10 Apps and  Tools to Help You Learn Chinese Faster

Learning a new language is difficult, and it’s even harder without the right resources. When you take a class at Hong Tu we will help you master the language through a combination of lessons and materials to help you outside the classroom. If you want even more tools to help you in your pursuit to learn Chinese, here are 10 apps that we have found useful.




Cost: Free for Basic

Platforms: App Store, Android, Google Play, Amazon App Store

Website: www.pleco.com


Pleco is a staple favorite among Chinese students, teachers and travellers. Simply put, Pleco is a comprehensive language dictionary. It provides both traditional and simplified characters, and has additional plug-in features for purchase. This app is ideal for looking up unknown characters found in readings, finding different word variations, and a single-character reference while traveling.







Cost: 15 day free trial; $15/month or $120/year for basic, $30/Month or $240/year for Plus

Platforms: Website, App Store, Android Expected Soon

Website: www.fluentu.com


FluentU is a great resource for someone learning or maintaining Chinese who is not enrolled in courses. Focused on entertainment-based learning, FluentU provides video and audio tracks in Chinese with the ability to have both English and Chinese subtitles. With the option to choose between traditional and simplified characters along with the ability to select the difficulty level, this tool is ideal no matter what stage you are at. A basic subscription provides unlimited listening and watching, while the Plus package provides a “Learn Mode” with additional features.  




Google Translate Chrome Extension

Cost: Free

Platforms: Google Chrome

Website: Chrome Web Store


Anyone who speaks more than one language will caution you from using a full translator, especially when translating Chinese. Keeping this in mind, the Google Chrome translator plug-in is a great tool for when you run into trouble reading Chinese online.  Get the meaning of individual words or sentences in real time as you are reading online. While you can translate entire pages, you will quickly notice the translations are less than perfect.






Cost: Free with in-app purchase options

Platforms: App Store, Google Play

Website: www.intsig.com/en/products/camdictionary


Do you ever find yourself reading Chinese text and come across a tough character you get stuck on? CamDictionary might be able to help. This app allows you to take a picture of a character to find the meaning instantly. While it doesn’t work 100% of the time with strange fonts, it’s a great tool to have in your pocket for homework or reading in general. If you only use a couple searches a day, the free limited version should be enough to get you by. If you find you are using it more frequently, you can purchase unlimited searches for a couple dollars.





Mandarin Typing

Cost: Free

Platform: Apple and Android Products


Although this isn’t exactly an app, this smartphone language feature is one not everyone is aware of. Whether you are just starting to learn Chinese or you are an expert, being able to write and type in Chinese on your phone is crucial. In addition to communicating with friends and family in Chinese, this feature makes looking up unknown words and characters much easier. Along with the ability to type out the pinyin for characters, most software also allows you to draw in characters in the event you don’t know how to pronounce them. In both Apple and Android devices, just go to the Languages and Keyboards section of your settings, and add in the language and the options you would like to use, such as simplified, traditional, pinyin or drawing.






Cost: $14.99/month

Platforms: Web, App Store and Google Play

Website: www.skritter.com


Skritter is another great resource for those learning Chinese. With a large focus on writing, reading and tones, Skritter enhances essential skills needed to learn Chinese quickly and efficiently. Although this service comes with a steep price tag, they boast an impressive amount of features and support, which includes a money-back guarantee. Try a free demo of the service to see if it is right for you. Cater the software to your skills and preferences when you sign up for an account to get the most out of your purchase.






Cost: Free

Platforms: App Store and Google Play

Website: www.chinese-skill.com


One of the hardest parts about learning a new language is getting motivated to put in the time in effort. ChineseSkill helps this by using games and activities to help you learn. Choose either simplified or traditional characters and take off! Enhance your character writing, vocabulary and pronunciation while playing games on your phone. With such a high rating, you know the app is not only fun to use, but educational as well!






Cost: Free

Platforms: App Store, Google Play

Website: ankisrs.net


Anki is a flashcard and quiz based service that allows you to keep track of what you know and what you need to work on. While other services, such as Pleco, also contain similar features, Anki software is flexible, allowing you to add exactly what you do and don’t want on your list. This is an ideal tool for someone enrolled in courses or studying for an upcoming exam. Check out AnkiWeb for lists, quizzes and flashcards that former users have already put together.





LearnChinese Phrasebook by CodeAgent

Cost: Free for basic

Platforms: App Store, Amazon App Store, Google Play and Windows Phone Store

Website: http://www.codegent.com/apps/mobile/learn/chinese/learn-chinese-phrasebook-for-travel-in-china/


Single word dictionaries are very useful, but if you will be traveling to a Chinese speaking country, you may need a little bit more. The LearnChinese Phrasebook by CodeAgent provides useful and common phrases. The App provides characters, tones and pronunciation for whatever phrases you may need. The basic version will get you through most scenarios such as introducing yourself and transportation, but you can also purchase the pro version for expanded topics.





Popup Chinese

Cost: Free

Platforms: Web

Website: www.popupchinese.com


If you are looking for a service with range of tools to learn Chinese, but don’t want to pay expensive costs for other services, you might want to look into Popup Chinese. The website contains videos, podcasts, stories and other media content that you can download and take with you. A community forum allows you to ask questions, and a tests and tools section allows you to test yourself and track your progress. Popup Chinese not only allows you to choose between simplified and traditional characters, but also has an option for learning Cantonese as well.  

Hopefully these apps can help you on your journey to mastering the Chinese language. Tell us, which one will you try first?

Three Reasons Chinese is Hard and What to Do

Three main challenges stand between you and learning Chinese. If you do a few things right, you can not only make it easier but make it an adventure as well.
Chinese boyThe challenges are 1. Many people are intimidated by learning such a difficult language 2. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone you use changes the meaning of the word. 3. The writing system is complex and overwhelming.

Here are three reasons why learning Chinese can be difficult and what to do to make learning easier.

Reason # 1 – The mental challenge.

Intimidating. Scary. Impossible. Do those words run through your mind when you consider learning Chinese? There is no question that learning Chinese can be daunting. There’s no alphabet. You have to memorize thousands of characters. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word?! Any one of those might make a weaker person start looking for Spanish classes on Craigslist. The intimidation factor makes it even harder to learn Chinese. It’s there when you open the book or turn on your computer. It silently seeps in when you think about studying vocabulary. It slows you down.

You might have good reasons for learning Chinese. You may want to study for the business opportunity or to prepare for a trip China. You might like Chinese culture or be interested in Chinese history or medicine. Maybe you are adopting Chinese children. Those are great reasons to learn Chinese. But if you just have good reasons, you will fail. Many people do.

How to overcome the mental challenge.

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” – Theodore Roosevelt

The difficulty is exactly what makes it special and important. Anyone can learn an easy language, but how many of your friends speak Chinese? Don’t you have just a little extra respect for anyone who speaks reasonably well? It takes grit to stare down intimidation and take on a remarkable language like Chinese. Are you up to the challenge?
If you want to learn Chinese, you have to take on the intimidation first. 1.2 billion people speak Chinese and you can, too. But most of them learned as children. So what? Many people learn to speak Chinese as adults, and so can you. Start by making learning Chinese your next adventure. It should and can be fun. You will learn about a new culture that is very different and exotic.

Understand that while it is difficult, much of the language is easy to learn. Verbs don’t conjugate. There is no I am, you are. It is all I be, you be, he be etc. The verbs don’t change form for past or future tense. You simply add words or time to change the sentence. “I gave him the ball yesterday” directly translates to “I yesterday give he the ball.“ Notice that it is he and not him in the last example? That’s because you don’t need to change pronouns due to case. There are more examples of why Chinese is actually much easier than you think to learn. Now, let’s talk about two more challenges and what to do about them.

Reason # 2 – Chinese is a tonal language.

28683357_sI love talking about the 4 Chinese tones with someone unfamiliar with the Chinese language. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word. Mā means mother but mà means scold. Their eyes get big and they look impressed. The truth is you already use all of these tones to change the meaning of what you are saying in English. Chinese has four tones plus an unstressed tone. The first tone is flat like a note you might hear from a tuning fork. The second tone rises like asking a question. The third tone drops and rises. The fourth tone drops and sounds angry. There is a fifth tone is unstressed, much like an unstressed syllable in English.

Chinese children study the words mā má mǎ mà. That sounds like this:

How to master the Chinese tones.

Getting the tones right isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either. First, when you learn vocabulary, you must must must memorize the tone for each word. If you don’t have the tones memorized, learning how to hear and use the sounds won’t make a difference. Now, start listening. Carefully. Your next step is distinguishing between the tones when you hear them. Play the tones above over and over. Start mimicking the speaker. Don’t be bashful. Take on the accent just like you might mimic an English or German accent. Revel in the middle school thrill of mocking a teacher once more!

Once you can make the correct sounds for the same word, start practicing for different words. Download the Pleco app on your phone. Look up each vocabulary word and then play the tones. Back to mimicking and mocking you go. Do this until the sound of the word feels natural.

Your next challenge is using tones in a sentence. You can’t speak Chinese word by word. The words and tones must flow with one another. You have to learn to transition from a fourth tone to a first tone and from a first tone to a fourth tone. To do this, we need to memorize how to say sentences. Take recordings of sentences and start mimicking the speaker again. It might help to break the sentences down into shorter phrases. Keep practicing until you master the tones. If you find this difficult, don’t give up! You already use tones in English without thinking, you soon will be doing the same thing with Chinese tones. All it takes is familiarity and practice.

Reason # 3 – You need to learn 3,000 Chinese characters to read a newspaper.

Chinese Writing Art

Most Chinese people know about 8,000 characters on average. If you want to read the newspaper, you only need to know between two and three thousand. It isn’t as bad as it seems.

First, if you just want to master basic conversational Chinese, you probably don’t need to learn to read or write Chinese characters. You might want to learn to recognize a few that could be important for a trip, but that’s it. The reason for this is pinyin, which is a way to write out characters using a western alphabet. This is how Chinese language speakers type in computers and cell phones. You’ve already seen an example, mā,  in the section of this post on tones. Pinyin will serve you well for the first year, which may be all you need to study.

Second, if you want to get past the basics, you will need to at least learn how to read Chinese characters. Some people feel this is best done by writing them, but it certainly takes less effort to learn to read than to learn to write. Realize that while the number of characters is daunting, you don’t need to master all of them.

How to start learning to read and write

To master reading or writing Chinese, start by learning 11 basic strokes used to write Chinese characters and the rules about stroke order. Second, you need to start learning basic characters. There are apps like Skritter or this memory game that will help. Third, set a goal and a schedule. Practice for a few minutes every day. If you want to read the newspaper, you need to learn 2 to 3 thousand characters. Fourth, learn Chinese radicals, which are components that can be put together to write Chinese characters. There is a nice list of radicals on Yellowbrige.com. Keep at it and you will soon be reading the paper or writing short essays.Chiense boy learning


Chinese isn’t the easiest language to learn, but its reputation as a difficult language is a bit overdone. Don’t let this reputation deter you from getting started. Once you start, take the tones seriously. Memorize and practice each word until it comes naturally. You don’t have to learn to write, but if you do, create a plan and practice daily. Good luck!

Luck, Prosperity and a Monster – Happy Chinese New Year

Do you remember Christmas morning as a child? I remember bursting with excitement waiting for gifts, while my dad got a cup of coffee. Chinese children feel that same excitement waiting for red envelopes on New Years Eve. What we call Chinese New Year is known as Spring Festival or  春节 in China. It is the most important holiday in China. Families return home to celebrate and hope for a prosperous new year, but as with Christmas, Chinese New Year has a darker side.

In Chinese mythology, a creature called the 年兽 or nián shòu comes out to eat people. The word nián shòu is often shortened to nián or year. The nián is afraid of three things: the color red, fire and loud noises. In the past, some villagers put red scrolls on the gate and lit fireworks at midnight to scare the nián away. The nián has never been seen again, but people continue the practice today.

Spring is upside down

Chinese New Year starts with the tradition of cleaning and organizing the home, both inside and out. People are letting go of the old in order to welcome the new. Once the house is clean, families shop for food, firecrackers, pastries and maybe 酒 or jiǔ.

Chinese families hang red scrolls or pieces of paper on the gate and doors. One of the scrolls is an announcement of the coming new year. Chinese people write the Chinese character, spring, on a red scroll and hang it upside down on the front gate. In Chinese, similar sounding words can add new meaning to a phrase. In this case, upside down sounds similar to arrive. Thus, by hanging the word spring upside down, Chinese people are announcing the arrival of Spring Festival or 春节.

Fish and chicken for a lucky and prosperous new year

For their New Years Eve dinner, people often eat fish, chicken and dumplings. Each of these foods have special meaning. Again, how the word sounds adds new meaning to the words fish and chicken.  Fish or 鱼 sounds like the word for left over. People eat fish in hopes that they will have more than they need. Chicken or 鸡 sounds like the word for auspicious, and people eat chicken in hopes for luck in the new year. Families also eat dumplings or 饺子, which look like gold nuggets and represent wealth.

After dinner, parents give their children red envelopes or 红包 hong bao. There is a saying, 恭喜发财 or gōngxǐ fācái, which means Congratulations and get rich. The hope is for a prosperous new year. Chinese New Year or Spring Festival celebrations start this Wednesday. We wish you a happy and prosperous new year. How will you celebrate?

Why You Aren’t Mastering Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is simple. The verbs don’t conjugate; there’s no adding -ing for the present tense. In fact, there is no real tense. You just add words to indicate a time or perhaps a sense of completion. Ironically – this can make mastering the grammar more difficult.How to Study Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar is deceptively easy.

Chinese is not like German. Just to understand German grammar, you’ve probably spent some time practicing and studying. If you look at an explanation of Chinese grammar, most of the time it will straight forward. For example, when you want to turn a statement into a question, just add 吗 (ma) to the end of the sentence. You might think, well that’s easy and stop there. Here’s the problem: you don’t need to understand Chinese grammar, you need to use it. Without thinking.

Where you are going wrong.

Many people go wrong here. It isn’t that you won’t be able to ask a question with 吗 (ma.) You will, but slowly. It will come out as stilted as you pause, think and then add the ma to the end of the sentence. Even worse, while you might remember to add ma for questions, there are literally hundreds of simple explanations. If you don’t practice until the grammar comes smoothly, you won’t remember them all. How you study Chinese matters.

Don’t read – use.

First, let’s go back to some basic learning. Reading over grammar is not the best way to study. Using the grammar is. When you practice using a pattern it develops pathways in your brain. At first, it’s a rough footpath with rocks. With practice, the footpath becomes smooth and easier to walk. You know this path. You don’t forget your way and stumble. You just walk the path naturally.

Here are three ways to drill yourself on grammar:

Translation drills

Take an English sentence and try to say it in Chinese. You can make flashcards with English on one side and the Chinese on the other. Then get to work. This approach is essential early on, but will also help you understand the language on a deeper level.

Sentence transformation

So work out some drills. For 吗 (ma) you might convert back and forth with the question choice type method of asking questions in Chinese.  “Nǐ hǎo ma” becomes “Nǐ hǎo bù hǎo?”

Practice saying sentences in different tenses. Make flashcards with a sentence on the front. Write the sentence in past or future tense on the back. Now practice with the flashcards when you get the chance.

Flashcard vocabulary drill

Make a series of flashcards with a vocabulary word one one sentence and a complete sentence on the other side. Look at the word, make a sentence and then check your work.

Daily practice

As you go about life every day, think about the questions you ask. Try to ask and answer these questions in Chinese (in your head!) When you go to a restaurant, think about how you would order the chicken or a drink. When you go to the post office, think about how to ask for stamps. When you go to the grocery store, name as many foods or other items as you can.

What drills do you use? Tell us in the comments!

This is How You Should be Studying Chinese

Everyone is busy these days. Everyone. I was thinking about how difficult it is to find time to work on projects like studying Chinese. Here is how I prioritize the different aspects of learning Chinese. I am not suggesting that you try to do everything in each lesson, but these should be your priorities as you prepare for class. Spend 15 minutes a day studying and prioritize as follows:Studying in Library

Start with vocabulary.

I recently read a great book on learning languages. (By the way, here’s a great blog on learning languages.) My main takeaway was, you don’t learn languages when you don’t understand what people are saying. So study vocabulary first. If you don’t understand the basic vocabulary being used in the lesson, you will be completely lost. On the other hand, if you at least understand most of the words, you will have the opportunity to learn much more during the class.

One of the best ways to study vocabulary is flashcards. You can use vocabulary building apps like Pleco.

Next, have a look at the grammar.

Start with how the pattern works. How does the meaning change? Now consider the following: When would you use this pattern? What vocabulary words would fit well in this pattern? Practice saying it. Practice saying these questions and answers as much as you can. You want to make these flow like second nature.

Once more with a focus on pronunciation

Now review the material and focus on pronouncing everything properly. Start with the vocabulary. Get the town down for each word. Then move on to the patterns. Practice the flow of tones for the sentence.

Last review some old lessons.

We know that reviewing material over a period of time helps you transfer this material into your long-term memory. Take advantage of this. Try to spend 15 to 30 minutes a week on older material. This will ensure that you continue to move forward. Again focus on old vocabulary first and then grammar that works well with that vocabulary.