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The 6 Best iPad Applications for learning Mandarin
…a guide for long-term Chinese language learners.

Learning Chinese is very hard. So hard in fact that despite widespread knowledge of its importance, ‘wei guo ren’ (foreigners) rarely take up the tast. In the UK, for example, entries for GSCE Mandarin are in steep decline (and they weren’t high to start with.) The US Foreign Service Institute ranks Mandarin a ‘category III’ language for English speakers to learn, estimating that 2200 hours are required for basic fluency. Half of those hours, it advises, should be conducted immersively within a Chinese-speaking environment.

An infographic: What languages are hardest for English speakers to learn? shows that Chinese is certainly among the hardest.

Students of Mandarin, then, need all the help they can get. So it won’t come as a surprise that there are a glut of iPad applications baying for students’ attention in the field. 4252 applications answer the call to be precise, most of which could be reasonably described as ‘piggy-backing tut’.

I’ve sorted through the pile to find 6 indispensable applications that undoubtedly enhance the Chinese learning experience. They aren’t all free, but if you intend to invest time in learning, you may as well have the best tools.

In choosing my 6 I looked for the following necessities;

SIMPLICITY // Mandarin is complex enough, so the simpler the tool the better.
DESIGN // If you’re to spend 2200 hours on one task, you may as well like the look of it.
DEPTH // Superficial information can be frustrating; the more knowledge stowed the better.
LONGEVITY // Ensuring the tool stays with you throughout, and doesn’t run-out prematurely.
PRICE // As close to free as possible, and worth every penny.

MY TOP 6 IPAD APPS for Learning Chinese:

1 – Word Tracer // £1.99 // View & Download


China’s rich character script deserves beautiful presentation. Word Tracer is the only app available that introduces learners to this beautiful written language with grace. Word Tracer even picked up an ‘Apple Staff Favourite’ accolade for its design. Joining the dots – each providing s reassuring click – is all you need do to complete each character. Word Tracer then lets you gradually expand your library of characters, slowly removing crutches and aiding the transfer into your little brain.  With thousands of characters pre-loaded, Word Tracer will be with you for the journey, and you will be glad that it is.

2 – Brainscape – Chinese // £5.49 // View or Download


Cramming may be a necessary evil of language-learning, but with Brainscape at least you’ll be making the most of your time and effort. Packs of vocabularly, containing 200 new words and phrases, are introduced to learners at a steady pace. Know the answer? Score the card high. No idea? Score it low. Brainscape‘s software is based on clinically chosen methods of memorisation, and you’ll soon enjoy the results as your ‘Overall Mastery’ score climbs.

3 – Say Hi Translate // £0.69 // View or Download


Flawed, certainly, but nontheless stunning. Speak to Say Hi in one language and it will talk back to you in another. Admittedly, recognising Mandarin’s four tones seems far beyond this application’s ability, and it falters when faced with almost any kind of complexity, but for quick references and English to Chinese translations, it is joyous. A feel-good factor can also be found in the knowledge that you are better at Chinese than your iPad.

4 – HanZi Reader // £0.69 // View or Download


Knowing individual characters will never be enough. Phrases, combinations and pairings are all part of Mandarin’s richness, but are a colossal pain for non-native readers to understand. HanZi Reader provides a roll-over interface as you’re reading, enabling instant access to extensive explanation for every element of every sentence. It’s like reading with someone watching over your shoulder, steering your way through the hardest bits.

5 – Small Talk // FREE // View or Download


Packed with colloquial, day-to-day and immediately useful language, Small Talk has clearly been created by real people, and not grammar nerds. Categories such as ‘Clothing – Undergarments’ and ‘Dating – Apologizing’ are not just in there for novelty, but actually seriously fleshed out (of course we all need to learn the phrase “Look , I’m telling you, I can change.”) Although Small Talk offers little functionality that will help your learning, the content is an excellent and inspiring starting point for genuine fluency.

6 – Pleco Dictionary // FREE // View or Download


The barely-contested champion of Chinese-English dictionaries, Pleco. Tones are neatly colour coded, traditional and simplified characters are covered, and you’ll really never need another resource. Full (paid-for) functionality even has the ability to ‘read’ by scanning characters using the camera, though those of us in the stone age can still search by drawing or pinyin-ing.

Despite the brilliance of these 6 apps, the market for a ‘definitive app’ for Chinese Mandarin learners is, I feel, still wide open. Its scope would have to be awesome – far beyond a few beginners’ lessons – and its range would need to encompass writing, speech, listening and grammar. Tablet computers have amazing educational value, so I’m sure we can expect to see a more heavyweight, all-in application for Chinese learners sometime soon.


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