Monday, May 01, 2006

Let me flash you (flashcardexchange and ZDT)

I have been messing around with flash cards trying to work out how best to use them and what I might gain from them. There seems to be a few solutions out there, both electronic and paper. I have decided to stick to opensource software and the web community approach for my flash card use.

Okay I knew what flash cards were, but had never used them for any kind of revision that I had done in the past. They do seem to be used a lot by language students, particularly oriental languages. I have been increasingly trying to find something with which to aquire an initial, casual reading knowledge of some of the characters and flash cards seem to be the obvious solution.

I briefly toyed with paper versions and printed some out, I am sure that these whether bought or homemade would be useful to many people but I tend to do most of my learning in front of a computer and quickly lost interest. I binned the paper flash cards after handing what was left of my attention span to a passing gnat. If only I had printed them on absorbant material, I would have had some extra toilet paper.

Now I went searching for an electronic version and I am afraid that if you are looking for a impartial review I failed you miserably. Like a small child I went straight for the bright shiny thing. After fiddling around with a couple of interesting but monolithic one-man band pieces of software that had gone out of their way not to look like a standard application, I thought what would I do if I wanted to write a flashcard program? I would base it on Eclipse an existing integrated development environment for programming languages. Eclipse is highly extendable and supports plugins in such a way that you can basically build your own Java applications out of it.

I am increasingly using Java at work and technically could do this, but I want to spend time on the Mandarin learning curve at the moment not the programming learning curve. A quick visit to sourceforge and I discovered that someone else had already done it. Let me introduce you to ZDT or (Zhongwen Development Tool). This software contains a flash card system, dictionary and annotator. I won't try to describe it fully here (a waste of time, just visit the link) but I have found it effective enough for my early flash card dabblings.

The key that makes Eclipse a bright and shiny thing in my eyes is its opensource nature and the fact that I know it is about as easy as anything could ever be for me to add my own features if I ever want to. If enough programmers who are learning Mandarin get interested in this project it will be huge one day.

That would have been the end of the story but a guy called Matt(a certain kind of monkey) posted about here. One visit and fifteen minutes later I was hooked. If this idea of sets of community flash cards doesn't make sense to you then please visit the site and spend a few minutes thinking about it. As a hint here are my humble beginnings based on a couple of the Chinesepod elementary lessons. I can use them on any computer I wish and so can you. I will be slowly increasing the collection of Chinespod lesson based sets (although in my order so seemingly random addition to you).

I am still using ZDT as well as it is more Chinese specific and I would like to extend it sometime. I may even write a tool to take my ZDT flash sets and post them on flashcardexchange (if I can overcome the inertia and find that damn gnat to give me back my attention span).


Matt Whyndham said...

Ah so it's my fault is it?

Interesting to see you combine the han zi and pinyin on one side of the card.

As you may have gathered from mine I tend not to need the English translations, and use them to learn the associations between the two Chinese sides. Generally, if I can recall the pinyin I can remember the English. I have thought of using the "Notes" for English meaning but I can't be bothered.

Chris said...

Worth pointing out after some confusion on another forum that you do ahve to pay for an account on flashcardexchange to print out the cards.

But if all you want to do is use them online then it is completely free :)