Hi, my name is Peter Gokey and my Chinese name is高岩松. I currently learn Chinese in China at Keats School, Kunming. In my post, I will share my Chinese learning experience with you, and I hope that can be helpful for Chinese learners.
The continual evolution of technology transforms every area of our lives. The development of smart phones, tablets, and the applications (apps) that run on them have revolutionized my language leaning methods. Here are two such apps that I highly recommend to anyone studying Chinese.
Pleco (iOS and Android)
The free version of Pleco is an electronic bidirectional English-Chinese dictionary. Words can be looked up by entering English, typed or handwritten Hanzi (Chinese characters), or Pinyin (the phonetic system for writing Chinese using the Roman alphabet). What really makes this app special are the add-ons. First, there are additional dictionaries (some free) that each have distinct features. There are bidirectional German or French-Chinese dictionaries, Medical dictionaries, or even Chinese-Chinese dictionaries for the advanced learner. Each of these dictionaries has tens of thousands of entries all in the palm of your hand.
My favorite add-on is the Flashcard module. It is incredibly quick and easy to create flashcards for your new vocabulary words. Simply look up the word and click the create flashcard button. By default the definition on the flashcard is from one of your downloaded dictionaries. If you are not satisfied with that definition you can switch to the definition of one of your other dictionaries or create your own custom definition.
You can completely customize the way that you review your flashcards. Pleco allows you to choose what information you are shown (Hanzi, Pinyin, Audio (separate add-on), definition, or a combination of these) and what information you are asked to enter (Hanzi, Pinyin, definition). The app remembers your correct and incorrect answers so you can track which words you have learned and which give you trouble. With this app I spend all my time reviewing flashcards rather than making them, and since they are electronic, I always have them with me. Price: Free; Flashcard module $9.99 USD (Student price)
Notability (iOS only)
Can’t find your notes when you need them? Don’t know where to store all your notebooks and course handouts? Have you wanted to make your life paperless? Notability can make this dream a reality by taking electronic notes on your iPad or iPhone. There are many apps where you can type notes (Notability included) but I type slowly and want to practice writing Hanzi so I use a stylus to handwrite notes on my iPad mini. You can also record audio while typing or writing. Lately, I have been recording our daily listening exercises while I take the small group Chinese classes (http://keatschinese.com/en/chinese-language-courses/small-group-class) at Keats. You can take a picture of handouts and add them alongside your notes or, better yet, use the Scanner Pro App by Readdle ($6.99 USD) to turn your handout into a PDF first, so that you can take notes directly on it.
I don’t worry about losing my notes if my iPad is broken or stolen because I have it set to automatically backup to my Dropbox account (You could also back up to Google Drive or Box). When one of my classmates is sick our traveling I can email them my notes so they don’t fall behind.
Price: $4.99 USD
Baidu Maps 百度地图 (iOS and Android)
Learning your way around the city is one of the first tasks when you arrive in China. Walking around your neighborhood is a great way to become familiar with the area. But in a city as large as Kunming you are going to need some mode of transportation to get around. Baidu Maps will help you find your way. Although the whole app is in Hanzi (Chinese characters), it is still easy to use. You can search for addresses or landmarks and get directions to there from your current location. Directions are given for public transportation, driving, or walking. The app even gives a Taxi Cab fare estimate so you know ahead of time what you are likely to pay. Another nice feature is that you can download maps to your devices so that you can consult them when you are not connected to wifi or using your cellular data.
PPTV (iOS and Android)
There are many apps and websites for watching on-demand TV shows and movies but I find that PPTV has the best selection and the most stable connection. The app contains both Chinese and foreign content. Since Chinese TV shows and movies are currently beyond my listening skills, I often use PPTV to watch American movies and shows. This can still be a language learning activity because the videos have Chinese subtitles. When I hear a useful English phrase, I look at the subtitles to see how this phrase is most naturally expressed in Chinese.
Other Free video-on-demand apps: Tudo 土豆, LeTV, YouKu 优酷
CBox 央视影音 HD By CCTV.COM (iOS and Android)
One challenge for learning Chinese in China is that many people do not speak the standard dialect. CCTV’s daily news programs are great sources of standard Mandarin that you can use for listening practice. However, you do not need to subscribe to a cable television service to watch live Chinese television, you don’t even need a TV. CBox is CCTV’s mobile and tablet app. This app has more than 20 channels, including news, sports, and cartoons that you can watch live on your mobile devices. Not only can you watch live television, this app also works like a DVR in that you can pause and rewind the live broadcasts. I use these features to listen to the same news story several times in a row or to replay any portion that I don’t understand. Not home when the news airs? No problem, with this app you can watch any program from the previous seven days.
WeChat 微信 (iOS and Android)
To become fluent in Chinese you need Chinese friends with whom you can practice speaking and listening. If you ask your Chinese friends what app on their phone they use the most, they will likely say QQ or WeChat. These two instant messaging apps were created by the same company, but the newer of the two, WeChat, has more features and more users. WeChat allows you to send instant messages for free over wifi and cheaply through your cellular data plan. Just like computer-based instant messaging you can direct message a contact or participate in group chats with several friends at once. I’ve found that my Chinese friends prefer communicating through WeChat rather than making phone calls or sending text messages. So this app has been essential to maintaining my friendships.
Instant messaging is a great way to practice communicating In Chinese. In some aspects it is easier for language learners to communicate this way than communicating face to face. First, reading text is easier than listening to speech. Once a sentence is spoken it’s gone, but text stays put so you can read it over and over again. Second, in face to face conversations people expect quick responses, but instant messaging doesn’t have this expectation. You can take your time to think through what you want to say, type it out, and revise It before you press send. If speaking practice is really what you want, there is a “hold to talk” function where you can record an audio message. This method is also easier than face to face communication. You can listen to the audio messages sent to you over and over, and you can practice what you want to say before you actually record it.
These apps not only help you find your way around town, watch TV shows and movies, and connect with friends, they also provide opportunities to practice Chinese!