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Download our free 'Chinese Characters First Steps' app

Updated Wednesday 3rd June 2015

Why is an app an ideal way to learn a new language? Qian Kan, one of the team members behind the OU course Beginner's Chinese and the "Chinese Characters First Steps" app (iOS and Android versions) explains.

Why create an app for Chinese?

We launched our first Beginners' Chinese course in November 2009. Many of our students work and study at the same time and some of them spend a lot of time travelling, and to be able to learn things in small bites on a mobile device would really help them make good use of their time.

Qian Kan Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Qian Kan

Our OU students who have tried the app love it - one student told his tutor that it was 'the single most useful learning tool I have found'. But we quickly discovered that there were many people who wanted to pick up the basics of Chinese without registering on a course. The app has had over 60,000 downloads.

For example, some Chinese parents in the UK are using it to teach their children to learn to write characters. Also, in China when I showed the app to some parents, they like it too as they think this not only helps their children learn how to write characters, but also teach them the English words at the same time!

Why is Chinese a language worth learning?

China has a rapidly growing economy and a more influential role in international affairs: as it becomes a bigger player, more and more people want to interact in China's own language. Plus the Chinese language has more than 5,000 years of history and many of our students are fascinated by how the characters are drawn and the rich culture and stories embodied in characters.

They get a real sense of achievement when they can read and write simple texts in characters. If you travel to China or other Chinese speaking places, whether for business or pleasure, you can play with the app at the airport, and land in your destination able to recognise some signs and say some useful expressions such as computers and mobiles, the internet, shops, and travelling by train, taxi or plane.

Isn't Chinese really hard to pick up?

Learning to read and write Chinese characters involves two big challenges.

Firstly, there is the lack of correlation between the sound and the script: there are too many similar sounding words so one sound can be written in many different ways with different meanings.

Secondly, although some characters need only two or three strokes of the pen to write, the average character has around 12 strokes – it's a lot to remember!

Can touchscreen devices make learning languages easier?

Touch screen learning is ideally suited to learning a language like Chinese, sweeping away much of the uncertainty and cross checking. Rather than having a text book, audio CD and a notebook to practice in, the sound, instructions and writing are all brought together in one interactive experience.

The three elements are combined to help you recognise and remember characters.”

How many characters do I have to learn before I feel like I'm getting somewhere?

You need up to a thousand characters to be confident in reading and writing. The app teaches you over 400 most frequently used characters, but also supports you in combining them to make new words and phrases.

For example, if you learn three single-character words for ‘net' (网 wang), ‘ball' (球 qiú)and ‘to go on' (上 shàng), you can then form three extra two-character words: ‘tennis' (网球), ‘to surf the internet' (上网)and ‘online' (网上). So once you've learned a handful of characters, there's a lot you can do with them.”

Do I need special keyboard to type Chinese characters?

No, you do not need a special keyboard! You can easily add Chinese font onto your computer, be it PC or Apple - listen to our audio files on iTunes U for more information. And you can also add Chinese Handwriting onto most smart phones' keyboard in order to use your touch screen to create typed characters.

As The Open University app helps you learn the order in which the strokes should be written, this means when it comes to handwrite characters on a touch screen device, you will get to the right characters quickly.

Get the app

The first five lessons which contains about 100 characters and the related activities are free to download. And around 300 more can be unlocked for a small fee. It can be used independently to learn characters or as a revision tool with OU's Beginner's Chinese course. To find out more and to download the app, visit the iTunes store for iOS version (for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch); and visit the Google Play store for Android version.

You can read a research article by Fernando Rosell-Aguilar and Kan Qian here on the design principles and learning outcomes of the app. 

Try a free course extract

If you're interested in learning Chinese, why not try a free course extract from Beginner's Chinese:


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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