> Today the weather is nice, so my wife and I take
our darling son and daughter to travel the world. Suddenly,
from the side of the road emerges a reeking, filthy-faced,
homeless old woman. My God! It’s none other than my
Chinese teacher from 20 years ago!
> This week you stand through class!
My Chinese friends are of the opinion that it’s fake and the handwriting isn’t a real third grader’s, but I was still very amused by this.
Also, if you’re trying to read this and feeling frustrated, these are the really hard parts (well beyond intermediate-level):
– 环游世界: to take a trip around the world
– 冲出: to charge out
– 浑身: from head to toe
– 恶臭: stench
– 满脸: the entire face
– 污秽: filthy
– 无家可归: homeless (lit. “no home to return to”)
– 竟然: unexpectedly (a grammar point)
I’ve heard some good things about a program for school kids called Better Chinese. Like many modern Chinese learning programs, Better Chinese is also on the iPad learning bandwagon. This screenshot from the website features the app:
Yikes! How’d they get a kid from the late 70’s to pose with that iPad, and why didn’t they tell him not to use a pen with that touchscreen?
I’m sure we’ll all figure out how to learn Chinese using these touchscreen tablets sooner or later…
It’s striking how quickly technology is changing the way we learn Chinese. Recently I mused that it doesn’t seem to take as long to get fluent in Chinese as it used to, and one of the reasons I cited was technology. A recent Input Device Roundup update on the Skritter site calls attention to how it’s not just the software (“computers” in general), but actually the hardware that’s changing rapidly, and with it, the way we learn to write Chinese (with Skritter, anyway). Skritter’s in a unique position in that over the last few years, the service is seeing a big change in the types of hardware its users are using to interact with its service. From the humble mouse, to writing tablets, to tablet computers, Skritter’s a service that magnifies the impact of evolving hardware on learning Chinese.
Skritter Scott’s conclusion is that the iPad is now the best way to practice writing Chinese characters using Skritter. This doesn’t surprise me; last year I laid out some ideas for how really killer apps for learning Chinese characters could be created for the iPad, and lamented that no one had really attempted it yet. Well, we’re getting there!
If anyone’s seen some really interesting or innovative new apps for learning Chinese, please share. There’s so much potential…
The hard-working guys at Skritter have been working on an iPhone app for quite a while. They put up a nice launch page, made a really cool video, and then… proceeded to “keep us in suspense” for a really long time. Well, the wait is finally over! Even though I’ve been helping to test the new app prior to the official release, I waited until I got word from Skritter that the app has been officially approved before writing this review. The app is real!
I’ve mentioned before that I feel the iPad has real potential for Chinese writing practice. I’ve always liked Skritter, but when Skritter first came out, I had already put in my writing time (the old-fashioned way), and I wasn’t really interested in using a mouse or a writing tablet to practice characters. It did strike me as a cool way for a new generation of learners to write, however.
With an iPad, though, it’s different. The iPhone is a little small, in my opinion, when my writing utensils are as big and fat as my fingers. That’s why I’m more excited about Skritter on an iPad than on an iPhone, and I actually tested the app exclusively on my iPad rather than my iPhone. (To be clear, Skritter has only released an iPhone version so far, so I was just running an iPhone app at 2X on my iPad.)
How is it? Although I’m not crazy about every aspect of the design, the app got one thing very right: writing is very smooth. And for this app, writing is the right thing to get right. (I’m pretty sure that makes sense.) They could have invested more into slick iOS interface design, but they chose instead to make the actual writing functionality of the app work really well. Good call.
I’ve only got screenshots here, but the “virtual ink” feels very liquid as you write, like it’s really seeping out of your fingertips. When you hold your finger down and make slower strokes, you can see the extra ink “flowing” out and sinking into the “paper.” I like it.
Here are a few screenshots of me fluidly writing my name (and then the ink fading). Meanwhile the Skritter robot wants none of my narcissistic tomfoolery, and reminds me in blue what I’m supposed to be writing.
Here’s me writing the character 安. (And no, the Skritter robot doesn’t like strokes to be that connected, but hey, it made a cool screenshot.)
Here’s some crazy unacceptable strokes just straight-up exploding, and then a screen for tone recall:
Here’s some word lists and a settings screen:
Finally–and this is a feature that kind of took me by surprise, because I’m a Skritter fan but not a regular user, so I was unaware of this feature before I discovered it–here’s a shot of Skritter’s Pleco integration. When you’re writing a word, you can click on the “info” button on top right, and then click on the Pleco button. That opens up Pleco, with the word already looked up. Pretty sweet! And there’s a button at the bottom of the Pleco screen which can take you right back to Skritter when you’re done.
Bottom line: very cool app. Yes, the free app requires a Skritter subscription to support it, so it’s not the cheapest option for writing practice. (But if you’re such a cheapskate, what are you doing with an iPhone, anyway?)
P.S. It wasn’t until after I had written this review that I bothered to ask Nick of Skritter why the styles in the video and in the app I tested were so different, so only then did I learn that you can change the theme of the app. I gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern Chinese.
Here’s the difference between the two:
Apparently a lot of people prefer the traditional “inky” style to the modern “flashy” style. Interesting.
P.P.S. If you’re interested in learning Chinese, though, make sure you’ve learned your pinyin first. AllSet Pinyin for the iPad can help with that.
One of the reasons I rushed to get an iPad for my own company is that the iPad is the leading tablet computer device, and tablet computers, with their relatively large touch-driven screens, seem uniquely poised to offer a great learning experience for a new generation of learners. Now that the iPad has been out for a year, developers have had some time to dig into iOS and create some cool apps for learning to write Chinese characters.
The only problem is that they haven’t yet. It’s not that they haven’t done anything, it’s just that no major player with a lot of resources has put a lot of effort into creating a superior app just for teaching writing. Significant effort has gone into Pleco‘s iOS handwriting recognition and OCR function, but neither of these teaches writing.
Before I go into my reviews of the handful of Chinese writing apps I found, I should first pose a question: what should an app that teaches Chinese characters do? This is a question that at times seems neglected by app creators. It’s easier to focus on what can be done with an app, rather than what needs to be done for real learning.
To effectively teach the writing of Chinese characters in a comprehensive way, an app would need to do the following:
1. Introduce the basic strokes, emphasizing the direction in which each is written and the shape of each.
2. Introduce the building blocks of Chinese characters, calling attention to how they function is a part of a whole.
3. Introduce the various structural types exhibited by Chinese characters, and the order in which characters’ various component parts should be written.
4. Introduce new characters in a progressive way, building on what has come before, while still trying to stick to useful characters as much as possible.
5. Provide practice writing the characters and give feedback.
This issue goes way beyond the scope of this blog post, but the point is that most of the apps out there now stick mainly to #5. Because most of the apps are largely about practicing writing, I’m going to talk mostly about the concepts of tracing and feedback. Now onto the reviews…
Yes, a green star tells you where to start writing when you go off track. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
No; tracing only
Word Tracer is a very polished app. It’s attractive and was clearly crafted with care. The issue of stroke direction takes center stage in this app, as a star in a green circle tells you where to start, and a series of numbers in little circles show you which way to make the strokes.
While the app is not a course in characters (which would need to go through numbers 1-4 I outlined above), it does offer a nice collection of characters to choose from, ranging from a frequency list to common phrases. I missed this feature at first, and it definitely adds a lot.
Overall, the app shows a lot of attention to detail. It wasn’t created to be a writing course, so it’s mainly a polished “writing practice app,” and its name very clearly states what this app is all about: tracing. It can’t help you with recalling characters without any prompt and writing them out.
On the plus side, I actually met with the main developer in Shanghai, and he seems quite open to suggestions for improvement, and has plans to make the app better. (Full disclosure: the developer let me try out this app for free.)
If you’ve already learned how to write characters and are looking for a mechanical way to practice writing on your iPad, this app is not a bad choice.
Yes, a big red “X” tells you when you make a mistake but gives you no immediate clue where you went wrong. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
No; tracing only
I really like that this app tries to be a game. It’s not the most fun game in the world, but I’ve seen more than one learner really get into it. The timed aspect also adds another dimension which makes the “trace the strokes” mechanic a bit less monotonous (at least for a while). I also like the options in the beginning (although that screen with its crazy animated background is a little busy).
The way the game works is that characters slowly drop for the top of the screen. You tap them once to zoom in, then quickly trace over them to “destroy” them. That’s it. If you can write a character especially fast, you are praised with a “很快” (“very fast”). If you’re too slow or keep getting the strokes wrong, the character eventually drops off the bottom of the screen, and that’s one strike against you.
One of the best things about the app is that at the end, after you’ve gotten your 5 wrong characters and the game is over, the game shows you which characters you got right and which you got wrong, and then you can review the correct stroke order for the ones you got wrong. The app is never especially clear about the direction of strokes, however.
In the end, it’s tracing only, and the characters are chosen at random. The app is solid, though, and it’s free. Not bad for basic mechanical writing practice.
Price: Free (tutorial only; additional account required for other functionality)
Yes, the correct stroke flashes on the screen when you make a mistake. You’re not allowed to write incorrect strokes.
Chinese Writer sets itself apart in that it is not a tracing app. It’s slightly confusing at first, because (1) the app button is labeled “ChinesePad,” and (2) it seems like you have to sign up for a Popup Chinese account to use the app, since neither the simplified or traditional “practice mode” seem to do anything. Apparently only the “tutorial mode” is available if you don’t have a subscription (that button works).
As you write each stroke, the app shows your stroke in red, but it doesn’t actually save it on the screen; it either accepts it as “correct” and replaces it with a print-style version of the stroke, or it rejects it and erases it, flashing the correct stroke in the correct place to prompt you.
In theory, the app is fine, sort of a simpler version of the Skritter system. It can be confusing, though, rejecting seemingly perfect strokes, and rejecting quite imperfect ones.
The app is free, and will be updated in time, according to Dave Lancashire, the developer. When asked if it will stay free, his reply was, “I can’t see changing the price, although you should tell people it will be $99.99 next week so GET IT NOW!”
No automated feedback, just a layer of numbers to indicate where strokes should start
Chinagram is not free and contains a very limited number of characters, but in many ways, it’s my favorite of these apps. While it doesn’t teach strokes or radicals, it does show the evolution of the characters through various scripts over time, and offers graphics to help clarify the pictographic characters.
I also like how the app offers very free-form writing practice. There’s no computer program to tell you you’re right or wrong. There’s simply a faint guide which can be switched on or off, and some little guide numbers to help with stroke order, which are not tied to the tracing guide, and can also be independently turned on or off. This simple combination of options makes for a quite satisfying range of writing practice possibilities.
With Chinagram, it does kind of feel like you’re paying for design and pretty graphics, but let’s face it: characters are graphic. Chinagram offers an attractive and appealing, although somewhat limited, introduction to the writing of Chinese characters. I’d still want more instruction on how to write characters than this app offers, but it definitely goes farther than the three above.
Indirectly, because if you’re too far off in your stroke order, the character you’re trying to write won’t appear
One of the things that struck me while reviewing these iPad apps is that (1) many of them assume some previous study of characters, and (2) if you’ve previously studied characters, there’s probably nothing better than just writing. And the iPad let’s you do that out of the box. All you need to do is enable Chinese handwriting input:
Once you’ve got that working, go into the “Notes” app (or anything that lets you write text, really), and just try to write something. You’ll learn a lot just by the act of writing the characters stroke by stroke, and identifying the one you want from the resulting list of characters. If you get a character totally wrong, chances are, it won’t be in the list. Try again.
(In the example above on the right, the correct character “写” meaning “to write” is written in a way that is clearly recognizable, but does not appear in the list of resulting characters because the stroke order/direction used was totally wrong.)
This really is not a bad option for practicing writing, especially if you have someone you can write to.
My conclusion: these apps are worth checking out, but better writing apps for Chinese are still needed!
I have a student intern at AllSet named Lucas, who kindly gave me his own feedback on the four apps above. Lucas has studied Chinese for three years in college, and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai for the summer. I asked him to rank the four apps, and make some comments about each. Here are his independent picks, #1 being his favorite:
1. Chinesegram: “Seeing the picture and comparing the scripts and evolution helps me remember them better.”
2. Word Tracer: “Helpful for learning stroke order, but a bit over-sensitive, which can be frustrating.”