Reviewed by Cecilia P. Y. Chu UC Berkeley
(The characters in this review article are in big5 format)
Producer: Tom Bishop, Wenlin Software for Learning Chinese
Distributor: Wenlin Institute, Inc.
Address: 4405 Walnut Street, Oakland, CA 94619; Tel: (510) 534-1675; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
System Requirements: Any Macintosh with a CD-ROM drive and System 7. A relatively fast machine, such as a Power Macintosh, is recommended, but not absolutely necessary. A large screen is also preferable. 4 MB of RAM is sufficient (unless too many other applications or extensions are running at the same time). IBM 386 or better CPU; DOS 3.0 or later (or Windows 95); VGA or EGA graphics; Mouse; CD-ROM drive; 16-bit Sound Blaster (optional, only needed for sound).
This software was conceived and produced by Tom Bishop, a student of Chinese. His exposure to the Chinese language has given him insight into the needs of language learners when it comes to dealing with etymology and definitions of Chinese characters. The main purpose of the Wenlin CD-ROM is to address the most frustrating obstacles for students of Chinese: using dictionaries and learning characters. It provides three main capabilities: editing text, quickly accessing an expandable database of Chinese vocabulary, and memorizing characters with "flashcards." It runs on both Macintosh and IBM-PC compatible computers. Wenlin supports viewing, editing, and printing Chinese documents that are stored in the Unicode format (the most widely recognized world standard). Wenlin also is compatible with the GB, Big5, and HZ formats.
When linked into the Wenlin program, the user can look up the English equivalent of any Chinese character in any document by simply pointing the cursor at the desired character or compound. Although not designed to function with predominantly English language texts, reverse translation (from English to Chinese) is also available for English words in any document. If the user wants to retrieve more information about a specific character, he/she can do so by double clicking on the character. The etymology of the chosen word will then be shown with a fuller dictionary-style explanation. If there is any character in this entry that is unfamiliar to the user, that character, too, can be selected by the same double clicking method. Somewhat akin to peeling away the layers of an onion, this process of dictionary searching can be repeated an almost infinite number of times for any of the characters on the screens. From within the multiple layers of internal searches, however, it is very easy to return to the original document at any time. This easy cross-referencing and interconnected dictionary mechanism is extremely useful and well designed. Once inside of a character search, either Chinese or English language word searches can be accessed.
Each Chinese character entry also provides the following internal searches and explanations (x=searched character): 1) list of characters containing x as a component; 2) how to write x; 3) phrases containing x; 4) phrases starting with x; 5) search files for x; 6) radical search; 7) reference numbers for x in various character classification works such as Bernhard Karlgren's Phonologie Chinoise. Searches for English words provide only option 5. Option 2 presents an animation demonstration of how to write the character. The speed of the demonstration and the thickness of the lines in the character can be adjusted to user preference. In addition, any pinyin words in the dictionary entries can be selected for pronunciation demonstration. The pinyin syllable can be rendered in either male or female voice. Other options under the pinyin search function include locating lists of characters with that particular pinyin and tonal value and finding lists of characters with the same pinyin but different tonal quality.
The Wenlin program also comes with a Flashcard command and a Look-up word command. The Flashcard function allows the user to make lists of certain characters for review. It also asks a variety of questions (multiple choice and composed answer) on whatever characters are desired. The Look-up command is a basic search function via pinyin or English for any word or compound in the various texts included in Wenlin.
This software comes with a number of texts in Chinese and English that can be used in conjunction with the on-line dictionary. These texts can serve as a basic workbook for students wishing to use Wenlin as a language course supplement. They include, among others, Lu Xun short stories and passages of classical Chinese philosophy. The searching capabilities for English are the same as the capabilities for Chinese; however, there is hardly any English text included on the CD-ROM, so most searches won't find anything. But Wenlin can be used to search for English words, as well as Chinese words, in any document or collection of "plain-text" documents.
This is an extremely ambitious project. Thus far, Mr. Bishop has worked on it for approximately seven years. According to him, because of its forever expandable database, this will be a life-long project. As envisioned by the producer, this CD-ROM will eventually function as an ever-expanding dictionary, one catering to the lexical needs of program subscribers. Because the software functions as a lexicon and is not geared to take into account syntax, it is imperative that the user have solid training in the fundamentals of Chinese grammar prior to experimenting with Wenlin. Users should moreover, bear in mind that they can not treat this software as an " automatic translator." Rather, they should treat it as an on- line dictionary that with its various features, it can be at least ten times easier to use than an ordinary dictionary. Therefore, the most appropriate target users are Chinese language students with some basic knowledge of Chinese grammar. Native speakers of Chinese trying to learn English could also benefit from using this program.
Suggestions for Improvement:
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