These days, there is an app for just about everything.
So it isn’t a surprise at all that there are apps for learning Mandarin Chinese.
Can they really help? Heck yes! Especially if you know what you need, and get the right app with the best fit—which we guide you through in this post.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Why Learn Mandarin Chinese with Apps?
The first and most important reason to learn with apps is because you are probably on the go, and guess what, so are apps. Whether or not you are learning Chinese formally in a school, great apps enhance and speed up your learning. And the best part? You are using your time well! In the long train and bus rides or waiting in line at the bank, you’ll use spare moments to keep the learning going.
Apps are also great for people who travel and want to do some review without having to carry around heavy books. Plus, I personally find having a handy tool extremely useful for instant learning. Let’s say you see an object and want to know how to say it in Chinese. A few swipes on a dictionary app would give you the answer right away, and that learning in a relevant real-world setting means you’ll probably remember it better.
So we know apps are useful, but what do we need to look out for when choosing an app?
What to Consider When Choosing a Chinese Learning App
Shopping for an app is not much different from shopping for a coffee machine (strange analogy, I know). There are just so many options in the market that you are bound to get confused and annoyed if you start looking without first having an idea of what you’re looking for.
So take a minute to think about what your priority is, and make sure you know which level you’re in. With that in mind, consider these factors before and during your app shopping.
- Usability: If possible, choose an app that also works offline, so you can get the most out of it. Checking out the app reviews will also tell you if it’s a joy or a pain to use.
- Learning actively: A Chinese language app shouldn’t be just a dead and dull translation tool. A good learning app, regardless of its key learning goals, should encourage you to think. This could be in the form of games, or simple question-and- answer.
- Levels: Preferably you should be able to choose settings that correspond to your own level. This helps to keep your learning structured, prevents you from getting overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) and in some ways inspires you to “level-up.”
6 Shockingly Good Apps for Learning Mandarin Chinese
Developing an app is easy, developing a kick-ass one is not. Here are some free and paid apps that you should consider adding to your tool belt. All prices listed are in U.S. dollars.
FluentU: For real-world immersion
FluentU is one of the most unique apps among the others featured on this list. That’s because FluentU takes a huge collection of real-world Chinese videos—like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks—and turns it into personalized and engaging language learning experiences.
Thanks to the diverse range of content here, you’re guaranteed to find something for your skill level, preferred learning style and personal interests.
Seriously. We’ve got everything from viral commercials to grammar lessons, street interviews, clips from Chinese horror movies and even the “Let it Go” song from “Frozen.”
Learn Mode is the feature which gets you most actively engaged. All native language videos have interactive transcripts, so you can tap on any subtitled word to see instant on-screen definitions, usage examples and more.
If you see an interesting word you don’t know, simply add it to your vocabulary lists and flashcard decks to reference and study later on.
While studying vocabulary words, you can swipe left or right to see more usage examples. Fluent’s flashcards are also extremely dynamic, allowing you to play mini-games like “fill in the blank” to reinforce newly-learned language.
The coolest part is that FluentU always remembers your viewing history and previously learned language. It suggests content and examples based on what you already know. This means every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re all watching the same video.
Anki: For acing your vocabulary
Price: $24.99 for iOS, free for Android
If you have begun your Chinese learning journey, you’ll probably have realized by now that you remember some words more easily than others. If you wonder if there could actually be an app that helps you to solidify and build your vocabulary, then it’s Anki.
Anki, a powerful and effective flashcard program that is free, multi-platform and open-source. Anki uses a spaced repetition program that is believed to greatly improve how you remember new words.
You can download stacks of flashcards from Anki, or create your own deck. Android users get to download Anki for free, while iOS users pay $24.99.
Pleco: For a free, offline dictionary
The most basic app that every learner from beginner to advanced would benefit from is one that works as a dictionary and translator. Pleco is free to download for both iOS and Android users. The dictionary can be used offline, and there are a number of additional features that you could download for a fee.
What’s great about Pleco is being able to look up words using your phone’s camera or from a still image, which makes this great for translating on-the-go. You can also look up words by drawing on the screen.
Skritter: For learning Chinese writing
This is an app for those of you looking to get serious about your Chinese writing. It’s available for iOS, Android and desktop users.
Skritter also uses a spaced repetition algorithm. And not only that, the program also makes you write the characters from scratch all the time, so you are truly practicing and getting all that proper writing practice that you need.
If you want to take your learning beyond conversation and comprehension, then this app may be just what you need.
Chinese Skill: For learning with games
Chinese Skill is free app that’s great for beginners. If you had used Duolingo with another language and loved it, you would be using this app a lot (Duolingo hasn’t released a Chinese version yet). The design and interface is really cute, featuring a panda, of course. Also, the content is designed according to categories like food, numbers and colors—so you get the learning in a rather systematic way while having some fun.
Standard Mandarin: For the Pinyin and the tones
This app specializes in getting your pronunciation right, and even tells you which facial muscles to choose—so you can really work at getting rid of your foreign accent. Remember, Chinese is a tonal language, so mis-pronunciations may put you in a more embarrassing situation than using the wrong grammar. This is free to download and a good in-depth guide to speaking Mandarin Chinese correctly.
How to Get the Most out of Your Chinese Learning Apps
So you now have a whole pack of Chinese learning apps and you are ready to start. How do you get the most out of your apps?
The big secret is discipline. When you first download an app, you get really obsessed about it, but then the magic often stops. The best way to make your app-learning sustainable is to keep a time-limit on it. Say, 15 minutes on the Anki flashcards to learn and remember new words, and then 15 minutes on FluentU to learn how to actually use them. This may not seem like a lot, but if you do this every single day, you’ll get much better results than going on hours for a few days, and then getting an app burn-out and not opening them for weeks.
I also highly recommend not arming yourself with a hundred different apps and trying to use them all. Choose one area to focus on each month (or week, if you like), and download or purchase the apps that are specialized in that aspect.
And with that, app on and turn your painful waiting times into learning opportunities!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you’ll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.