It’s easy to forget that ten years ago I – and many people around me – didn’t own a smart phone. At that time the most impressive thing I could do on my primitive Nokia was play a two dimensional game involving a rattle snake eating apples. Clearly technology has progressed a lot over the past decade and nobody has benefited more than Mandarin learners.
The recent explosion of online learning tools has revolutionised the way we study Mandarin. Little over a decade ago self-learning Chinese from outside of China without joining a structured course would have been extremely challenging, bordering on impossible for the average learner. Today it remains difficult but, if the correct tools are harnessed effectively, entirely feasible.
This change has been so fast and dramatic that speaking to people who began learning Chinese more than a decade ago can feel like travelling back to the stone age. In this blog I will outline four types of applications which have had the most profound impact on my learning and which I struggle to imagine studying Chinese without.
1. Pleco Dictionary
The free dictionary app Pleco is the first app all prospective Chinese learners should download before getting started. It enables users to look up words swiftly and conveniently, either by spelling them out in pinyin, drawing the character using a touch screen or searching for the equivalent english word.
Before Pleco, Mandarin learners had no option but to use paper dictionaries to look up unknown words and characters. Founded in 2001, the app has been around for a while. But it was only after the rise of mobile technology that it cemented its place as a core tool for all Mandarin learners. If you have not yet downloaded it on your phone do so now.
2. User-Friendly Flashcards
Space repetition systems and flashcard programmes have existed for decades but until recently they were so difficult to use that many learners, including some highly experienced influencers, opted against using them. Thankfully, in the past few years a number of applications have emerged making flashcards easier to organise and review than ever before.
Two of my favourites include Hack Chinese (which I use on a daily basis) and Mandarin Vocabulary Builder, designed by friend Karl Baker. No system is more efficient for learning and retaining new Chinese characters than SRS and it is now possible for ordinary people with busy lives to use these programmes without possessing any computer wizardry.
3. Digital Mandarin Readers
In the past, learning to read Chinese paperback novels and newspapers was a notoriously arduous, inefficient and thankless task. Each time you came across an unknown word you had no choice but to spend time looking it up in a dictionary. Few people had the patience required to learn Chinese with such cumbersome tools. Fortunately, over the past decade several programmes have emerged to make extensive reading more efficient and pain free than ever before.
My favourite system for reading and listening to Chinese is LingQ, a website and mobile app that lets you import content from around the web and consume it at your leisure. LingQ’s reader enables you to click on unknown words to instantly discover their meaning and save them to your vocabulary bank. You can also create a playlist of audio material to listen to on your mobile while performing other tasks. Other similar systems to have emerged in the past decade include the Chairman’s Bao and Du Chinese.
4. Language Exchange Apps
It is not an exaggeration to say that I might have given up learning Chinese were it not for language exchange apps. For those of us learning Mandarin during a pandemic opportunities to practice speaking with native speakers have often been limited. Add to that the challenge of studying from outside Chinese speaking countries and it is not hard to see why these apps have risen sharply in popularity over the last few years.
The app I have found most useful for practicing my spoken Chinese is Tandem. In the past I regularly used it to exchange text messages and phone calls with my pen pals. The emergence of Tandem and other apps like it means that those of us learning Chinese from abroad no longer have any excuses for failing to hone our spoken Mandarin skills.
How about you? Which apps do you find most useful and which do you find it most difficult to imagine living without? Do you agree self-studying Mandarin has never been easier than it is today? Let me know in the comments below.
*In addition to the apps listed here I also highly recommend using Netflix as a learning tool. I’ve blogged about how to do this here.
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