Because sometimes moving to Asia just isn’t practical
We all know how hard it is to get by in China without being able to speak the language. If you’re busy working a 9-5 job, taking care of your kids, or still in school, it’s often impossible to find some extra time to take an introductory Chinese course.
Fortunately enough, technology has now made the language more accessible to people around the world. Various applications allow people to listen to spoken Chinese, try writing the characters themselves, and practice their own speaking – all things a boring old textbook couldn’t previously help you with. And what’s more, you can learn at a time convenient to you, whilst you’re on the subway or busy mooching off free Starbucks Wi-Fi (you know who you are…)
In this guide we’ve broken down the best places to learn Chinese online, for learners at all levels:
Cost: Free for certain lessons, US$14 per month for basic functions, US$29 per month for all features.
Chinese Pod is a service that’s designed to be used on-the-go. It focuses on Mandarin that you’d tend to use in every day life, like opening a bank account, or learning Chinese pick-up lines. All you need to do is choose what you want to know, download a short lesson, and you’re ready to listen to it on the train on your way to work.
They have over 3,000 lessons for every possible situation you can imagine (okay maybe not all of them…wink wink) but the app is great for people who’d like to learn specific topics and not waste any time learning stuff that’s irrelevant. We definitely recommend it if you’re running short on time.
If this brief intro hasn’t won you over, you can check out the cringy video on the front page of their website.
Cost: Free for basic functions; US$15 per month for full service; US$120 for a one-year plan.
FluentU was initially created for Chinese specifically, although it now offers support for several other languages. Basically you learn Chinese through a series of carefully designed Youtube videos. It focuses on immersing the user in the language, and providing a real world context for what you’re learning.
The cool (or creepy) thing about the program is that it gets to learn more about you as you keep learning about the language, like how many words you already know and your various interests. It’s even able to suggest content and examples based on what you’ve watched already, giving you a super personalised experience. Nope, it’s not some little Chinese dude following you around watch your back – instead, it’s programming the stuff it thinks you like into a built-in system. Fancy.
The Chairman’s Bao
Price: US$10 per month, or US$80 on a one year plan.
If you think “The Chairman’s Bao” sounds like a weird Chinese newspaper, then ding ding ding that’s exactly what it is.
The paper has been simplified down for people learning Chinese at all levels. It has a built-in dictionary, a flashcard system, and even helps you learn how to write the characters. If you’re just starting off, then this probably isn’t the best of choices for you. For intermediate and advanced learners though, it’s a great tool to practice reading Chinese characters, and also helps you to learn a bit more about the country by reading news.
Memrise is a pretty cool language learning app – much like Duolingo (which doesn’t offer Chinese just yet. Bummer). The app helps you to learn the characters, and is generally a great way to build some Zhongwen vocab. Note: the videos of “native speakers” who probably got paid a few kuai to stand there and say words out loud do tend to get pretty annoying after a while, and you can’t skip past them sooo…
Like Duolingo, Memrise runs on SRS software, which is fancy talk for saying it knows when you’re likely to forget a word, and reminds you at precisely the right time to review it. This is definitely a great way to get started, and after all, it is free.
This is another one of those Duolingo/Memrise type applications, tailored specifically for Chinese. It’s game-based so it supposedly “makes learning Chinese fun.” Yeah right.
But in all seriousness this is also another great app to start off with, especially if you’re struggling to get some motivation. You’ll probably notice a lot of lay-over with Memrise since they’re essentially the same thing, so just pick which ever one you like best and roll with it.
Skritter is without doubt one of the best apps out there to learn how to write Chinese characters specifically. It also runs on SRS software, and keeps stats so you can track your progress over a period of time.
Before you pay the 15 buck subscription fee, it’s best to ask yourself whether learning characters is really a priority for you. If it is, then this app definitely a great way to do so.
Rounding off our list is Pleco, a must-download Dictionary app before you come to China. It’s pretty much a cooler version of Google Translate, tailored specifically for the Chinese language.
Although it’s primarily intended to be an online dictionary, we’ve heard of a lot of people using Pleco to actually learn Chinese. There are various add-ons available – although some do get a bit pricy – that can teach you the stroke order for various characters, or the correct spoken pronounciation for tricky words. The flashcard add-on is also a great way to build vocabulary over time.
And there we have it. 7 great apps to begin learning a language spoken by over 1.3 billion people. It’s not really as hard as it looks, and with a few months of dedication you could be well on your way to churning out that Chinese KTV song and impressing all your friends.
If you’re looking to learn Chinese offline, feel free to check out some of our other guides.