Kanji City: An Exploration of Hypermedia Applications for CALL

Posted: December 23, 2010 in CALL related to Linguistics


David Ashworth
University of Hawaii
Jan Stelovsky
University of Hawaii



Kanji City explores some of the possibilities for design of language instructional materials in hypermedia format. It takes advantage of HyperCard’s potential to integrate text with digitized and synthesized sound, interactive graphics and animation. Furthermore, the application demonstrates how hypermedia can support inductive learning through trial-and-error exploration of a simulation of real-life environment, and promote contextualization of language and language use. Kanji City serves as an umbrella for a host of related language learning programs. Several of these modules exemplify the concept of presentation shells that are not restricted to teaching Japanese, but can be filled with contents from a wide range of subjects.

KEYWORDS: hypermedia, contextualization, kanji, electronic environment, reading proficiency, InterAgency Language Round Table (ILRT), inductive learning, simulation, HyperCard, presentation shell

Hypermedia as an Instructional Environment

The development of new media characteristically promises to solve old problems in delivering information and suggests creative new ways to communicate with the consumer of information. Multimedia and hypermedia appear to magnify that promise, since they integrate the various information channels and combine it with both controlled and random access to the resources contained therein. In the ideal case, hypermedia resemble a “library in a box,” controlled by a computer. But this box contains much more than books: movies, sound recordings, video, with the possibility of orchestrating these resources into a multifaceted presentation of information along several channels. The primary access to the information is not based on the formulation of abstract textual queries, but on selecting visual clues that represent associatively related pieces of information. Therefore, hypermedia approximates closely the predominant human source of learning: the exploration of the universe that surrounds us.

When the motion picture first arrived, it at least solved the problem of providing the real stage props and settings that the (drama) theater could not provide. As a new medium, it initially succeeded to the extent that it changed the (visual) environment of drama, and explored new ways to present visual information. It failed to the extent that it merely photographed live drama-on-stage. In the first case, one could say that the new medium justified itself through its creativity, while in the second case it exemplifies Macluhan’s “rear view mirror,” i.e. a new medium that replicates what was done in the older medium. (Nord, 1987)

As a new medium, hypertext justifies itself as long as a hypertext document includes links to other documents, notes and other resources. It exemplifies the danger of the “rear view mirror” if it imitates a book, if it presents text as a linear sequence of screens imitating the Pages of a book. Hypermedia make possible selective access to text, sound and graphics resources through a computer. Such a medium in language teaching (and any educational) environments can replace the tape recorder in the language lab, the television and the blackboard in the classroom and offer to the student new stimuli that go beyond the combined possibilities of the conventional teaching materials.

Furthermore, a computer is not merely a static container of information, but a powerful computational engine that can react to users requests, record and evaluate the communication and adapt its behavior accordingly. In the context of CAI, it can adjust the difficulty of the presented material to student’s proficiency or detect and focus on the areas that are most difficult for the individual student. It can also randomize the learning environment to confront the student with an ever changing variety of real-life problems.

Hypermedia can turn the language instruction into an adventure game of discovering information -here the students’ learning is rewarded by new information that further improves their skills.

Kanji City

Kanji City represents a model of an infinitely expendable (hypermedia) environment in which to learn and practice various aspects of language.1 It employs the metaphor of navigating an urban environment (Tokyo) by reading and reacting appropriately to the signs occurring there—a special problem in the case of Japanese and Chinese orthography.

In its current implementation, it addresses, among other things, the type of text material that a learner of Japanese would handle at the first, or “orientational” level of reading proficiency, as defined by the InterAgency Language Round Table (ILRT), i.e. “some formal variation, but content is more or less predictable (immediately stereotyped reality).” This includes the reading of signs and lists, names and other types of writing that appear primarily in non- text contexts (lists, menus, signs) or in such texts as announcements and advertisements.2

Conventional pedagogical texts for reading comprehension, on the other hand, base their vocabulary and kanji on frequency counts taken from written texts (books, magazines, and other media).3 Yet in the real world (i.e. on the street) one may frequently encounter many words and characters that do not appear in the frequency counts: names of people and places, signs of special schools and clinics, meals on a restaurant’s menu.4

Kanji City provides practice in this type of contextualized reading. To “navigate the city” the student has to read and reacts to such lists as restaurant menus, department store signs, price lists, and business cards. At the same time, it provides locations for other types of language learning activities: the school offers lessons in subjects such as counting and arithmetic in Japanese, learning to read and write Japanese orthography; the Casino provides a review of grammar. Moreover, it incorporates various types of social encounters where the student is likely to commit social errors and is confronted with their consequences, thus learning proper social and sociolinguistic behavior.

The program consists of a core and modular extensions. The core represents the center of Tokyo, as defined by the Yamanote train line and its stations. It simulates the events involved in taking the train there (enter station, determine fare, buy ticket, enter platform, select appropriate train, ride train, get off at correct station). The extensions consist of station maps, stores, restaurants, a school and other public places. The school has an expendable “curriculum” of subjects to which one can easily add new modules (The modules can be also used independently of Kanji City).

Kanji City includes an accounting scheme: the student starts with a purse containing a fixed sum of dollars and yen (say, $100 and 10,000). As the student navigates the city, shops and dines out, the fares and other costs are deducted from the account. Lesson quizzes at school and the slot machine at the Casino provide opportunities to earn or win money. When yen resources get low, the student navigates to a bank to exchange dollars for yen. Information costs money: one must pay for transcriptions into romanization or for translations into English. Hence the student who can read the signs and menus spends less money.5

Touring Kanji City

A theater marquee greets the traveler to Kanji City. Upon clicking the mouse, the scene of the City at Night appears, accompanied by a musical introduction in digitized sound. The traveler then selects a friend to visit from a set of pictures. The friend’s business card appears and shows, in kanji, the destination station where the friend will be waiting. The card can be turned to the reverse side that shows the romaji transcription. Upon entering the station, the traveler must consult a fare map in kanji, romanization, or both, and buy a ticket from the ticket machine.

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Figure 1: Buying a Ticket

Once on the platform, trains arrive from both directions. The traveler can consult kanji and romanized maps to determine which train to board.

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Figure 2: Waiting for the Train

Inside the train, the traveler can watch the signs of the various stations pass by and get off at the intended destination. Getting off at the wrong station merely delays reaching the destination: one must reboard the train and go back to the correct station.

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Figure 3: Inside the Train

After the traveler met his friend, they decide where to go: to school, a disco, a bank, a coffee house, a casino, or a restaurant. These places are indicated, in kanji, on a map.6 If students do not understand the signs, they can pay to see another map where icons depict the meaning of the kanji signs.

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Figure 4: Birdseye View

The School

The school is a place where the student can earn money by passing tests. Its curriculum includes (1) a “calculator” that teaches inductively the Japanese (kanji) number system by selecting Arabic digit keys and seeing the result in kanji in the window, (2) an “abacus” that does the reverse: it teaches inductively the values of kanji numerals entered with kanji digits showing simultaneously the result in Arabic numerals, (3) a sign flashcard program that reviews kanji or other vocabulary, (4) a kana tutor that teaches how to read and spell words written in kana.7 The school lessons include quizzes of three levels of difficulty offering rewards of 100, 200 and 300 respectively.

One can easily add other teaching applications by modifying the Lesson Menu (Fig. 5) by adding buttons that link to the new application stacks.8

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Figure 5: Lesson Menu

The calculators have two modes: an explore and a quiz mode. The conventional calculator is a mock-up of the standard calculator provided by the Macintosh operating system. In the explore mode, the student selects Arabic digits and sees the accumulated number in the calculator’s display. At the same time, however, an additional display field keeps updating the kanji version of the number. At any time, the student can activate the “say” key and the entire number is pronounced in synthesized voice. In the quiz mode, the kanji display field presents a randomly generated number whose length corresponds to a preselected difficulty level. The student’s task is to compose the equivalent Arabic number.

In learning numerals using the “abacus,” the student selects kanji digits to explore their meaning. Again, the accumulated number is shown immediately in both the Arabic and the kanji version. The task in the quiz mode is reversed: the student is rewarded for matching a given Arabic number.

In Kana Tutor, the student sees a kana syllables arranged logically in rows (vowels) and columns (consonants) according to their combinations.9 On a color terminal, the vowels and semivowels are indicated in color. Kana Tutor has three modes: explore, spell and test. In the explore mode, the student selects a kana symbol, sees it highlighted, and hears its pronunciation in digitized sound. The spell mode presents a loanword in English orthography. (Fig. 7). The student “spells” the word by selecting the appropriate kana symbols. To help the student, Kana Tutor offers an option to analyze the word and split it up according to the kana symbols required to represent it. If the spelling is correct, a digitized native speakers’ voice says first Japanese and than English versions of the word to highlight the differences in their pronunciation. If incorrect, the student hears an error message. In the test mode, the student sees a word in kana and must type in its translation into English.

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Figure 6: The Abacus

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Figure 7: Kana Tutor in spell mode, showing analyzed word

The kana words are selected to allow the learner to hypothesize the rules for phonological conversion of English (loanwords) into Japanese. By tracking the student’s input, it is possible to see when and if the student induces the rules for conversion: the student will begin to spell new words correctly and stop asking for “analyzing word” at some point.10

The Casino

The Casino has a slot machine that allows the student to earn money by testing knowledge of basic grammatical concepts in an arcade-type game. In its present form, the student must correctly evaluate four-word sentences that appear in the slot machine’s windows. It costs 500 yen to play, with a reward of 1000 yen for a correct answer and a jackpot prize of one million yen.11

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Figure 8: Slot Machine

The Bank

When the yen account runs low, student can exchange dollars for yen at the bank. (Or earn money by correctly passing quizzes in the school or playing the slot machine.)


At restaurants and coffee houses, the student can read menus and order meals. One must pay to see the romanized and English versions of the menus.


The disco provides entertainment (2500 yen) in the form of animation and digitized Japanese popular music

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Figure 9: At Club Kanji


Students who find the “button,” can take a “dream trip” to Hawaii.

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Figure 10: In Hawaii

Software Warehouse and Presentation and Conceptual Shells

Kanji City and its components demonstrate another dimension of hypermedia: the reusability of software. The HyperCard environment itself gives a programmer unparalleled ease in “borrowing” existing program elements. On the detailed level, the HyperCard simplifies copying of the basic building blocks, such as buttons, icons, graphic clip art and scripts (programs) from existing applications into new prototypes.

On the global level, integrating entire applications within an umbrella program is also extremely easy. For instance, Kana Tutor and both calculators were first implemented (and can still be used) as stand-alone applications; their integration into a school involved design of a “curriculum” card and adding links that lead to the applications and back. The only non-trivial programming task was to adapt the existing applications to the accounting scheme. Nevertheless, reusing parts of existing software still requires at least minimal programming experience.

Kanji City itself thus could be viewed as a separate module and integrated into a “school curriculum” as another exercise in reading kanji signs.

The individual applications in Kanji City were developed more as a vehicle for exploring the possibilities of the hypermedia concept rather than as implementation of a logical sequence of lessons covering a redefined curriculum. As a consequence, each provides another set of facilities that can be useful in a variety of other applications. Examples of such generic concepts are: a “purse” that shows the players balance, a ticket (or vending) machine, a module that records correct and incorrect selection of flashcards, synthesized pronunciation of large numbers, talking clock and random shuffle of a set of elements. The isolation of logically cohesive, but more complex portions of software that consist of several elements is a hard task even for a seasoned programmer (consider maintaining such a module across several applications as they are adapted to changing requirements). The more interrelated such a module is, the harder it becomes to untangle it from the rest of the application. Moreover, software modules must usually be parametrized to meet the requirements of another application.

Currently, we are constructing a “software warehouse” application, that allows a application designer to browse through the shelves stacked with software modules that can be incorporated into new applications with a click of the mouse. The warehouse should also provide more intricate integration of such software modules as the help schema: browsing through the original application supports the task of inserting links to the help information.

The most obvious type of reusable software module is a “presentation shell,” a ready-made application that can be filled with other contents without any programming. The Slot Machine, for instance, can be considered a presentation shell on three levels. To obtain another grammatical lesson in Japanese, the instructor must only fill the new words into the appropriate fields. In addition, the adaptation to another language is easy, as an additional set of options specifies the currency and the size of costs and rewards. An English as a Second Language version of the Slot Machine was produced within minutes. Obviously, the idea of judging the correctness of a sequence of symbols is not restricted to language learning applications. The slot machine could be easily modified to test Mathematics, sequences of historical facts, chemical equations and other topics in various disciplines. For example, the train ride in Kanji City could be turned into another shell. Given the topology of the train line and the names of its stations (in any language), the new maps and all the signs that appear to pass by the windows can be created automatically. (Note that such a modification should not be part of the application itself, but contained in a separate “shell adaptor” program.)

On the other hand, different presentation shells can be used to test the same lesson. Presentation of a sequence of symbols could be, for instance, based on a “concentration” game, where a player turns over cards and judges their correctness. The lesson then turns into a “conceptual shell.” The ability to construct sets of conceptual shells and corresponding presentation shells multiplies students’ choices while greatly reducing design and implementation effort.

This application illustrates some ways of using hypermedia to create an electronic environment for language learning. To create contexts similar to Kanji City using conventional classroom realia would involve a formidable, and most likely unmanageable, inventory of resources: station signs, restaurant signs and menus, allocation of classroom space to simulate stores and streets, play money, real objects for purchases, and the like. For the lessons at the school, the teacher would have to become the main source of feedback.

In the hypermedia format, one can simulate all of the above and make it possible for individuals and groups of students to work and navigate within it. The environment can be further enriched by adding more stores and other establishments; and linking other pedagogical applications, such as grammar exercises in game format, “rest spots” (such as the disco and coffee house), on-line dictionaries and the like.

While it certainly is by no means intended as a panacea for all language teaching problems, the medium does “justify itself” as an economical and efficient way of incorporating rich contexts into the language learning experience.


This work was supported by a grant from the University of Hawaii Japan Studies Endowment—Funded by a grant from the Japanese government.

1 “Infinitely extendable” may be redundant in terms of the very concept of hypermedia—Hypermedia requires infinite extendibility.

2 This description is taken from a handout of ILRT workshop materials on the use of authentic materials in language instruction. In contrast to the ILRT definitions, the ACTFL Guidelines for reading proficiency in Japanese, in our judgment fail on two counts: (1) they implicitly use the frequency counts of words and kanji in written texts as the basic indication of frequency of occurrence of words in any kind of written material and (2) they contradict the basic notion that proficiency tests measure the ability to use language outside of class as well as inside. They do the latter by couching proficiency at levels lower than superior in terms of the ability to use “specially prepared materials.”

3 The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for Reading Japanese reflect this type of frequency count, which, in turn, reflects the Japanese Ministry of Education “Educational Kanji” (Kyooiku kanji) list. If one follows that list as a guide for the introduction of kanji into a curriculum, it would take a long time indeed to learn to read signs and lists.

4 A classic example comes from Chinese: one can find the characters used to write “soap” (feizao) in any supermarket, drugstore or billboard but would not likely find them frequently—especially the second character, zao, in other kinds of texts. In Japanese, the characters for “nose and throat specialist” jibiinkooka, may appear frequently in signs and make it easy to find a doctor, while the characters would appear rarely in the kinds of reading material a student would likely encounter.

5 This makes it possible to create adventure games in which two or more teams carry out the same assignments in Kanji City on their individual machines. The team with the most money (“ergo” that most successfully reads the Japanese) wins.

6 This is a temporary arrangement until we have the proper maps for key stations in place. The casino, of course, is fiction: Japan does not have legalized gambling.

7 The Kana Tutor uses color mnemonics on Macintosh II/IIx.

8 The use of the accounting mechanism may require additional programming.

9 This arrangement resembles that on p. 1 of Jorden and Noda, 1989, except that it is reversed to follow Japanese convention, and the “Ya-column” is made into rows immediately below the vowels in the vowel column.

10 Student input is tracked using a special routine that “records” all of the student’s input in the program, which is played back and analyzed.

11 Parameters such as prize, size of jackpot and probability of appearance of correct strings can be set internally by the instructor. The content of the slot machine can be easily changed to test other topics. (See discussion of “presentation shells.”)


ILRT, MS. ND. “Text Levels” Materials from a workshop on use of authentic materials in language instruction.

Jorden, Eleanor and Mari Noda. Japanese: the Spoken Language, Part I. Yale University Press, 1987.

Nord, James. The “Rear-View Mirror” Approach. CALICO Journal, March 1987, 67-77.

Authors’ Biodata

David Ashworth has a B.A. in Russian (George Washington, 1964) and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics (Cornell, 1972). He is currently an Associate

Professor of Japanese at the University of Hawaii, where he teaches Second Language Pedagogy and Japanese and is involved in curriculum design and the development of hypermedia for language instruction.

Jan Stelovsky has a Diploma in Mathematics from ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Zuerich 1977, M.A. in Mathematics (Washington State) and Ph.D. in Computer Science (ETHZuerich, 1984). He is currently Assistant Professor at the department of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaii. His research areas include hypermedia, human-computer interfaces, CAI and software engineering.

Authors’ Addresses

David Ashworth

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Department of East Asian Languages

2565 The Mall

Honolulu, HI 96822

Jan Stelovsky

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Department of Information & Computer Science

2565 The Mall

Honolulu, HI 96822


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