Quick Review of PinYin Pal
by John Pasden
25 Jan 2013
OK, so I feel a little dirty typing out “PinYin,” but that is the name of the app. (Words can be capitalized in pinyin, but syllables within words should not be capitalized or spaced out.) I guess that’s my main linguistic complaint about PinYin Pal for iPad; it seems to confuse syllables with words. Still, it’s a pretty decent “Words with Friends” clone (read: Scrabble clone), and the incorporation of characters is done in a smart way. The relative short length of pinyin syllables (as opposed to English words) is also cleverly skirted with a purple extension tile.
Some screenshots of me playing an AllSet Learning teacher:
Right from the get-go you can see that we had a little bit of trouble coming up with long pinyin syllables.
Then we started to successfully create longer syllables.
Finally, we were forced to figure out how to use the purple “spacer” block. (It turns into a blank orange square when you place it. You can see it near the top under “jun.” Blank tiles make you choose a letter, and then the letter appears on the tile, but with no points.)
It’s true that native Chinese speakers don’t have a huge advantage when playing this game, since you’re creating syllables rather than words. (In fact, you can’t string syllables together and create actual words, which is a little frustrating.) So in order to play, the learner just has to know what syllables are possible in Mandarin (and I hope you have the iPad Pinyin app for that), and be able to match the syllables you created to one correct character and definition. Tones are added when you choose your character, but you’re not tested on them.
Overall, the game felt less fun than Scrabble. I think it’s mainly because there are so few syllable finals in Mandarin (you can’t end a syllable in m, p, g, z, y, etc.), and this can slow the game down a bit. Still, it was fun playing this classic game in Mandarin, and the app is free! It was also fun playing such a well-known English-language game with a Chinese person who had had absolutely no exposure to Scrabble (or “Words with Friends”). So if you’re learning Chinese, check it out: PinYin Pal.
John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.
Kinda makes you realise why games like this, outside of their English counterparts, don’t really catch on.. you’d be hard pressed to get even a 4 character chengyu on to the board at the best of times… it’s also makes it clear why mahjong style games are more popular and enduring.
I gotta say, every time something new like this comes out I just say to myself: “Where was this stuff when I started studying Chinese?!”
Loads of these new apps make it a lot more game-like and convenient to learn nowadays. What a cool industry to be a part of!