One of the most-asked questions by people who want to learn Mandarin is: where do I start? Do you begin by learning characters, do you start out with tones, or just focus on the pinyin? For more advanced learners, there is another challenge. How do you make sure you do not lose the knowledge you already have and to how to keep on improving your language skills?
Although learners should always work with whatever methods are most effective for them, the most productive way of studying Mandarin is to study its different components at the same time. Studying new words on paper without learning their tones is not recommended, neither is focusing on pinyin without learning the characters. Instead, it’s better to get a grasp on all the different aspects of this rich language.
Some of the 10 apps in this list are Chinese apps meant for a Chinese audience, and not necessarily meant for Chinese language learners – but they are nevertheless excellent learning tools.
Here are some What’s on Weibo favorites for Android, iPhone or iPad, from beginners to advanced levels of Mandarin.
1. Pleco Software Dictionary
A confession from the editor: Pleco has been my best friend ever since I started studying Chinese. At the time, I once invested an amount that seemed like a huge sum of money as I was working side jobs as a beginning student to purchase the app’s professional package. I used a hand-me-down Palm handheld (!) at the time, but since then, the Pleco support team has never failed me as I transferred the dictionaries to my first iPhone, my first Samsung, and even my first iPad. The fact that many years had passed since my first investment was never an issue.
Although Pleco’s service is praiseworthy, it is all about the app itself in the end. Pleco calls itself “The #1 Chinese dictionary app for iOS and Android” and it is hard to argue with that. It is suitable for anyone studying Chinese on an elementary, intermediate, or advanced level. What is good about Pleco is that it has a great range of dictionaries and has an easy handwriting recognizer; even if your handwriting in Chinese is not that great, it will still get the character you need.
The major plus for Pleco is that it is much more than a dictionary alone. It has an add-on optical character recognizer that will help you read offline texts, and the “clip reader” function is super handy to copy Chinese texts on smartphone/table – just copy the text and navigate to Pleco to find the text and tap words and characters for their meanings.
Another tip: with Pleco, you can train your Chinese vocabulary through flashcards: add any words you do not know to a category (for example: My Chinese Business Vocabulary, or Dirty Words in Chinese), and then quiz yourself through Pleco’s ‘test’ function. It will repeat all the words you got wrong until you have a 100% score.
The free version is ok, but for learners who are serious about learning Chinese (especially when you’re dealing with Chinese for your studies) the professional package is recommended and you’ll be able to take it along with you, even when you switch from the ancient Palm to the latest iPhone.
Price: free (elementary), US $29.99 for basic package (bundles through Android), US $99.99 (professional package) + rich selection of optional add-ons.
Compatibility: iPhone/iPad & Android
2. Chinese Class 101 (by Innovative Language)
Whether you are on the road or at home, online or offline, Chinese Class 101 offers Mandarin comprehensive learning courses that can you can easily integrate into your everyday life. The lesson-per-lesson audio system makes it easy to listen and practice to bite-sized conversations and fragments (which can all be downloaded) while you’re driving to work or cooking dinner.
The app offers lessons from the absolute beginner’s level to the very advanced level. Every lesson consists of an audio class of ±10 minutes that usually features a conversation, an audio review of vocabulary, a line-by-line display of the conversation (in English, pinyin, simplified & traditional Chinese), and lesson notes. Note: the overviews and transcripts only come with the premium subscription – if you only want to do audio, you’ll be fine with basic, but to get a complete overview of the texts and words you’d have to go for the premium one ($10/month).
Chinese Class 101 also provides the option to have 1-on-1 interaction with a personal teacher through the app, which only comes with the more expensive premium plus subscription.
If you are not learning Chinese through a school or university, this program is a very effective way of learning Mandarin. One of the key things of this course is the way it repeats the things you’ve learned to really make it stick in your head. (Also, their Korean programme is very good if you’re considering to take on an extra language…).
Price: This app works with a subscription system. It is free to try for a week, US $5/month for the basic package (access to all audio archives), US $10/month for the premium package (includes wordlists and transcripts) and $23/month for the premium plus (includes option for 1-on-1 teaching).
Compatibility: iPhone/iPad & Android and desktop
Where to get:
3. Pera Pera Pop Up Dictionary
Ok, ok, this is not technically an app – it is a plugin. But it needs to be high up in this list for anyone learning Chinese. Pera Pera is a pop-up dictionary add-on for Chrome or Firefox. It gives the English definition for Chinese texts, making it infinitely easier for those struggling with characters to read Chinese online. Pro’s: easy to install, easy to use, and translations for many modern names or slang words. Downside: if you use Pera Pera too often, you will get lazy and won’t actually learn the characters. Try to only activate this add-on when you really do not know the character.
A major plus of Perapera is that it often gives the translation for relatively new ‘internet slang’ words or typically online words, making it an effective tool for the modern-day learner of Chinese who scrolls through Chinese texts.
If you are looking for a similar feature for your Android smartphone, Pleco (number 1 in this list) has a ‘screen reader’ feature for that.
Compatibility: Firefox and Chrome
4. Yuntu TV (云图直播)
Immersing yourself in the language is the best way to learn Chinese. If you’re not in an environment where you are naturally surrounded by the language on a daily basis, you’ll have to create that environment for yourself. Luckily, there are many live TV & radio apps that stream countless channels for you to enjoy.
Yuntu TV is a Chinese live streaming app where you can see all the CCTV channels and many other Chinese channels such as Zhejiang TV, Hunan TV, or Shenzhen TV.
If you would like to listen to Chinese language through TV dramas, Viki Rakuten has a great selection (free, availability depends on region).
Compatibility: Android, iPhone, iPad
5. Baobei Ting Ting (宝贝听听）Bedtime Stories
If you think Chinese news programmes are still too difficult, and you prefer to something that is a bit easier to digest, why not practice your Mandarin listening skills by checking out the stories Chinese kids like to listen to? ‘Baby Ting’ or ‘Baobei Ting Ting’ (宝贝听听）is a popular storytelling app by Tencent QQ that has thousands of stories to choose from in different categories; starting from the 0-3 age group, 4-6 age group, 7+ age group, to the national classics, modern fairy tales, etc.
The variety of stories that this app provides makes it a perfect tool for non-native speakers who study Chinese. Those at intermediate level can start with the stories for the young kids and try to train their way up.
Mind you; like the Yuntu TV app, this is an app that is Chinese and has no English. It is, therefore, better if you already can read some Chinese characters when using this app. This app can be linked to your WeChat account, and offers in-app purchases.
Compatibility: Android, iPhone, iPad
Chinesepod is a well-known educational platform providing audiovisual lessons for people learning Chinese – from newbie to advanced level. It promotes an “alternative way of learning Chinese” and focuses on teaching spoken Chinese through video lessons.
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All the material on the Chinesepod platforms can be somewhat overwhelming, but don’t worry, you do not actually need to do all the lessons one by one; just pick whatever lessons you find interesting within your level of proficiency and start from there. Price: Chinesepod has various subscription options. The basic option ($14/month) offers access to the complete lesson library and offers the printable lesson notes, whereas the premium ($29/month) option also offers grammatical explanations, custom vocabulary lists, and the full Android + iOS apps.
Where to get: chinesepod.com
7. Talking Chinese–English–Chinese Phrasebook
Many apps promoting ‘Mandarin phrases’ are often disappointing because of their limited range of topics and phrases. This app by Paiboon and Word in the Hand, however, is worth your time – although it is somewhat pricey. It is suitable for travelers to China who want to be able to communicate their basic needs, as well as for those studying Chinese to grasp basic sentences and practice tones.
The phrasebook offers more than 15,000 words and ready-to-use phrases in over 250 practical categories, from all the basics to situations relating to, for example, legal cases, superstitions, or romance (the ‘swearing’ category is quite amusing, providing different ways to insult someone.) All sentences and words are displayed together with audio, characters, and pinyin.
Where to get: iPad/iPhone: Talking Chinese–English–Chinese Phrasebook
8. Feed Me (Mandarin)! by Pencilbot
What?! Are we seriously recommending a purple dragon that eats trains and mice as a Chinese learning language tool? Yes, we are. Because if it works for kids, it works for you. This purple dragon needs to be fed. A very clear voiceover will give you instructions in Chinese on what to feed him. You’ll find out soon enough if you’ve fed him the wrong stuff: he’ll be displeased and will show it.
This is an app designed by Pencilbot, which also provides the “Feed Me!” app in Korean, Japanese, Arabic, and many other languages. Although the app is targeted at kids around the age of 5-6, it is also useful for adults to feed the dragon the red apples, blue birds, or yellow squares. Not just because the the Mandarin is beautifully pronounced, but also because the little dragon cheers you on in the cutest way when you get it right. If you tickle his belly he will start giggling. After playing this, you will know how to pronounce colors, shapes, numbers, animals, fruits, and more in Mandarin. If you don’t like it, your kid will.
Compatibility: iPhone/iPod/iPad and Android
Where to get:
iPhone: Feed Me! Chinese – Edutainment Resources, Inc.
iPad: Feed Me! Chinese – Edutainment Resources, Inc.
Android: Feed Me! Chinese – Edutainment Resources, Inc.
9. Hanzi Writer
Because learning Chinese means learning to listen, speak, read and write, this list wouldn’t be complete without an app that focuses on teaching how to properly write characters. This is what Hanzi Writer does very well.
Users can type in the pinyin of a character (for example, ‘ai’ for love), and select the character they want to see. Hanzi Writer shows the stroke order and how to write, and then gives you the opportunity to try for yourself. Learning to properly write characters is all about repeating repeating repeating, and this app is perfect for that.
Price: free version for Android with ads and $5.99 for iOs
Where to get:
iPhone – Hanzi Writer – Ali Lim
iPad – Hanzi Writer – Ali Lim
Android – Hanzi Writer – Ali Lim
10. Laokang Tone Test
Recognizing and pronouncing tones the right way is essential for your everyday use of Mandarin. Understanding or saying the wrong tones can lead to awkward situations. That is why this Laokang Tone Test is a must-have app if you are in the early stages of learning Chinese. The app is very simple and basic: it will train both your hearing of tones and your pronunciation. The layout of the app is not very pretty, but it works like a charm.
Where to get: iTunes store