Sadly, I’m not one of those “I have a degree in Chinese” expats. Nor am I even one of those “I took a year at language school when I first arrived” types.
No, I’m just a straight-up: “I landed in Beijing with no Mandarin and I’m learning on the job.”
But after a hard day’s work at beijingkids, it’s impossible to muster the motivation required to spend my evening staring at a lifeless textbook. Like a child, I need the learning process to be fun or, quite frankly, I’m going to spend the rest of my days staring blankly at menus, gesticulating wildly and answering every question with that ultimate conversation killer – “wǒ tīng bù dǒng” (complete with toneless British accent).
So, I have turned to apps. For starters, touch screen is inherently more fun. And when Chinese is turned into a game I suddenly find myself engrossed in learning for hours. Given that my Mandarin is at an infantile level, I am now very well qualified to present to our readers my tried-and-tested list of the best beginner language apps for kids.
If these learning methods can work for my decrepit neurons then imagine what they can do for your child’s young and adaptable mind. Take it from this old dog going through the painful process of learning new tricks.
Learning Chinese the Fun Way (above)
This attractively laid-out app takes you through over 1,000 of the most common characters, with the usual lineup of animated stroke orders and audio pronunciation. But this app stands out as being particularly good for visual learners, thanks to its drawing board feature. A blank canvas is attached to each character so you can create and save your own doodle to help you remember its appearance.
For iOS and Android, USD 2.99 and USD 4.85 respectively
Kids Learn Mandarin Beginner
Despite the matter-of-fact name, this app is one of the most creative and varied on the market. Designed for kids aged 2-8, Pei Pei the panda will lead you through a world of videos, animations and writing exercises. The best part is the range of mini-games which will see you climbing trees and hopping over turtle shells if you correctly match words to pictures. For iOS, free with additional lesson sets at USD 1.99
There are a lot of flashcard-based apps available, largely because it has long-been seen as one of the best methods for remembering characters. Founded by a Grand Master of Memory (there are only 122 in the world currently) Memrise’s system works over the course of days and weeks rather than hours. ‘Seeds’ are planted using images and word association, then you are prompted to return to the app at spaced intervals until the characters are well-rooted in your memory.
For iOS and Android, basic app is free with online courses a mixture of free and paid-for.
A very simple concept but perfect for pre-schoolers, due to its colorful design and focus on pronunciation. Users are presented with a number of cartoon scenes based on themes such as transportation and food. Toggle between English and Chinese and then touch on each item to see an animation and hear how it’s pronounced. There’s also a simple quiz to test what you’ve learned. The eponymous penguin actually has very little involvement in proceedings, though he does of course feature in the animal scene.
For iOS, USD 1.99
This app is particularly useful for that all-important stroke order. Characters fall down from the top of the screen and you trace the strokes on the screen. If you let five reach the bottom then it’s game over. You can vary the speed that the characters fall and toggle between tracing and writing modes.
A quick word of warning: I lost about half an hour by failing to realize that the default mode is for traditional characters rather than simplified, so be sure to change this in the settings. For iOS and Android, free with additional character sets at USD 0.99
As I only wanted to recommend apps that I have personally tried and tested, all of the above were tested on iOS. If you have any suggestions for Android users, or have any other recommendations for Chinese language learning apps then drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I need all the help I can get.