This is a breakdown of the more interesting web and iOS apps I’ve been using for the past two years as a complement to Chinese classes. Some are also available for Android. If you’re more interested in pure audio courses, check out my post Learning Chinese: A Comparison of Mandarin Audio Courses.
Pleco is the basic must-have app for any smartphone owner learning Chinese. Out of the box it’s a dictionary showing both simplified and traditional characters, but there’s a whole bunch of add-ons that make it even more usable. For instance, I’ve been using the Optical Character Recognizer add-on, which allows me to take a photo of a character with my phone and have Pleco look it up for me, and the Stroke Order Diagrams add-on, which allows me to quickly look up how a character should be written. There’s also the popular Flashcard System add-on, and many more. Some are free and some you have to pay for.
To get the most use of Pleco, you should turn on pinyin and handwriting input in your phone’s settings. To do this on iOS, you go to Settings > General > International > Keyboards and add Chinese Pinyin and Chinese Handwriting (simplified or traditional according to which script you’re learning).
A tip is to get waiters in restaurants and other people you encounter in China to communicate with you by typing or writing directly into Pleco using the pinyin or handwriting input. They will often find it intuitive and fun. (Of course, make sure you trust the person before handing over your phone.)
Free to try for a week, $99.99 for a year
Skritter iOS app in iTunes/App Store
Add to Skritter third-party Android app in Google Play
The Skritter website is great (although it would be even more enjoyable with better-looking graphics). The iOS app on the other hand is hands down s-u-p-e-r-b, especially after the update that added the ability to study only words from a certain list, which is a feature I use all the time in the web-based version.
The app is free to download and try for a week (you need to create a Skritter account and log in to use it), but to continue downloading characters after that you need to subscribe. A one month subscription costs $9.95, and for that price you get access to both the website and the app. There are also longer subscription plans available offering a lower monthly rate.
The value you get from using the website version doubles if you use a pen tablet as your input method. I use a Wacom Bamboo and that works well. In the iOS app, the input method is, of course, your finger. I think it’s valuable to try both input methods, as I think being at a pen’s distance from the surface makes you think a little differently about the composition and pressure.
Not only is Skritter the fastest way to learn Chinese writing ever – it can actually be used offline (like on a plane, or abroad), syncing your results with the web service when you go online with the app, and if you’re learning words from a book you’re using in class, chances are some other student has already put a list for just the words from that book into the system. In other words, you can jump right in and study only the words from your homework without first having to think about which those words actually are. That can be a huge time-saver.
Skritter comes in three editions: one for simplified characters, one for traditional characters, and one for Japanese. The Japanese one has a separate iOS app. The Skritter team says they won’t be making an Android version – however, there is a third-party Android app for adding words to your lists. It’s called Add to Skritter.
Web-based, requires Chrome
$12 for the first level, $11 for the second, etc., down to $1 for the twelfth level
fourtones is a very interesting new service that makes you remember both characters, words, phrases, and meanings through a musical game bearing some similarity to the Rock Band video game series. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something magical about learning through music. It’s like whenever there’s a rhythm, things stick faster. There’s one lyric I practiced in fourtones several month ago, and I still remember it effortlessly as it keeps popping up in my head on the subway and whatnot. Also, there’s no faster or more fun way to gain flow in speaking than to sing along to catchy tunes like the ones in this game.
fourtones has twelve levels in total, teaching a total of 3,000 characters – the standard minimum amount needed to be able to read a newspaper.
Web-based, Linux, OS X, Windows, iOS, Android, and more
The desktop and third-party Android versions are free, the iOS app costs $24.99
Anki iOS app in iTunes/App Store
AnkiDroid third-party Android app in Google Play
Anki (Japanese for “learning by heart”) is a flexible spaced repitition system (SRS) loved by many students. Spaced repitition means that the software keeps track of what you know well and what you need to practice more on and quizzes you on the latter more often. Skritter and the Pleco Flashcard System extension work in this way, too, but unlike in those, the spaced repetition here is Anki’s main feature. Anki isn’t a a dictionary, nor can it judge how well you wrote a certain character. It simply quizzes you on whatever questions you’ve added to it, and when you choose to have it reveal the answer, you yourself have to assert how well you remembered it. The obvious downside to this is that you have to come up with and input your questions and answers yourself, which can act a huge barrier to actually getting around to doing your homework. The upside is the enormous flexibility Anki’s concept of fields, notes, tags, note types, and templates gives. It’s really like a CMS for memorizing things. Besides, chances are someone has already prepared a set with the questions and answers you need and shared it on AnkiWeb.
Some people like to use Memrise or Quizlet, which offer some of the same functionality as Anki does. Both are certainly worth trying and already have a lot of Chinese words ready for you to start learning. However, I still recommend Anki due to these reasons:
- Neither Memrise nor Quizlet support the virtual concept of three-sided cards. When learning a Mandarin Chinese character, you need to memorize three things: how it’s written (its hànzì), how it’s pronounced, and what it means. If you want to input a bunch of Chinese words in Memrise, Quizlet, or other spaced repetition apps that were not created with logographic writing systems in mind, you’ll have to create one deck with the hànzì on one side and the translation on the other, one deck with the translation on one side and the pronunciation on the other, and one deck with the pronunciation on one side and the hànzì on the other. That’s three decks that from then on need to be updated simultaneously. In Anki, a card can instead have unlimited fields, like Hànzì, Pronunciation with tone, English translation, Sound file, Example sentance, Image, etc., and you can create a template that shows, for example, the hànzì, it’s pronunciation and a link to the sound file on one side, and the translation together with a descriptive image and an example sentence on the other. The possibilities are endless, and everything is updated in one place.
- Tagging. I love that I can tag cards (that’s what “question-answer” bundles are called in Anki) with, for example, “animal” and “chapter3″, and only study those cards that have a certain tag.
- Anki’s large Chinese learning user base. There are loads of shared decks on AnkiWeb for you to use. A lot of the common Mandarin course books have complete word lists ready for download.
- Plugins. There are plugins tailored for Chinese learners that extend Anki to make inputting words easier.
- Cloze deletions. Using the Cloze note type, you can input a whole body of text as the question and mark just a part of it, like a sentence, or part of a sentence, as the answer. When the text is shown to you as a question, the word or words that you marked will be replaced with an ellipsis (…), allowing you to guess it. This study mode can be used for Massive context cloze deletion (MCD) – a memorizing method well worth looking into.
Alright, Duolingo doesn’t offer Mandarin just yet, but it’s next up on their list. I’m including it here because Duolingo is so darn good that I just really want you to know about it (and also, it didn’t feel quite right to put the unlucky number 4 in a blog post title about Chinese). While waiting for the Mandarin course, why not try out Duolingo’s excellent, highly gamified courses in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Potuguese.
Update: In a recent AMA on Reddit, Duolingo’s co-founder Luis von Ahn was asked numerous times about the Mandarin ETA, to which he replied “As soon as we start allowing people to add their own languages, which will hopefully be some time this year.” So it seems like the Mandarin course might be even more of a crowd effort than the previous courses. Either way, it’s coming, and I’m sure it’ll be awesome.
The concept behind Duolingo is brilliant: By attempting to translate the sentences in these courses, you’re actually helping to translate bodies of text. (The sentences can be really random – see Shit Duolingo Says on Twitter.) And since you’re helping Duolingo with these translations that they in turn charge for, you get to use the courses for free. It’s a retake on the concept behind reCAPTCHA, through which millions of people (most unknowingly), while proving that they’re not spam bots, have been helping Google transcribe old books for years. Duolingo’s co-founder Luis von Ahn is also one of the guys behind reCAPTCHA and the original CAPTCHA.
This far Duolingo really seems like a three-way win. No wonder Mashable put it on its list of 8 Startups to Watch in 2013.