A guide to the best free Chinese-learning applications for the iPhone
Getting Schooled ... By a Phone
So you splurged on a new iPhone (or iPod Touch, or iPad), and now you've been forced onto a strict budget. The good news is that there are many free applications that can harness the power of your new gadget to help you improve your Chinese. The bad news is that the selection you'll find in the app store is somewhat overwhelming. I recently downloaded all that I could find and tried them out; below are some favorites.
Most of the free dictionaries use the CC-CEDICT database and allow you to search by characters, Pinyin, or English, so choosing one is mostly a matter of figuring out which has the best interface and extras. Pleco and Flashonary (described below) both provide German-Chinese and Chinese-German lookup.
According to many user reviews, Pleco is the savior you need to lead you out of the darkness of Chinese ignorance. And indeed, when fully-loaded with Pleco's ever-developing collection of paid add-ons (a bundle with handwriting recognition, a Chinese-document reader, flashcards, stroke-order diagrams, and audio pronunciation is US$50), Pleco does provide just about everything you could want in a dictionary and study aid, apart from a computer chip implanted in your brain. But the unadorned free version is also a great tool, especially if you download the extra free dictionaries (including CC-CEDICT) to go with it. There's a wildcard search option, a quick and intuitive search by radical, and you can easily toggle through results from different dictionaries. Pleco also seems to be heavily pushing the development of new technologies for Chinese-language learners, such as optical character recognition software, which enables a smartphone to "read" characters off a printed page with its camera. But, as its lengthy manual attests, Pleco is not for dabblers: It takes some time to learn what all the buttons do.
As the name implies, this is a dictionary that lets you add words to your flashcard collection as you search. Unlike similar free apps, it also allows users to construct their own flashcards, and it uses spaced repetition (words you get right appear less frequently than the rest). Like Pleco, it also has some paid add-ons, but the interface is much simpler than Pleco's. One interesting option is to narrow search results by number of characters. For example, you can choose to see only a single character's definition, or all two-character words with the character, or any four-character sayings it appears in.
Unlike most non-dictionary free Chinese-learning apps, which are actually "lite" versions of paid apps and have only a handful of words, 321Speak creates a sort of total-immersion environment. You get audio and text for a Chinese word or short phrase, and guess which of four pictures it describes. The only feedback given is right or wrong—there are no translations. It's a promising app for beginners. 321Speak uses only Chinese and pictures, so it's friendly to speakers of any language.
In this simple app, users start with a short tutorial on the principles of stroke order, then proceed to practice writing characters the program selects. This app is best suited to developing an instinct for correct stroke order rather than memorizing particular characters.
eZi Test and HSK Test
These new apps are for those looking for on-the-fly HSK prep. eZi consists of a set of nearly 1,000 progressively more advanced character flashcards, which users can customize to include simplified and traditional characters, Pinyin, audio pronunciation, and/or English definitions; in-depth definitions and stroke diagrams are also available. HSK Test has multiple-choice practice questions, but cannot be tailored to user level and lacks explanations.
No, QQ is not, technically, a Chinese-learning app. It's a chat program. But using it to communicate with your friends (or random strangers) is a great way to practice using all those new words and phrases you're picking up.
Ai for the iPhone: basics on iphones in china
If you buy an iPhone in China, it will likely be more expensive than in your home country. Officially the iPhones are only available here through China Unicom, but you can get them more cheaply on the gray market (no, not from a guy on the street wearing a trench coat, but from a shop that doesn't make you sign a China Unicom contract). Gray market phones are real iPhones that have been illegally re-imported). They come pre-unlocked, so you can use them with any carrier. If you buy a gray-market phone, de-activate your cellular data until you call your carrier and subscribe to a data plan. China Mobile's data bundles start at RMB5 per month, but without such a bundle, it's easy to spend hundreds of yuan per month on data.
The bottom line
If you're studying Chinese, you'll probably want a good electronic dictionary, since looking up Chinese words in a paper dictionary can be a chore. Dedicated electronic dictionaries are a popular option, and are significantly cheaper than the iPhone, but if you've been contemplating buying an iPhone anyway, its powerful Chinese-learning apps make a good excuse to take the plunge. An Android-based smartphone is another option, though it seems that the selection of Chinese-learning apps hasn't yet caught up to that for the iPhone. With their touch screens, audio players, capacious memories, and portability, smartphones have great potential as Chinese-learning tools, and we're certain to continue to see apps that find new ways to realize that potential.
This article by Shawna Williams was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 36 ("How to IV").
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