isn't immediately in evidence on the slog through the foothills of the subject. But it's there.

For example, did you know that the character for "good" is made up of one for "mother" and one for "child"? Lovely.

I could write so much more but I have a date with Siri. I want to grill her about her name and where she comes from.

I know the answers to these questions already, of course - it's just a game I play with her.

Gregor Steele is a head of section at the Scottish Schools Education Centre

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