An amateur's guide to the best Chinese learning apps

Erin McGee |    | 

It’s obvious (I hope) that we’re pretty learning obsessed over here. So naturally we like to keep on top of all things learning — workplace learning, personal learning, app based and otherwise. We’ve tried fun apps, serious apps, flashcard apps, you name it!

However what we hadn’t really tried was language learning apps. Until I came along! I’ve spoken a little about learning Mandarin Chinese, both my struggles and triumphs with the language that perplexes all that study it (I also hope).

Learning Chinese is super tricky, especially coming from knowing only one language with a latin alphabet of 26 letters, then trying to learn a logographic script like Chinese with no alphabet and 2500 characters (just to be able to read a newspaper…don’t get me started on the 7,000 in total!)

And like any language, you’ve got to actually practice. That sounds silly, but it’s common to read a lot about what you ’should’ do, or the ‘best way’ to do something without actually doing the thing. Reading and writing, of course, but most importantly speaking. This was my biggest issue as I don’t have many Chinese friends, and I only see my tutor once every two weeks.

Luckily for me, I live in 2016. Why is this lucky, you ask?

Because clever people build clever apps that do things like vocabulary memorisation, voice recognition for speaking, handwriting and stroke analysis, and flashcards. And better yet, I can use them anywhere I like. Using technology to guide learning is so powerful and I’ve had incredible results using learning apps for Mandarin.

There are so many on the market and it can get a little overwhelming. If I can recommend anything, it’s to not get app-crazy and use too many at once. It just ends up getting exhausting. Learning Chinese is exhausting enough as it is, so let’s do what we can do prevent that.

On top of app overload, there’s the issue of usefulness in terms of actually learning. Some apps can be captivating, nice to look at and super fun. Except may not do great things for your memory retention and learning.

So, let’s take a bit of the guesswork out of it. I’m here as your helpful guinea pig, to assist with the decision of which app to use, for what purpose, and why.

HelloChinese


HelloChinese is a brilliant app. You’re drawn to it firstly because of it’s catchy name, cheeky face on the app icon and the fact that it’s completely free. This means no in-app purchases, no gated content. Gold!

They’re a Beijing startup from a few of the people at ChinesePod, one of the most well-received Mandarin platforms ever with almost 1,000,000 users.

The pros:

  • Game-based learning. This app has got all the gamification bells and whistles. Scoring, progress bars, streaks, ‘gold coins’, leaderboards

  • Microlearning to fortify learning and keep things digestible, with each lesson being 10 minutes long

  • The speech recognition feature has pronunciation corrections with audio by native speakers

  • Offline learning. Learn without internet connection - no data drain!

  • Video courses are available for extra study material

  • Test-out features to accelerate more experienced learners

  • Clean and simple design with brilliant linear format that gives a good visual element to the learner’s progress

The cons:

  • Sometimes the speech recognition is dodgy. I tested this by saying things totally wrong, and the machine still said I was spot on. Good for the ego, but not so good for the brain...

As you can see, the pros outweigh the cons by a long shot… This app is awesome.

4.5-of-5

Brainscape Chinese

Brainscape is drastically different to HelloChinese in both user interface and in style of content, but it’s another well received and useful app for learning Chinese.

The app is flashcard style, with over 5500 cards to play with. They’re a fan of failure, and a quote on their website reads "The goal of flashcards isn’t to get them right. It’s to remind yourself of knowledge you’ve forgotten.” which I think is absolutely spot on.

The pros:

  • A purpose build spaced repetition algorithm , and this is the major attraction point for me (we love our spaced repetition…)

  • They’re strictly learning based (and sadly it’s not fun. At all.)

  • Progress is tracked , and feedback and statistics are provided for the learner

  • There are browse, study and test functions

  • There is a free ‘business Chinese’ version with basic accounting, finance marketing and other terms (no audio though)

The cons:

  • It’s not really that fun. I feel inclined to over click and miss out on actually learning anything

  • The learner sees a flashcard, then rates their perceived knowledge of the answer from levels 1-5. Self-assessment bias plays a part in this - it’s so easy to think you know something after seeing the answer

  • No numbers /math/counting features

  • Some translations seem inaccurate - my native speaking Chinese teacher had taught me other definitions that I know are correct!

  • You can’t go backwards through flash cards. So if you accidentally rate it a ‘5’ for example, you won’t see that card again for a while.

3-of-5

ChineseSkill


ChineseSkill is super similar to HelloChinese, both in the formatting of learning material and of the look and feel. It’s playful, informative and the colours are striking and attractive.
The pros:

  • Gamification is massive in this app. You can add friends to compete with, and there’s a visual ‘learning curve’ that tracks your XP points

  • The handwriting feature in ChineseSkill is better than others as it provides you with an overview of the character’s components separately

  • Structured curriculum places content into buckets that flow on well from each other

  • Synchronising is simple across devices

  • Multiple test modes and question types, strengthens memory and personalises the learning

  • The app is task-driven. The materials are based on skill points, linking the motivation to learn with the desire to win

  • There’s the option of offline learning in ChineseSkill too

  • The notifications really catch your eye - they read “熟能生巧“ which means something along the lines of "practice makes perfect"

The cons:

  • It would be useful to have clarification of the grammar structures after the session, to see them all in one place (and how they interact with each other)

  • There’s no option to interleave topics , or a cumulative test

Again, this is a powerful app with an incredible amount of free content that’s beautiful to look at, and easy to use.

4-of-5

Memrise

Memrise is the one app that actually claims to be backed by proven neuroscience techniques. on their website and in their communications.

Their course material is pretty varied, and is drawn from a range of sources. You can choose from courses like ’sentence structures' or ‘100 most common Chinese verbs’ to things like ‘HSK1’ (the official standardised Chinese language test system)

Their three scientific principles:

Elaborate encoding: a technique relating what we’re trying to learn to what we already know. This allows us to make information more memorable and therefore easier to learn and recall. They use the ‘link system’ of mnemonics and the SPACE acronym.

S tupid
P lay on Words
A ction
C lear
E asy to See

Choreographed testing: testing memory to not only assess how well you’ve learned something, but allowing it to give your memory another boost. Memrise presents frequent tests on the information that you’ve learned. Even when you think you know something and can confidently recall it, tests are still beneficial

Scheduled reminders: Memrise uses the same principle as Yarno (spaced repetition) here, and apply it to the app’s spacing. They claim that: ‘Research suggests that reminders are most effective when they occur just before a memory fades completely’ and 'successive reminders should be separated by longer and longer intervals'

The Pros:

  • The design is clean and the interface is easy to use

  • The growing flower in the top right hand corner is a real motivator - for each correct question, a new leaf grows on the flower (and makes a nice sound) but it’s not intrusive, which is really attractive and addictive

  • You can set learning goals ‘5 new words a day’ and receive notifications to help prompt you to answer your questions (ala Yarno)

  • The mnemonics are weird - but strangely effective!

The Cons:

  • The leaderboard isn’t present a lot of the time, I haven’t actually received any leaderboard notifications (probably because I’m not good enough yet. Ha!)

  • Their website presents some strong scientific evidence along with strong software but unfortunately it’s somewhat unsubstantiated

  • Sometimes the mnemonics are long winded and not helpful

  • Since the lessons are pre-structured, the discovery phase is sort of lost. A lot of these apps are, as they want to remove the barrier of effort so people can use the tool

  • These apps suffers from the ‘dictionary problem’ which can be solved by interleaved practice of topics

3-of-5

So, which app to choose?

All in all, there’s a whole lot of choice out there. In searching for the best app, I downloaded close to a dozen. My opinion on the best app has to be to HelloChinese. In saying that, any app that works for you should be the one you use.

Erin McGee

About the author

Erin is Yarno's trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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