There’s a certain formula to “formal” learning.
You go to class, listen to the lecture, go home.
You practice reading, writing, speaking and listening for an hour or so.
Rinse and repeat.
Some Chinese learners might find this a bit boring and not their style. And that’s totally okay!
There’s always the option of an online tutor, online courses—like MOOCs—Mandarin language apps and many more ways to learn.
However, whether you’re in an actual traditional Mandarin class or learning things your own way, you should definitely have some go-to online Chinese learning tools.
A few super handy tools can either supplement an existing study routine or build the foundation for a new one from scratch.
To take the guesswork out of finding the best Chinese learning tools out there, we searched the net for the best of the best for you to check out. This writer has even used a majority of these tools through the past seven years of learning Chinese.
First, let’s look into why you should even bother with online tools in the first place.
Why Should I Use Chinese Learning Tools Online?
- They’re convenient and readily available. There are so many tools available online to help you learn any new language, not just Chinese. And many of them are free to use. What’s better than free?
- While online Chinese learning tools can’t replace a physical teacher or course, they can greatly supplement your study plan. Some of these tools aren’t necessarily designed to actually teach you Chinese, but that’s okay! They’re great for supplementing a lesson plan.
- Some Chinese learning tools are game and social-based, making them quite entertaining and giving you more of an incentive to study. Some of these tools are built like an entertaining game and others will connect you with native Chinese speakers via in-app SMS. Learning a language certainly doesn’t have to be boring and you definitely don’t have to go it alone.
Aha! 13 Online Tools for a Revelatory Chinese Learning Plan
First and foremost, this app is a way to connect with native Chinese speakers. That alone makes it a valuable tool. You can make friends and have somebody around to speak Mandarin with to improve your fluency (and help them improve their fluency in your native language).
HelloTalk is also a pretty powerful correction tool. You can correct your partner’s vocabulary and grammar in the conversation and they can do the same for you. This is great for catching mistakes in real time.
Just about any level of learner can benefit from this app, but beginners will find that it’s really great for correcting newbie mistakes early on.
Anki is definitely the best of the best when it comes to general flashcard apps. It’s open source, fully extensible and easy to customize. You can even embed audio, images and video.
Anki is free to use across almost all platforms, operating systems and devices. This is one of those rare tools that every level of learner should have as part of their toolkit. No matter how advanced you get, you’ll still come across unfamiliar characters that you’ll want to study.
Think of FluentU like your Chinese-learning multi-tool. If you like, you can use it like a complete course and get hours of learning out of it every day. But it can also be a handy supplement to any other learning routine in any number of ways.
Videos, which are sorted by subject, level and type, come with interactive captions that you can click or tap on to look up word definitions, but the learning doesn’t stop there.
You can also access customized quizzes, complete separate transcripts with audio, vocab lists and pre-made multimedia flashcards.
FluentU is there for you on your computer, phone or tablet with authentic, culture-rich content whenever you feel like learning, whether it’s for a few minutes or a few hours. You can try it free for two weeks and select the pricing plan that’s right for you.
Zhongwen Chrome Extension
Chrome extensions are incredibly handy for learning Chinese and writing long documents in 汉字 (hàn zì — Chinese characters). This Chinese-English dictionary add-on is simply one of the best you’ll find.
After the super quick installation process, simply hover your mouse over a particular word in Chinese. A pop-up window will display the traditional and simplified 汉字, its 拼音 (pīn yīn — Chinese romanization) and an in-depth definition.
While all levels of learner can certainly benefit from having this extension around, it’s especially useful for intermediate and advanced Chinese learners who have to write or decipher long essays in Chinese for their courses. With it, you can recognize and define unfamiliar 汉字 in a flash.
Standard Mandarin Chinese Pronunciation
It’s pretty obvious to beginner learners that pronouncing Chinese words is really difficult.
Luckily, Standard Mandarin’s Chinese Pronunciation app is here to help. With this app, you get to listen to all pinyin sounds, learn more in-depth about why certain words are pronounced a certain way and view a physical guide to pronouncing difficult words.
This app is free to download for iOS users, but you’ll have to make a purchase in order to access their full library of words.
Pin Pin Chinese-English Dictionary
Who doesn’t love a decent, smooth, simple, easy-to-use Chinese-English dictionary? Pin Pin Chinese-English Dictionary is just that. Look up English, 汉字 and 拼音 words and get a full translation, definition and sample sentences in a snap.
Hear us out with this one.
Most people know that Google Translate isn’t exactly the best of the best when it comes to translating Chinese. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do, in their defense. The grammar structure of Chinese is often completely different from Germanic and Latin languages, so a precise translation isn’t always possible.
We included Google Translate on this list for two of its functions: the handwriting lookup tool and the photo lookup tool.
The handwriting tool allows you to physically draw out a Chinese character that you’d like to translate, and this feature is surprisingly accurate.
The photo lookup feature allows you to take a photo or video of a physical object with Chinese characters and get a quick translation. That one will definitely come in handy when you decide to travel to China or Taiwan!
LibriVox Chinese Audiobooks
One great way to brush up on your listening and comprehension skills is to try out Chinese audiobooks. Beginners may find this is a little too difficult to benefit from, but intermediate and advanced learners can certainly improve their skills with this handy library of public domain audiobooks in Chinese.
Just go to “Listen,” then “Language,” and scroll down to select “Chinese.” You’ll be taken to a list of more than 400 books with download links.
Say you have a script or speech written entirely in Chinese characters and your comprehension skills aren’t the best. With this tool, you can do a massive translation from Chinese characters to 拼音 in a matter of seconds.
Chinese Converter also has a ton of other super useful Mandarin tools you can check out from the bar at the top of the page, including stroke order animations, writing practice sheets and other types of text conversion.
Learn Chinese with Nincha
This entertaining game app will definitely help out learners who have a hard time focusing.
Available in app or browser form, this handy game is as cute as it is functional. Ninchanese essentially brings you a game-based curriculum that teaches vocabulary, intuitive sentence building, speaking skills and high-speed Chinese writing. The storyline is fun and you learn a lot about Chinese culture along the way.
You can play this game with limited access for free, but they also offer various subscription options for premium content.
iTalki is an online language tutor site for just about any language. Find a native Chinese speaker on the site and get one-on-one lessons from them on your time.
The lessons are highly customizable and you only pay per lesson, so you don’t have to worry about wasting a ton of money on a full course if you aren’t satisfied.
If you’re learning Mandarin outside of a classroom or without a tutor, you may find yourself struggling to pronounce certain words correctly. Forvo can help with that.
Simply copy and paste a Chinese word or phrase into the search box and select “pronounce.” You’ll be presented, in many cases, with multiple pronunciations of the word in audio files from different fluent speakers.
Flewent Chrome Extension
Like Zhongwen, Flewent is an incredibly useful Chrome extension.
Where Zhongwen helps define and explain specific Chinese characters in your browser, Flewent replaces random chunks of text in English with Chinese.
It will definitely seem a bit weird at first, but consider how much time you spend reading on social media and other places online. By switching a percentage of words from English to Chinese, you’ll be forced to look at context clues and other language tools to understand those new words. It’s a pretty incredible piece of technology!
Even if you don’t actively use each one of these tools while you learn Chinese, you’ll certainly find at least a handful that are perfect for your needs. We’re especially fond of the Chrome extensions that make working online in Chinese super easy.
Good luck out there!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.