MailMerge Cantonese

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Hong Kong Computer Journal 1 (1985): 7-14.
It was awarded 'Best Article of 1985' by the Hong Kong Computer Society.
It was reprinted in Journal of Chinese Language Teachers Association 21.21 (1986): 59-73.

© 1985 by Hong Kong Computer Journal; © 2004 by Louie Crew

My personal computer teaches me Cantonese vocabulary. I have not hired an expert linguist or a computer programmer, nor have I employed BASIC or other more complicated programming languages. Instead, I have used the simple features of a popular word-processing program. Novices can use these same methods to learn Cantonese vocabulary on their own personal computers. With a little imagination, they can also adapt the techniques here for other important tasks far removed from form letters.

MicroPro developed MailMerge, as the name implies, to facilitate form letters created within WordStar, MicroPro's word-processing program. But MailMerge techniques can merge a vast variety of other texts, such as the data of Cantonese vocabulary for each new lesson assigned me at the Chinese Language Center of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. With one Mailmerged file I store vocabulary data, and with two other MailMerge files I review the data.

Building word lists

With the file ENTER (Figure 1) I store two kinds of vocabulary: 1) all data for new vocabulary in any one lesson in Speak Cantonese Book One, by Parker Po-Fei Huang and Gerard P. Kok; 2) any additional words which my teacher or other individuals teach me.

When I boot the computer with WordStar, the screen first displays a "No-File Menu." To create a data file for either type of new vocabulary, Ifirst press "M" for the MergePrint option on this menu, and then respond: (Boldface indicates the material to type in response to the prompts which WordStar displays on the screen)

Name of file to mergeprint? ENTER<cr>
Disk file output (Y/N):        Y_
Output file name:                Lesson1<ESC>
Of course, I can specify any other name I like, such as AUX1 for extra words which my teacher or a friend has given me. I find it helpful to create many smaller word lists so that I can more easily review words for special purposes, such as tests, where I might not want to focus on mastering a more informal vocabulary.

Here's a sample entry to the prompts with which ENTER continues:

                 Word in Chinese.........ho'i 
                 Word in English.........sea 
                 Measure, if applicable..go
                   ----------------------
                    'adj'   = adjectives  
                    'adv'   = adverbs     
                    'c'     = conjunctions
                    'i'     = interjection
                    'n'     = nouns       
                    'pn'    = pronouns    
                    'pp'    = prepositions
                    'v'     = verbs       
                    'x'     = phrases or other expressions
                    ----------------------
                 Part of speech..........n
                 Lesson no./80=misc......8
[useful if I later want to retrieve from some combined lessons] 
                                          
       1 = most difficult, 2 = next most difficult, etc., 
                    10 = least difficult
                                          
       How difficult...........1 [if I don't know the word;
          10 if I know it fully]

Speak Cantonese Book One conveniently uses various graphic conventions to distinguish among the seven Cantonese tones:
                 
               ^  =  high level
                 
               `  =  high falling  
                 
               '  =  high rising
                 
        no marker =  mid level
                 
              'h  =  low rising
                 
               h  =  low level
                 
              `h  =  low falling
In the Huang/Kok text the diacritical marks appear over the letters whose tones they mark, as they cannot do on the screen with WordStar. That is, on screen I see o^ not  ô. This slight difference causes no real problem, however: even when I put the marks just after the letter, I still graphically mark all major tone distinctions. For example, the distinct pair ho`i (open, start) and ho'i (sea) appear just as clearly distinguished on my screen when I enter them as ho`i and ho'i.

All files similarly force me to master the appropriate measure words for nouns before I credit myself with knowing them.

I can close my file and end my session with ENTER by typing just one character when ENTER prompts me to enter yet another word:

Word in Chinese........../

The slash tells the computer to close the new file and return to the "No-File Menu" of WordStar.

Learn by selective review


While I learn something just from typing the entries to store them for the first time, the computer serves the most when it reviews these words systematically and efficiently. Left to other devices--such as word lists or index cards--I often waste an enormous amount of time, especially when I continue to look at what I already know. I need to sort out what I know from what I don't know, so that I focus mainly on the latter.

Files M and M1 (Figures 2-3) work together automatically to review all words in any vocabulary data file I specify. But they do much more: they also sort. Each time that I use File M to review a file, it writes to a new file the ones that I miss so that I can review them and write to yet another file only the ones that I missed.....until, if I pay attention, I will have "known" all words at least once. Of course I need to repeat the full lesson periodically. I feel that I must get a perfect score with the full file at least twice before I can begin to assume that I really know it. In any review, short-term memory too easily passes for long-term memory. Hence, I must carefully review the files that contain the words which took me the longest time to "learn."

To keep up with these files, I conventionally name permanent files with alphabetic names (like Lesson 1, AUX1, etc.) and temporary files (i.e., those created in the review cycle of any one setting) with numeric names (like 1, 2,...). Thus, when I begin a new sitting, I know that I can safely ignore or even erase files named by numbers only, since they contain duplicates of items in the alphabetic files. Still, I often rename the file with the highest number--i.e., the one which contains the words which took me the longest time to "learn"--and begin my new session with it. For example, I might rename file 8 to HARD6 to keep more permanently for review the words in LESSON6 that I did not get correctly until the eighth attempt. Likely I still do not know those words well.

Features special to Cantonese

The computer forces me to attend closely to problems special to Cantonese. Since tone and measure do not play similar roles in English, as a native speaker of English I need special discipline to attend to them.

When I used flashcards to review my Chinese vocabulary, I often thought I understood the tones and measures. I would ask as I looked at one side of the flashcard. "What's the tone? What's the measure?"

When I turned over the card, I would see the tone and measure and often think to myself, "Ah, yes, that's what I thought it was!", especially when I had gotten the letters of the words correctly in my mind.

The computer more precisely tests me. With it, I do not just think my answer and then check it against a correct answer on the other side of a card. Instead, I quickly type my answers and then the computer juxtaposes the correct answer. Of course I could also write out my answers before peeking at flashcards, but writing them legibly would delay the process tediously. At the keyboard, I speed along quickly with the real business of learning.

The computer revealed that often I did not know the tones and measures which I had marked as correct in flashcard reviews, yet I had not knowingly cheated. I suspect that with flashcards I erred more from linguistic habit than from a moral flaw. When I study other languages, I usually need to demonstrate that I know only a word's spelling. The computer forces me to attend to Cantonese tones and measures much more rigorously and tells me when I have not done so.

Easy to use

Using the computer to review is no more complicated than counting from 1-10. To activate File M (which automatically reads and activates File M1), I again first type M from the No- File Menu and then follow the prompts:
               Name of file to mergeprint? M<cr>
                   Disk file output (Y/N): Y_
                         Output file name: 1<ESC>
Notice that here I have specified '1' for my new temporary file.  I routinely being with a 1 and add '1' for each new round.

The screen next prompts: "At which level of difficulty, if any, would you like to review words?" If I specify a lower number (1-5), I will review only those words that I have filed as most difficult for me. If I enter a higher number (10 maximum) I will review all words in a file. I can later specify a new level of difficulty for any word by entering the data file with WordStar's "N" (non-document) option.

Next the computer allows me to specify a review of words according to part of speech, or to review all. Finally, the computer lets me specify whether to prompt first with English or with Chinese. Of course, one must master both approaches before one knows a vocabulary list.

Then the computer reviews each word in the file specified. The user may choose to save items, one by one, to the new file; or the user may "ignore" the word in the new file. In either case, the file being reviewed always remains in tact completely unless the user specifically deletes it, as with the "Y" (delete) option from WordStar's No-File Menu.

With only minor changes, any WordStar user can adapt the programming techniques here to facilitate a wide variety of other computer-assisted instruction, especially with rote material which requires one to sift and resift the known from the unknown. For example, one could change the prompts for Chinese and English here to specify instead any other kind of vocabulary building, even within a single language.

Of course, these drills in no way replace a teacher. Nor can the drills substitute for the greatest test of the learner's vocabulary skills, namely, intelligible use of the vocabulary in conversation with native speakers. The drills can, however, ready a learner for these bigger challenges.
 
 

Figure 1: ENTER, a Mergefile to Store Vocabulary Data 


.. This file creates a data file of new vocabulary words
.. for any one lesson. 
.PL 1 
.MT 0 
.MB 0 
.PO 0 
.. 
.. The first four dot commands above the new text in ways that
.. File M (Figure 2) can read. Add .OP as a fifth opener
.. if your version of WordStar automatically includes a page number 
.. when printing. 
.. 
.CS 
.. 
.. .CS (above) clears the screen. .DM statements prompt from the screen.
..
.DM To end the session, enter '/' for the Chinese:
.DM
.DM
..
.. .AV lines prompt at the screen for the information 
and then assign .. them the variable names after the commas here. 
The texts of the .. .AV prompts require quotation marks. Texts of .DM lines do not. ..
.AV "Word in Chinese..........",WORD-C
.IF &WORD-C& = "/" GOTO FINISHED
..
.. IF statements set up conditions, here the condition for finishing 
.. any use of ENTER. That is, if the user enters / for 
the prompt .. for "Word in Chinese", the program will terminate by going to the .. line marked .EF FINISHED
..
.AV "Word in English..........",WORD-E
.AV "Measure, if applicable...",MEASURE
.DM -------------------------
.DM 'adj' = adjectives 
.DM 'adv' = adverbs 
.DM 'c' = conjunctions 
.DM 'i' = interjections 
.DM 'n' = nouns 
.DM 'pn' = pronouns 
.DM 'pp' = prepositions 
.DM 'v' = verbs 
.DM 'x' = phrases or other useful expressions
.DM ---------------------------------------------
.AV "Part of speech...........",POFSPEECH
.AV "Lesson no./80=misc.......",LESSON
.DM
.DM 1 = most difficult, 2 = next most difficult, etc., 
.DM 10 = least difficult
.DM
.AV "How difficult............",LEVEL
.CS
.DM Is the full entry correct?
.DM
.DM Chinese: &WORD-C&
.DM English: &WORD-E&
.DM Measure: &MEASURE&
.DM Part of Speech: &POFSPEECH&
.DM Lesson no.: &LESSON&
.DM Level of difficulty: &LEVEL&
.DM
.AV "Y/N ",P
.IF &P& = "N" .OR. &P& = "n" GOTO WRONG
..
..
.. The IF line above allows you to start again from scratch if you
.. have made a mistake. ..
"&WORD-C&","&WORD-E&","&MEASURE&","&POFSPEECH&","&LESSON&","&LEVEL&"
..
.. Note: only the line just above lacks a dot command
.. and hence it alone can write (store) the data into your 
.. new file. Quotation marks, ampersands, and commas must appear 
.. exactly as illustrated.
..
.IF &P& = "Y" .OR. &P& = "y" GOTO NEXT
.EF WRONG
.. 
.. The next .AV command stops the program to let you observe your 
.. mistake before you start the incorrect entry again from scratch.
..
.AV "Hit <> and re-enter this item from the start. ",P
.EF NEXT
.. 
.. The next command (.FI ENTER) repeats the program ENTER 
.. indefinitely until you enter a slash at the first prompt.
..
.FI ENTER
.EF FINISHED
 


 

Note to figure 1:

Note well: Only Versions 3.3 or later of WordStar and MailMerge allow the conditional commands here.

Data must be typed exactly. The `.' in the "dot commands" must appear in the first column for MailMerge to recognize a command.

Warning: extra blanks at the end of any lines risk error messages that will halt the program. A carriage return (and only one) must appear after the word FINISHED in the last line.

Observe all conventions here, such as the ampersands around the variables, the commas after input prompts and before the variable names assigned to them, etc. WordStar and MailMerge ignore lines which begin with two periods '..' so you may omit those line if you feel you do not need the comments in them.

I have formatted all files here to juxtapose on an 80-column screen the correct version and the version entered from the keyboard. Those who use screens with a different number of columns should experiment with other spacing for the best visual arrangements.
 
 

Figure 2: M, a Mergefile to Review Vocabulary Data

.. As in Figure 1, the first four commands here format 
.. new file made here. Again, add .OP if your version of 
.. WordStar normally includes page numbers.
.PL 1
.MT 0
.MB 0
.PO 0
.CS
.AV "Type the file name of the lesson that you want to review: ",FILE
.CS
.DM 1 = Only the most difficult 2 = The most + the next most difficult,
.DM         c...... 10 = All 
.DM
.DM
.DM At which level of difficulty, if any, would you 
.AV "like to review words? ",DIFFICULTY
.CS
.DM Regarding parts of speech:
.DM
.DM Type in lower case adj to review only adjectives
.DM adv to review only adverbs
.DM         c to review only conjunctions
.DM         i to review only interjections
.DM         n to review only nouns
.DM         pn to review only pronouns
.DM         pp to review only prepositions
.DM         v to review only verbs
.DM         x to review only phrases or other useful expressions
.DM 
.DM         SPACE to review all classes
.DM
.AV CATEGORY
.CS
.DM Type 'C' to review words in Chinese, 'E' to review words in English: 
.DM
.AV LANGUAGE
.CS
.FI M1

Note for figure 2

Files M and File M1 (Figures 2 and 3) function as one file, in that the last line of the File M automatically initiates File M1. We must name them as separate files, however. Otherwise, a user would have to answer all questions in File M for each word reviewed, not just once for the sitting. That is, File M prompts for the general conditions which will select the individual vocabulary items which File M1 calls forth.
 
 

Figure 3: M1, a Mergefile Which Continues File M

.CS
..
.. In the next two lines, .DF tells the computer to review 
.. the file specified in File M, and .RV specifies the order 
.. or the variables as configured with the file ENTER. 
.. 
.DF &FILE&
.RV WORD-C,WORD-E,MEASURE,POFSPEECH,LESSON,LEVEL
.. 
.. The next three lines channel the review according to the other 
.. criteria which you specified in File M.
.. 
.IF &LEVEL& > "&DIFFICULTY&" GOTO ENDOF
.EX &CATEGORY& = "" .OR. &POFSPEECH& = "&CATEGORY&" GOTO ENDOF
.IF &LANGUAGE& = "E" .OR. &LANGUAGE& = "e" GOTO ENGLISH
..
.. The rest of the program divides into two halves,
.. the first of which prompts with Chinese versions, the 
.. second of which prompts with the English. 
.. 
.DM &WORD-C&
.DM
.DM
.AV "Type the meaning in English: ",P
.DM
.DM The correct answer: &WORD-E&
.EX &POFSPEECH& = "N" .OR. &POFSPEECH& = "n" GOTO 
.DM
.AV "Type its measure: ",P
.DM
.DM The correct measure: &MEASURE&
.EF
.DM
.DM Type 'R' to review the word in the next round.
.DM Type 'I' to ignore this word in the next round.
.DM
.AV CHOICE
.IF &CHOICE& = "I" .OR. &CHOICE& = "i" GOTO ENDOF
"&WORD-C&","&WORD-E&","&MEASURE&","&POFSPEECH&","&LESSON&","&LEVEL&"
.IF &CHOICE& = "R" .OR. &CHOICE& = "r" GOTO ENDOF
................................................................
.. The dotted line above marks where the second half begins, 
.. i.e., the place where the program prompts with English versions,
.. not with Cantonese. 
.. 
.EF ENGLISH
.DM &WORD-E&
.DM
.DM
.AV "Type the meaning in Chinese: ",P 
.DM
.DM
.DM The correct answer: &WORD-C&
.EX &POFSPEECH& = "N" .OR. &POFSPEECH& = "n" GOTO 
.AV "Type its measure: ",P
.DM
.DM
.DM The correct measure: &MEASURE&
.EF 
.DM
.DM Type 'R' to review the word in the next round.
.DM Type 'I' to ignore this word in the next round.
.DM
.AV CHOICE
.IF &CHOICE& = "I" .OR. &CHOICE& = "i" GOTO ENDOF
"&WORD-C&","&WORD-E&","&MEASURE&","&POFSPEECH&","&LESSON&","&LEVEL&"
.EF ENDOF 
 

Note for Figure 3


Note that the .AV command forces MailMerge to stop even when the program makes no more use of the data, as when an .AV command prompts the user to type the correct answers. Thus, the command steers the program in much the same way BASIC allows "INPUT" to do.

Of course, one may choose to have the program check the user's inputs for correctness (e.g., IF &P& <> &WORD-C& GOTO), but users have to pay more attention if they check for themselves. Also, when several answers may be correct, the computer does not help if it declares an answer wrong merely because it does not list all correct choices in the arbitrary order by which they had entered the master file.


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