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Handy Kanji: intuitive language learning

Learning a new language is often strenuous, but when the written form involves over two thousand individual characters the challenge is far greater.

Intricate kanji characters are an intrinsic part of the modern Japanese writing system. At schools in Japan, children devote hundreds of hours to memorising the complex forms between the ages of four and 18 as a mandatory portion of the teaching curriculum.

Travis Ralph-Donaldson, a researcher and software developer at the University of Southampton’s Web Science Institute, spent 18 months teaching in the Far East after completing a degree in Japanese language and culture. “Schoolchildren spend years with just pen and paper laboriously trying to master the characters through raw repetition,” he says. “I too was frustrated when I tried to learn these kanji forms and thought there must be a better way.”

Prior to arriving at the Web Science Institute, Travis accrued valuable experience in the tech industry as a cross platform software developer, specialising in mobile applications and embedded systems. He worked for companies including Jaguar Land Rover and freelanced on augmented reality marketing projects, developing several iOS learning apps in his spare time that incorporated elements of gamification and collaboration to simplify learning.

He has now used his expertise as a software developer and his personal passion for the Japanese language to create Handy Kanji, an interactive app that uses intelligent stroke recognition and scoring algorithms to gamify the kanji learning experience.

“This app is quite simply the most intuitive way to learn these kanji forms,” Travis explains. “It is unique in providing tactile and instant visual feedback as the user draws a kanji.” This feedback is provided through a robust algorithm that assesses the position, size, rotation and shape of a drawing, compared to a model example.

Handy Kanji’s underlying analytics and feedback engine can also be applied to many other areas, such as helping teach users how to sketch or simply practice hand eye co-ordination. Vibration feedback gives a tactile sense of accuracy and speeds up learning.

“This novel concept opens up a completely new paradigm where users can autonomously learn to write without human supervision,” Travis adds. “This also creates a catalyst for healthy competition and sharing as the feedback is transparent and standardised, users can now compete to beat their own scores and also that of their friends.”

Travis has launched the Handy Kanji app on iTunes and is currently looking for investment to market and develop the technology. You can get in touch with Travis using the contact form on this page.

“Competition in this area is extremely limited,” he adds. “The current leaders in the market lack the technical sophistication to give dynamic feedback, forcing their users to repeatedly mark their own work, which can be incredibly time consuming and disheartening for learners.”

Travis is aiming to develop Handy Kanji into a powerful tool for millions of Japanese pupils, a market that’s estimated to be worth over $3bn. The technology’s algorithm can also be applied to other written languages, for example Chinese, Indian, and even English, which highlights the rich potential to access additional markets.

You can download the Handy Kanji app for free through the Apple iTunes store.

Get in touch with Travis Ralph-Donaldson

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Travis Ralph-Donaldson

Founder, Handy Kanji

Travis is a student entrepreneur based in the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton. Before joining the University, he worked at Jaguar Land Rover developing a remote control system app. He is the founder of Handi Kanji, an iOS app that uses intelligent stroke recognition and scoring algorithms to teach the Japanese writing system.

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