There’s no way around it - Chinese Mandarin is hard to study on Quizlet. Mandarin doesn’t fit into the normal “Term” - “Definition” model that Quizlet's six study modes are based on. This is because learning a word in Mandarin requires learning the character (Hanzi), the pronunciation (through a romanization system called pinyin), as well as the corresponding English word. As a result, students of Mandarin are forced to either cram the English and the pinyin together into the definition column of a Quizlet set, or leave the pinyin off completely. Neither option is ideal.
Enter Hack Night. Once a month at Quizlet we do a “Hack Night.” Hack Night is a time when everyone on the team drops the normal projects they’re working on, and instead takes a deep dive on any topic of interest. A Hack Night project can be anything from refactoring old code, to making a movie, to exploring radical new study modes for our users. Several members of the Quizlet team are active Mandarin learners, so not being able to use Quizlet to study has been a gripe we’ve had for a long time. For this Hack Night, a few of us struck out to improve the experience for Chinese language learners on Quizlet.
As we described above, Quizlet’s current term-definition model poses a challenge for Mandarin vocab students. Formatting is also an issue. In the example above, you could study a Quizlet set in Learn Mode by prompting with the Chinese hanzi and typing the English only. Want to try typing in pinyin too? Sorry, but you’re out of luck. You could prompt with the English and pinyin together, but that gives too strong a hint as to what the hanzi is, inhibiting a productive learning experience.
Why Not Three-sided Cards?
Ask 100 Mandarin learners on Quizlet what feature that would like to see on Quizlet, and at least 99 responses will be “three-sided cards.” If we had a third field besides just “Term” and “Definition” for users when they create a Quizlet set, then we would be able separate out the hanzi, pinyin, and English easily. You could then test yourself across Quizlet modes in with any prompt and response combo you like. Want to see pinyin and type the hanzi? Great. Want to see the English and type the pinyin? No Problem.
We are obsessed with user experience at Quizlet, and we know that one of Quizlet’s greatest strengths is that it’s so intuitive and easy to understand. The reason we’ve avoided adding a third column for so long is that doing so would complicate the simple design of the site. That hurdle doesn’t mean we won’t ever add true three-sided support, but it will be a serious task to make sure that, in doing so, we don’t compromise the experience for users who only need 2-sided support.
Simulated Three-sided Cards for Mandarin
Our goal for Hack Night was simple. Instead of changing the data model completely for our Mandarin learners, what if we could intelligently guess that a set on Quizlet has Chinese, pinyin, and English terms all crammed together, and make the study modes function as if there were a three-sided data model? We decided to start with our most effective study mode: Learn Mode. We targeted sets formatted like this (with Chinese on the left and English on the right with Pinyin in parenthesis):
Success! Three-sided Learn Mode
By 2am or so, we had a three-sided version of learn mode, where you choose the prompt (Pinyin, English or Hanzi) and how you want to answer.
Bonus: Open Source Software for Easier Pinyin Input
Try it Out!
See it in action here: https://quizlet.com/24786271/learn/ This new three-sided learn mode will only be enabled if the following requirements are met:
- The term column language is Chinese (Simplified) or Chinese (Traditional)
- The Definition Column language is Not Pinyin (typically English)
- The Definition contains pinyin in parentheses
Update, June 2018: When we built this at one of Quizlet's earliest Hack Nights it was available in Learn mode on the Quizlet website. Since then, we've made substantive changes to our study modes. Now, this works in Write mode (formerly known as Learn) on the website when you're studying Chinese sets.