Here’s a list of my favourite Chinese learning tools that I’ve distilled over several years of learning Mandarin Chinese. These are of course just my personal preferences for Chinese learning tools - they’re the ones I’ve used and stuck with as I’ve continued studying.
I can be guilty of finding one tool I like and sticking to it without trying out new options, so just because I haven’t included something here doesn’t mean I’m not aware of it or that I don’t like it. There’s a wealth of cool Chinese learning tools out there, and there are more appearing all the time, which is great. Please do share your favourite Chinese learning tools in the comments. Maybe we can all discover a couple of new ones this way.
I’m a huge fan of using software for language learning (and learning in general). Ideas for software-aided learning have been well developed at least since the time of B. F. Skinner, but it seems like we still don’t make good enough use of them, especially in schools. People learning East Asian and other ‘unusual’ languages (i.e. non-European, if you’re an English native speaker), do seem to do a better job of incorporating software to make their study time more effective, though.
Anyway, here are the software tools that I’ve found to be the best for learning Chinese.
- Fairly easy to get started.
- Completely customisable and very powerful for more advanced users.
- Open source.
- Multi-platform (I use it on Linux and Android).
- Syncs between devices.
- Easy to import and export data.
- Large community.
The list goes on! Anki’s been going for some time and the project is very mature now, hence it being so well-made. It can take a while to fully understand everything it can do, but once you’re familiar with it you’ll find just how effective it is.
Skritter is another SRS system, but pretty different to Anki. For one thing it’s certainly not open source and it requires a monthly subscription to use (by the way, if you sign up for Skritter via links here, I get a small commission). I would describe Skritter as a kind of automated, stream-lined version of Anki that’s customised and optimised for learning Chinese characters.
Skritter lets you practice actually writing Chinese characters (you need a graphics tablet for the full effect) and keeps track of all your learning over thousands of characters. It has loads of things built in so you don’t have to spend time finding and organising them yourself:
- Pinyin readings.
- Tone practice.
- Character breakdowns.
- Containing words.
- Community-shared mnemonics.
- Textbook vocab lists (so you don’t have to type it all in yourself).
And various other things (they keep implementing new stuff). Skritter really is the best thing for learning Chinese characters (writing plus other things about them).
My favourite Chinese dictionary! Pleco is an app for Android and iOS, and it’s brilliant. I always have a big fat shortcut icon right to Pleco on my Android homescreen, because I use it constantly in China. It’s so nice having all this Chinese language information in your pocket.
Pleco isn’t actually a dictionary in itself, it’s just an fantastically well- made interface for dictionary data. It comes with the free CEDICT dictionary pre-installed, and you can pay for other dictionaries, such as the Oxford Chinese Dictionary or the Guifan Chinese-Chinese dictionary. I have quite a few dictionaries installed now, and it’s insanely comprehensive. You do have to pay pretty much the full price for the dictionaries though - each one costs about what you’d pay for the paper version. That’s fair enough in my view.
Pleco also has several other paid add-ons, such as masses of audio recordings for individual words, a handwriting-recogniser (pretty nice if you’re feeling too lazy to search by radical) and various other cool things. It does have a flashcards system built in, but I’ve always stuck to Anki.
Firefox Perakun / Chrome Zhongwen
These two plugins (one for Chrome and one for Firefox) are both Chinese annotators. You just mouse-over Chinese text and they identify Chinese words, displaying pronunciation and definition information. This is obviously super-useful when you’re browsing around on Chinese pages and see words you don’t know.
One drawback to using these plugins is that they can make you lazy and not bother to actually learn new words you see online. Because it becomes so easy to just mouse-over things, it’s easy to just rely on the plugin rather than your memory, so be warned!
Aside from Pleco on my phone, I also have a few favourite online dictionaries.
MDBG is the standard quick choice for looking up a Chinese word. It’s not so great for looking up English words because the data behind it is only structured Chinese →English. When you search for English words, MDBG just returns all the Chinese words whose definition includes that English word. Search around a bit on the site and you’ll see why this is less than perfect.
Aside from that, MDBG is very fast and clean, and is nice for quickly checking Chinese words. It also has an offline version, although I’ve never used that.
When you really want to look up a Chinese word and know a lot about it, Zdic.net is the best choice in my view. I use this a lot for Classical Chinese because it’s so comprehensive and tends to give a lot of detail. The interface isn’t too nice (they seem more interested in making it look cool than easy to use), and it doesn’t like it if you input traditional Chinese, but it’s often the best bet for looking up any Chinese term you can think of.
I have mixed feelings about Nciku. It’s a really nice site with a lot of excellent content, especially for English → Chinese lookups and example sentences, but holy shit is this site slow to load. Often it just doesn’t load at all. I really don’t know what they’re doing at their end, but it seems like they need to pay for some more reliable server equipment and more capacity.
Nciku’s hand-writing recogniser is one of the best online (when it loads), and they’ve got loads of extra features if you’re interested in all that. I also paid for their Android app to give it a go, but thought it was nothing like as good as Pleco, so I didn’t use it for long.
I think that example sentences are a fantastic way to learn languages. Putting example sentences into Anki and practising them both ways (reading and trying to produce them) has become my core study method for vocabulary building, reading speed, grammar, fluency etc. I get a lot of example sentences out of the dictionaries I have in Pleco, but I also add a lot from these sources:
For some reason I get the feeling that Jukuu steals a lot of their sentences from elsewhere (they’ve got tons of sentences from translations of certain pieces of literature and technical manuals that I doubt they translated themselves), but in any case they’ve got a huge amount of example sentences. Be wary though, as sometimes the Chinese is weird, the English is weird, the translation isn’t very close, or all three things are wrong with a sentence. Generally it’s good stuff though.
Tatoeba is a super-cool ‘translation web’ site that links up example sentences between multiple languages. It’s a brilliant idea and the project is growing nicely. You can search around for example sentences to and from whatever language you like.
Tatoeba is great, but it does have a couple of issues in my view:
- The search function is a bit annoying, because it returns sentences ranked by
- number of occurrences of the word you’re searching for. This tends to favour
- the longest sentences available, whereas I think shorter sentences are more
- effective in SRS. There’s not a strong-enough system in place to police
- unnatural or even incorrect sentences in each language. There are quite a few
- of these knocking about in Tatoeba so be careful. There are some pretty
- annoying / arrogant pedants on there who like to argue about pointless things
- and turn totally nice, natural sentences into ‘perfect’ but weird ones. Grr.
Don’t let that put you off, they’re just some minor things that I find irritating with an otherwise excellent project.
Audio is still one of the harder things to get in adequate quality and quantity for language learning. If you’re taking classes and/or live in China, this may be less of an issue for you as you probably get real Chinese audio every day. However, you should still be doing active listening practice, and some of these might help with that.
Tunein.com is a way to listen to radio stations from all over the world online (not all of it is live, but that doesn’t really matter in my view). They’ve got plenty of Chinese-language stations and I find it’s a great way to add some passive Chinese listening to my day. It also works for active listening practice, although it’s less consistent than other sources for that (I would recommend recording chunks of radio for active listening so that you can replay bits etc.) Browse around and find some Chinese stations you like.
ChineseClass101, ChinesePod & Popup Chinese
If you want to pay for something more guided and consistent, you might like to give ChineseClass101, ChinesePod or Popup Chinese a try. These are all paid podcast-based learning services. You subscribe and get professionally made audio Chinese lessons to download each day, with dialogues and discussions aimed at different levels. I’ve found it’s a really nice way to improve your Chinese listening and vocabulary.
There are more companies like the three I’m mentioning here, but these are the ones I’ve tried. They’re pretty similar, but the differences in my view are:
- ChineseClass101 is a bit more straight-forward and light-hearted than the
- other two, sometimes the content can be a little bit ‘silly’ or light but
- it’s generally very good. ChinesePod is often quite business-focused and
- tries to be super-professional. They also constantly go on about themselves
- and advertise themselves, but it’s not too intrusive. Popup Chinese seems a
- bit more intellectual (especially with their English-language [Sinica
- podcast](http://popupchinese.com/lessons/sinica/)), and their content can get
- pretty bizarre sometimes.
The three services genuinely are pretty similar so I wouldn’t worry too much about which one to go with. Browse around and go with your instinct about which one seems to suit you the most.
In the final section on Chinese learning tools, I just want to mention a couple of grammar resources. Grammar is a tricky thing to include in your studies, because it’s easy to do the wrong thing and try to memorise rules down to every last detail, rather than actively practising and trying to develop a natural feel for Chinese.
However, it is generally quite useful to get a solid understanding of what’s going on in the sentences you use and what structures are available in Chinese. Focus on example sentences and improving fluency rather than scrutinising ‘rules’, though.
Chinese Grammar Wiki
I worked on this project for a few weeks before its public release, so some of the content on there includes my writing. Anyway, the Chinese Grammar Wiki is quickly becoming a really nice, comprehensive resource for Chinese grammar.
Uh-oh, I’m recommending something I run myself! Seriously though, I do try to make this as good a resource as possible. Me and a native Chinese speaker friend work together on this to try and produce tightly focused articles that explain Chinese words and grammar points with plenty of authentic example sentences. Have a look at see what you think: ChineseGrammar.info.
What are your favourite Chinese learning tools? Do you like the ones listed here? Please share all in the comments!
Chinese learning tool suggestions I’ve received
Every now and then I receive a request to add a link to a Chinese learning tool here. I don’t have the time to go and review each one, but if they look reasonable I’m happy to add the link and you can go and see for yourself if you think it will be helpful for you.