SINGAPORE - It will not judge, criticise or snigger. It will not make you feel guilty for taking up its time.
It will simply listen, and tell you if you got your four tones right.
A new online learning platform launched today will let users practise reading and speaking Mandarin in private and at their own pace, sheltered from the pressures of performing in front of other people.
They can read articles or speeches aloud and receive near-instant feedback on their pronunciation of each word.
Called NewsTalk (newstalk.zaobao.sg), the service is produced by zaobao.com - the website of Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao - and translation tech- nology developer GistXL Technology.
Subscription costs $99 per year, less than the cost of a few tuition sessions.
After the early-bird period ends in June, it will cost $120 per year.
"Now so many Singaporeans need to speak Mandarin to a visiting delegation from China, or because they're going to China," said Mr Tan Dan Feng, executive director of GistXL.
Although their Mandarin may not be bad, they may be too self-conscious to speak and practise it, he added.
"You put all these tools there to help them overcome the psychological barrier," he said.
Users can hone their skills on more than 5,000 Lianhe Zaobao articles in the database, each with hanyu pinyin (romanised Chinese) and keyword definitions in English.
They can also upload their own articles or, for example, speeches they want to practise.
After a reading of a phrase or paragraph is submitted, four enormous servers receive the sound clip, transform it into data, and analyse it. Within seconds, overall scores for fluency and pronunciation, as well as scores for each and every word, are displayed. No special microphone is needed.
Scores can be shared on Facebook, so people can challenge their friends to a Mandarin face-off.
"Our target audience is both local and international users who already have some foundation in Chinese, but at the same time wish to further learn speaking, writing and reading skills," said zaobao.com editor Zhou Zhao Cheng.
The idea for NewsTalk came about after a previous collaboration between zaobao.com and GistXL to launch a translation service in 2007.
The new site is a product of years of research and trials with more than 50,000 secondary and junior college students.
Lianhe Zaobao articles are a good way to get people interested in the language, said Mr Tan, as they are well-regarded and curated according to eight categories including China, Singapore, business and sports.
"When users talk with others they will not only have a common language but also a common knowledge of current affairs," he said.
This article was published on April 9 in The Straits Times.
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