These days, there’s 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.
Why Learn Mandarin Chinese with Apps?
The first and most important reason to learn with apps is because you’re probably on the go, and guess what, so are apps. Whether or not you’re learning Chinese formally in a school, great apps enhance and speed up your learning. And the best part? You’re using your time well! During long train and bus rides or while 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’re 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.”
13 Shockingly Good Apps for Learning Mandarin Chinese in 2020
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.
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 real-world Chinese videos—like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks—and turns them 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. FluentU has 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: Free for Android; or, pay a one-time fee to download the iOS version
If you’ve 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 is 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 a one-time fee for lifetime use.
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, but 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 a free app that’s great for beginners. If you’ve used Duolingo and loved it, you’ll certainly enjoy this app a lot. The design and interface are really cute, featuring a panda, of course. Also, the content is designed according to categories like food, numbers and colors—so you learn 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 mispronunciations may put you in a more embarrassing situation than using the wrong grammar. This app is free to download and includes a good in-depth guide to speaking Mandarin Chinese correctly.
The Chairman’s Bao: For learning with the news
Price: The first month of using The Chairman’s Bao is free. After that, a monthly-based subscription fee is charged to continue using the app.
The Chairman’s Bao is an app that uses real-world news articles to create an immersion environment for Chinese learners of multiple levels. In fact, The Chairman’s Bao is used by over 115,000 people as well as in universities and institutions around the world, and it’s not hard to understand why.
The app primarily features over 6,400 graded-reader lessons written as news articles found on the internet. For example, you can read an article about AI in China monitoring students’ behavior or a 107-year-old woman’s secret to a long life.
These lessons are leveled based on the 汉语水平考试 (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) — Chinese Proficiency Test, or its acronym HSK, the official examinations for gauging Chinese proficiency for non-native speakers. The Chairman’s Bao has lessons available for all HSK levels from HSK 1 (beginner) to HSK 6+ (advanced).
During a lesson, learners can click on any word for a translation into English. Authentic Chinese audio is available for many lessons, and it’s spoken slowly and clearly. Each lesson also features grammar notes and vocabulary lists specific to each news article.
LingQ: For flashcard creation as you read
Price: A basic plan is free, containing 20 LingQs (flashcards); a monthly subscription fee allows for unlimited LingQs in a premium membership.
LingQ is a program available for computer and mobile devices that revolves around learning languages through the creations of LingQs. Essentially, a LingQ is an unknown word that gets converted into a digital flashcard. LingQs can then be periodically reviewed, intentionally or through reading and listening to subsequent Chinese material, until they become a known word (ie. until you remember what they mean.)
One of LingQ’s biggest strengths, aside from its effective way to teach new words and phrases, is its large library of Chinese written content with authentic corresponding audio recorded by real Chinese speakers. There is built-in content developed by the app itself, but new lessons are added by its users daily, so the collection continues to grow.
LingQ’s Chinese lessons cover an array of topics, and they’re sorted by level. There are six levels from Beginner 1 to Advanced 2, which correspond nicely to the 6 HSK levels. You can import your own written and audio content such as blog posts and news articles so that you learn Chinese with material that truly interests you. Further, you can save all the audio files from previously-studied materials as a playlist for on-the-go listening practice.
Zizzle: For writing Chinese characters
Price: Zizzle offers a free trial. For full functionality, learners must purchase a monthly subscription for premium membership or buy “character packs” that include a certain number of Chinese characters corresponding to HSK levels.
Zizzle is an app that teaches Chinese characters through short stories and visuals. Currently, there are 850+ characters available in the app. These 850+ Chinese characters correspond to the most common characters in each of the HSK levels. While this is only a third of the 2,663 characters needed to meet the HSK 6 requirement, more characters will be added until all needed to pass the level HSK 6 examination is reached.
Each Chinese character is taught through a helpful story, often one including the pronunciation of the character in it, as well as corresponding audio, stroke order and the meaning of the character (often in relation to the meaning of said character).
ChinesePod: For self-guided video lessons
Price: Various monthly plans are available for basic and premium learners.
ChinesePod is a program that uses over 4,000 video and podcast lessons to teach Mandarin Chinese. In fact, ChinesePod touts not only authentic Chinese content that is meant to immerse the learner, but also an unstructured approach that allows learners to choose which lessons they want to complete. In other words, there’s no rigid order that lessons need to be done in: simply choose your level of Chinese and peruse the numerous lessons available.
Each lesson revolves around a dialogue or some other spoken Chinese component. Next there’s a breakdown of the dialogue or spoken component, allowing learners to really understand the structures at play within the Chinese sentences and conversations.
In addition to this base video or audio, learners also have access to downloadable vocabulary lists and grammar notes. There are translations into English available for each lesson as well as an extensive Pinyin section.
Unknown Chinese words can be added to the “Decks” feature (flashcards) and reviewed later to help the vocabulary stick. Further, there is a video course called “Say it Right” (S.I.R. for short) that allows learners to master all the tones in Mandarin as well as pronunciation.
ChineseClass101: For a structured online course
ChineseClass101 is a language learning program and app from the famed Innovative Language, the company behind the Pod101 learning programs and apps series. In addition to Chinese, Innovative Language has developed in-depth programs for learning other languages such as Hindi, Korean and Russian.
Like its Pod101 companions, each lesson from ChineseClass101 is based around a video or audio clip (often recorded as a podcast). These clips often include a short scene or conversation in Chinese. Such scenes include an array of topics relating to school, work, family and everyday life. After the video or audio clips, grammar and vocabulary notes are given as well as an opportunity for learners to practice what they’ve learned through short exercises or interactions on the lesson’s forum.
Lessons are also presented in a chronological order that makes it easier for learners to know what they should study next in relation to their current level of Chinese.
There are also videos and audio clips related to grammar or vocabulary topics. For example, you could find a lesson that details how to create the past tense in Chinese. (Hint: you don’t need to conjugate any verbs!) You can also find lessons that detail the most common ways to greet someone or the top 50 phrases to use in a Chinese conversation.
HelloChinese: For gamified Chinese learning
Price: This app is free with in-app purchases such as premium features.
HelloChinese is an all-around Chinese learning app that claims over 8 million downloads worldwide. The app focuses on the four pillars of language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. This makes it a great all-around app for learning a large amount of Chinese.
Its structure is similar to other gamified language learning apps, but the depth of its lessons and its all-around functionality make this app quite special within the gamification sphere.
Lessons with HelloChinese have a structured curriculum to follow. They revolve around real-world conversations and other listening activities with transcriptions and English translations. Lesson topics range from family, food and numbers to more advanced lessons related to education, the workplace and the world. The app touts the ability to support learners through all six levels of the HSK.
Both traditional and simplified Chinese characters are supported in the app, and the lessons have Standard Mandarin audio recorded by native speakers. Further, learners can use the included speech recognition to help with tricky Chinese pronunciation and tones, and there is an interface for in-app handwriting for practicing writing Chinese characters.
Ninchanese: For Spaced Repetition System (SRS) technology
Price: Ninchanese allows limited access to its program for free. Unlimited access is granted with a monthly, half-year or yearly fee.
Ninchanese is a full Chinese learning course with more than 3,500 Mandarin lessons available for learners. Most lessons are gamified or have game-like components, making Ninchanese a stress-free and even fun way to learn the language.
Lessons focus on reading, writing, speaking and listening to Chinese. Many of these lessons include interactive stories and games, so learning new Chinese characters and structures is never dull. There are specific lessons for writing practice via sentence building, recording speech practice through dialogue and vocabulary matching with English translations and pictures.
Best of all, Ninchanese allows learners to study all the way up to HSK 6 with a structured, easy-to-follow curriculum. In addition to its lessons, the app includes Spaced Repetition System (SRS) flashcards that make it easy to review vocabulary and know when new words need attention over others.
Further, learners can really challenge themselves with Ninchanese’s speed writing lessons where learners practice writing a sentence or multiple sentences containing learned vocabulary as fast as they can. For these activities, you write in Chinese characters, but there is also Pinyin available in Ninchanese’s lessons for quick reference.
How to Get the Most out of Your Chinese Learning Apps
So you now have a whole pack of Chinese learning apps and you’re 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 with 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 practicing for 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.