Learning Chinese is a lifelong pursuit. The language doesn’t have an alphabet, requires tonal pronunciation, and lacks many shared cultural reference points with other languages. If you are learning Chinese, you have already discovered that you need humility, patience, and determination to avoid a mental breakdown when unable to fully comprehend a menu at a Chinese restaurant — even after studying the language for many years.
Because Chinese is so difficult, learners must be resourceful. You may diligently compile paper flashcards, research the most effective textbooks, and even use Chinese-speaking Uber drivers as your short-term language partners.
You’ve also probably downloaded at least one of the hundreds of mobile apps that promise mastery of this ancient language without having to leave your couch.
But, the dirty secret is that most Chinese learning apps don’t work. In fact, some of the most popular Chinese apps on the market aren’t even designed to be effective.
Here’s what’s going on and what you can do about it for your learning.
Most language learning apps aren’t designed specifically for Chinese
Chinese is unique among most modern languages. When a native English speaker is learning a French word, all they need to remember is the word’s English definition. There are also plenty of cognates (words that share the same origin) to help you along the way. Pop quiz, what does the word horrible mean in French? You win, it means horrible.
However, when learning a Chinese word you must remember the character(s), the English definition, and its pinyin pronunciation. Without an alphabet, the way a character is written usually provides no indication of how the word is pronounced. Learners also need to master terms and idioms that are specific to the cultural context of Chinese. These words often don’t map cleanly to words and phrases commonly used in English.
This is where most apps fall down.
Most apps are designed to get as many people to use them as possible. The easiest way for a language learning app to increase installations is to offer support for additional languages without changing the fundamental design of the app. For Chinese, this often means that users only review the character and its pinyin pronunciation together or only learn the word’s pinyin pronunciation and definition together. Additionally, words and concepts that may be essential in Chinese, but are uncommon or nonexistent in English, are nowhere to be found.
The inability of apps that support multiple languages to cater to the nuances of Chinese makes for a time-wasting, ineffective learning experience.
Most apps are made to keep beginners hooked
Apps that are made specifically for Chinese have their own issues. Have you ever downloaded a Chinese learning app only to relearn the words “red”, “mom”, and “cow” for the hundredth time? Wait! But when you answer those words correctly a shiny star flies in, spins around, and makes you feel awesome.
Many apps have a step-by-step, game-like progression to keep you engaged. Here is the founder of Duolingo from David Freedman’s article in The Atlantic.
“The biggest problem that people trying to learn a language by themselves face is the motivation to stay with it,” he told me. “That’s why we spend a lot of our energy just trying to keep people hooked.”
This type of app design maximizes engagement at the expense of meaningful learning. Simple level-like progression may be fine when starting out, but by restricting what you study and when, the app doesn’t accommodate for people with different goals. To keep learners engaged for the long term, the content of the app needs to match a learner’s purpose for studying the language and grow with them once they are no longer beginners.
What if you’re working towards reading political primary sources, or moving to China to teach English? These two learners will have completely different needs and objectives. By forcing them to follow the same path, they will inevitably waste time that would be better spent directed at their particular learning needs.
Further, Chinese learners do not stay “beginners” for long. In order to attain a large enough vocabulary to read independently, a learner needs to recognize thousands and thousands of characters, far beyond the scope of apps that are designed for new learners.
These apps are designed to provide the illusion of progress to keep users engaged, not provide long-term, tangible knowledge for those that are serious about learning Chinese.
Most Chinese language apps try to do too much
Apps are not great tools for teaching complex tasks. They are designed for simple transactions that can be completed wherever you happen to be. Checking your bank statement? Awesome. Learning the fundamentals of fractional reserve banking and its influence on different financial systems? Not helpful.
Mastering Chinese, like any foreign language, involves learning to speak, listen, write and read — plus the requisite cultural understanding. No language app can provide you with the type of sustained immersion required to master these complex skills.
The good news is that there is an aspect of learning a language that is “transactional” in nature, and that’s learning vocabulary. Learning vocabulary is particularly essential for Chinese because the language lacks an alphabet. Once you’ve learned the fundamentals of characters, growing your vocabulary comes down to dedicating time to memorizing the thousands of characters required to operate effectively in the language.
As an app designer, I created Daily Chinese to help people master their Chinese vocabulary and fix the common issues with Chinese learning apps. With a clean, minimal interface designed specifically for Chinese, the app focuses on helping you grow your vocabulary, not wasting your time with false promises of language proficiency.
Daily Chinese uses a spaced repetition system to gradually introduce new words each day and ensure you never forget what you’ve already learned. You can create daily reviews from over 9,000 total words assembled into useful, practical word packs. Learn the basics, master idioms, ace grammatical concepts, pass the HSK, survive abroad, get the job, and much more. As you complete daily reviews, your progress is tracked so that you always know the size of your vocabulary.
Let’s simplify Chinese learning and stop wasting time.