A BRITISH academic who was interned by the Japanese during a childhood spent in China is developing a computer to teach students to speak and write Chinese.
Dr Paul Thompson is heading a project at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies to devise a computer which produces a sound and accompanying cartoons to show the students where lips, teeth and tongue should be placed when making that sound.
Backed by £50,000 (about HK$580,000) from the University Grants Committee, Dr Thompson hopes his prototype will be ready in two years.
Dr Thompson, a Mandarin speaker, has spent a lifetime improving his knowledge of China. Born in Hebei province in North China, his parents were missionaries with the China Inland Mission and ran the Che Foo school near which the young Paul lived until he was seven.
Said Dr Thompson: "At that time I was a Chinese speaker but I'm told that my speech was pretty rough and that I spoke with a "brogue".
His parents were separated during World War II as his father crossed into the Free China area on the other side of the Japanese lines, while he and his mother were interned along with all his school friends and teachers.
The camp at Wei Hsien held about 2,000 people, most of whom were women and children. "As Japanese prisoner-of-war camps go the conditions weren’t too bad. I guess the Japanese thought children and women posed no big threat to them. Also, the Japanese had occupied that area since the 1930s so there wasn't fresh opposition to them.
"Half the day was spent in school and, as we were allowed to take into the camp as much as we could carry and as all the books were pooled into a library, I spent most of the days reading. I think that was the beginning of my interest in learning and reading," he recalled.
He was 11 when he was interned and 15 on Liberation Day. During an eight-week wait in Hong Kong, for a ship home to the UK, his family lived in a two-storey house in Nathan Road requisitioned from the Japanese officers.
The journey home was on board a New Zealand refrigerator ship converted to a troop ship and sleeping in hammocks was "great fun" for the boy.
His father, who had already left west China for India, travelled back to the UK to await his recently liberated family. His war years had not been without excitement as he was director of a mission on the other side of the Japanese lines, which he crossed frequently.
His parents returned to China after the war but, in 1949, left that country after 30 years. That was the time Paul Thompson left school at Belfast, Northern Ireland, to join his parents in the United States.
"When I was leaving school I realised that I didn't know very much about China. I knew Europe best. So my plan then was to study Chinese philosophy."
After an uncongenial six months in the US, he left for Amsterdam where he joined the philosophy department at the university, spending 1½ years as an undergraduate. In 1951 he became eligible for the draft to the Korean War but preferred to stay in Amsterdam to finish his degree in philosophy.
Later he was lucky to find a small American University in Minnesota where he could study Chinese.
Another stroke of luck found him drafted to the US Army Language School where he studied modern Chinese for a year. He was in Japan at the time of the Korean War armistice and again found that a war helped to shape his future as he was demobbed in Tokyo. From there it was a short hop to Taiwan where he and his American wife taught English for three years.
His postgraduate work was with an American professor of Chinese and, after gaining his Ph.D he taught Chinese at the University of Wisconsin for three years.
In 1970 he joined the School of Oriental and African Studies in London as lecturer in Chinese and that is where he has been ever since. His students there are studying Mandarin "from scratch”.
Apart from teaching there is research work on early Chinese philosophical texts, which entails frequent visits to Hong Kong. It was this which was to lead to his computer work.
"It is a scientific task, making textual criticisms and dealing with evidence. It is very tedious and liable to human error. Machines do the job better. You can imagine copying eight manuscripts of a text which has been copied and recopied over 2,000 years. You find variations.
"I wanted to use a computer. But how do you get a Chinese text on to a computer. Typewriters are too slow. It was necessary to find a way of encoding Chinese."
In the late 1970s, the Japanese were encoding philosophical texts using a Japanese standard code for the Chinese characters. Dr Thompson worked with the Japanese on this in 1979 and 1980, and in 1981-2 "decided to put the effort where my mouth is, but not using the very tedious Japanese method”.
He found financial backing from a businessman with China connections to put together a lexicon of 50,000 words as part of the computer. Using the lexicon system for his first computer to translate Romanised Chinese directly into characters gave an accuracy rate of 70 per cent, although he is aiming at 100 per cent accuracy."
The machine takes its input in the pinyin spelling of phrases and words and when it finds the match in Chinese characters prints it out on the screen.
Dr Thompson has branched out from the original idea and is now typing classical texts into the computer. And there have been other projects as a result.
All this involves big money, yet there are indications that the project could be a commercial success.
A Hongkong company bought 500 terminals for the New China News Agency, which uses eight in Beijing to cover big news events, and the United Nations has also indicated an interest.