Monday, September 10, 2018

Mandarin Chinese learning apps, what’s out there and which are worth it...

Since May I’ve scoured the internet for materials and apps with which to learn Mandarin Chinese and I think I’ve used pretty much the majority of popular stuff out there. If I could afford all the time and money I'd probably use the whole lot, but time and money are finite for me so here’s what I found so far. What's out there and what's worth it, whether time or money. Warning, I am biased toward better navigation and interface, so you’ll see it mentioned here. 

Over several months I downloaded just about every popular Chinese learning app I could find (maybe 40+) that would work for A1-B1 levels (beginner to low intermediate) and played with all of them for weeks or more, kept what I love and deleted the rest. Highly recommend trying a number of them as some apps work well for some and not others. Almost all of the premium programs and add-ons have a trial period, definitely sign up, don’t forget to cancel if you don’t want it!  And many of them have deeper than usual sales twice a year, noted in comments. Without further ado, these 30 digital learning apps/programs are most of the ones I tried and find worth mentioning, and how to buy them for less.

Popular gamified learning apps:
HelloChinese, ChineseSkill, Mondly, Drops, LingoDeer, Duolingo, Memrise 
All are generally free with premium options. Hello and Skill are probably my 2 favorite. ChineseSkill has a fantastic amount of reading/listening materials in the immersion section, totally free and great as well as a writing section, games section, etc. Not often mentioned it’s a nice hidden gem. There are others, but these 7 are generally the best in this category. No in-depth reviews because really, they’re all quite similar (they teach a couple of words/grammar points/characters, then test and make cool noises when you guess right) and can be pretty basic but all good for beginners/elementary/low intermediate, recommend downloading close to a good 1/2 dozen. (I kept HelloChinese, ChineseSkill and Mondly).

Readers: All readers have listening so it’s really a 2 in 1.
Du Chinese $90 year, $12/month, 30% off discount a couple times a year, 50% off for students always. At a discount, worth it imo. Articles are extremely short though. Wish they had longer stories. Easily the nicest interface, and I love the easy access toggle options. (Kept this one). 

The Chairman Bao. $80 a year, they put 25% off codes up from time to time bringing it to $60 a year. It’s got a lot of content and is priced similar to DuChinese. Google for codes. I’d like to have this one as well, but I already have a reader so I’m good. Be on the lookout for deep discounts on black Friday.

Decipher: $5/month. Leveled by HSK but so many words at further levels while in lower reading levels, like 30% upwards of the reading level, so um… newp. Not for me. Great price though.

Ling Q: $100 a year, $10/month, 1 month $1 trials every so often. Style is messy and scattered, lots of material but I don’t like dealing with how messy it is. I can get enough from ChineseSkill free immersion section that I wouldn’t pay this amount for such a tough to navigate software program. C’mon LingQ. But if you can tolerate the mayhem, it's pretty good. And i believe they have codes that come out in December.

DuShu Chinese: (Android only) Not easy on the eyes for sure, and oh geez, what's this arrow for, cuz it looks exactly like one near it! Ooh, another button, what's this for...oh, i guess nothing cuz nothing is happening! Hate this type of user experience. I've tried it a half dozen times and honestly I just can't figure out wth is going on. That being said, it gets a 4.8 on GooglePlay store and I've seen a number of people recommend it, might be worth checking out...i guess.

Here’s a post online comparing 3 popular readers:

Character apps:
Skritter: Not pretty to look but gets the job done. $15/month. Geez, $$$. I've seen 33% off 6 months codes around. Not bad. And 50% off during black Friday. Makes it worth it if you plan on learning to write by memory (which i don't, so i passed).

TofuLearn: Free, ($3/month for premium, not necessary): A pleasure to use, excellent interface and features like easy click to etymology, lots of example sentences, stroke order, and more all together one click away. Awesome. Unfortunately the space repetition algorithm is pretty poor. Oh yeah, and they have major problems keeping their servers up which is unbelievably frustrating. But I just can’t stay away b/c learning new characters with this app is better than the rest (like a mini quiz after introduction of new characters). Honestly, the app is so good I actually put up with those egregious flaws. (Kept this one). 

Pleco character recognition and writing practice add-on ($10+ one time iirc). Haven't personally tried their add ons but Pleco add ons definitely seem worth. If you're on Pleco a lot consider their add ons, anything hooked up to a dictionary (like TofuLearn) is very useful.

Premium learning apps:
FluentU: (Subtitled Video & Audio w/ quizzes) $30 a month/$240 a year. Oh my. I have fluentU myself because of a study group I’m in we got a discounted rate. I probably wouldn’t buy a full year otherwise, I find it really expensive. That being said, I do use it every day, the quizzes are fantastic and really make you learn what they’re teaching. I’m only 3 weeks in but find it a very useful learning tool. Never seen them have a sale. Group rate: Price is $30 a year or less per person with group on 10 or more! Hope your Mandarin meetup group is ready to play! Or ask your school. Worth a shot. Great app/program. Just a little pricey. Oh, and no Android app, only iOS or browser. Hopefully they get Android soon, very nice app on iOS. And I'm really not even mad at their HSK Flashcards because it includes grammar points and again, their quizzes are really useful and well done.

ChinesePod: (Audio Lessons) $280 or so a year, 2x a year they do over 40% off. Wait for the sale. Seriously. Then it’s a very good price for what you get imo. You will often see complaints about the amount of English in beginning levels, I did find it annoying but in the end I do think the program is super useful as a supplement. Another criticism you’ll see/hear is that the vignettes/lessons aren’t related to each other at all, so you don’t get to hear your new words/phrases/etc in other lessons. Yeah, that’s a shame. If it had some continuity it would be even better and could even stand alone but it’s still a fantastic supplemental resource and the app is really fantastic imo. 5 different ways to interact with the lessons. Well worth the $140-$160 a year after discount!! I’ve seen them on 4th of July and near black Friday.

Glossika: (Space repetition audio sentences) $30/month ($299 a year). What the??? It used to be $100 total all said and done for the downloadable Glossika files and book. Now it’s a subscription only model and an expensive one at that. I might pay for it for a handful of months of using it for 1-2 hours a day, but no way on the whole year. Not for me anyway. Nice and clean to use, still way out there for price. And even when they have a discount it's only one 1 month. Rude! If money is no issue, then maybe I’d do it. So basically yes worth the time, but $$$. Some people have the old downloadable Glossika files, might want to seek those out. I have them. They’re intense, take work but are definitely imo worth the time (and quite a bit of time at that, plan to do at least 1 hour of it a day). Skip if you a total beginner.

Yabla: (Video) Now here’s one I haven’t tried. $10 month/$100 year ($30 a year or less with group on 10 or more). And codes floating around range from 15-25% off annual. Apparently, it’s pretty similar to FluentU but with a lower price tag. Here’s someone’s review comparing the 2. Summary: FluentU is better.

The must haves:
Pleco. Dictionary app. $0.

A Spaced-Repetition Flashcard Software: Here are 6 I've tried worth mentioning: 

  • Anki – free on Android, $25 on iOS; Super full-featured. Not pretty but no one does SRS like Anki. Personally I don't need all the features and didn't feel like spending the $25 but if you're into serious SRS option it's Anki. I do use it on my Android tablet for 1 specific deck i mention below.
  • SmartCards+ ($8 year), it’s nice, I used it and like it. Nicer looker than Anki but not as  feature-rich; 
  • Quizlet ($20, $12 when on sale). Nicer looking than Anki, what isn’t. Less feature rich;
  • TofuLearn – Again, great app for learning characters with a built in dictionary, teaching quizes, stroke order, sentence examples, all on the first card! It's amazing. BUT! again, terrible SRS algorithm and no more support. Despite that all, it's still my favorite, it really has been amazing for getting to know each character from the very first time.
  • Pleco also has an SRS feature via a $10 add on, which is a nice option because, like Tofu, it's connected to a Chinese-English dictionary for easy lookup of etymology, sentences, etc. Not a beauty by any means, but a dictionary feature is a game-changer for beginners/Intermediate. 
  • Brainscape Free and nice to interact with, not as easy to receive free decks as the first 3 I mention but worth the effort if you need a free and pretty SRS app. Haven't worked with it much other than the decks they already have available, but i was quite addicted for a while. 
WikiChinese Grammar:  $0. Not an app but a great online resource for Chinese Grammar ordered by HSK level. 100% awesome.

‘Spoonfed Chinese’ SRS Flashcard deck of 6,000 sentences with natural speech audio, add it to your Anki. An alternative to making your own cards through sentence mining. $2. Have it, like it, wish I had more time for it.

Clozemaster: $0. A very popular context-based gamified fill in the blank spaced repetition software. I love the audio feedback on it, well done. Simple but has good features. Fun to use until it bores you but the science behind the method is real. Some may never get bored, I got over it after about 2-3 weeks. But it’s free and really useful. If i had more time I'd probably still be using it.

Italki: Skype tutoring at very good prices. If you use a referral link you get $10 free credits after buying a lesson. They range from $5 for 30 mins to $25 an hour depending on the teacher/tutor.

Textbooks: No, they’re not apps or digital software, the opposite really, but are a great resource for self learning a language and I would be remiss not to mention. If you like structure, think about getting a textbook series as your core learning material and then supplement with apps.

Integrated Chinese textbook series 3rd or 4th edition. They are very similar, better graphics in 4th edition, nice punchy update, both are great. In the series there are: 4 textbooks, 4 workbooks, 4 character workbooks, and audio files. Way worth buying and using. Books in the series range from $30-$70. So $250 for the all 4 textbooks (worth it for sure) and etc for the rest. 3rd edition really not much different from 4th from what I understand, check ebay for 3rd edition if the price of 4th has you balking but I’d pick 4th edition if the prices were close. I remember reading somewhere this is the most widely used Chinese textbook in the U.S., I believe it; and is one of the most popular recommendations I’ve seen online. I currently use the series and love it.

New Practical Chinese Reader: Very popular as well. This has 6 textbooks to the series (in addition to workbooks and audio) so maybe it can take you a little bit farther? No idea on that really, this I haven't tried.

Some people use 2 textbook series! Helps fill in the gaps. I use a number other supplements and just cannot handle another resource or i just might.

Other often recommended textbooks are: AudioVisual Chinese, Colloquial Chinese, Chinese Made Easy. Here’s a nice rundown comparing textbooks:

Somewhat popular stuff I haven’t tried: Yabla, Speechling,Tandem, HelloTalk, Chinese101, Ninchinese. I think i tried Ninchinese for a brief moment and let it go immediately cuz i had better or equal stuff.

You’ll never get by with just 1 or even 2 if you really want to get a handle on the language. I use 1 from every category at least 5x a week. That’s Textbook (IC), Reader (Du), Premium course (fluentU), SRS (TofuLearn), other (Spoonfed). Damn that’s a lot, and yes, maybe even overkill. But they’re all really good as are a lot of the modern apps and programs out there. 

Oh yeah: Not worth the money OR the time: Rosetta Stone. I got it for free, even at $0 it was not worth the time, precious time that I could use learning through other methods or doing anything else.

That's it for now. Might come back with an extended FluentU review if I can actually get a streak going. Not easy to rack up points, that's for sure! If you have any questions, leave a comment...and... Happy learning!