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Author: Qian Kan

Download our Chinese characters learning apps

Updated Thursday, 16th August 2018
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" (Android only) and “Chinese@OU’ apps (iOS and Android) 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

Chinese Characters First Steps app was first released in 2011. Its Android version was released in 2014. 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 80,000 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!

Please note that the iOS version of this app no longer works with iOS 11+ but we have released an improved version (see below). The Android version of this app still works. The first five lessons, which contains over 100 characters and the related activities are free to download, and the other 15 lessons can be unlocked for a small fee. To download the app, search for ‘Chinese Characters First Steps’ in Google Play Store, and click Install.  This pdf has more information about the Android Chinese characters app

Chinese@OU” app was released in April 2018 for both iOS and Android, and it is totally free to download. This app contains more interactive activities but with only 200 plus characters. These are the first 200 characters introduced in The Open University's Beginners' Chinese module 第一步 Dì yī bù (L197). The design of more interactive activities was informed by our research (see ‘Link innovation with teaching and research’ below for the research paper). The lesson numbers in this app correspond with session numbers in L197 books. To download the app, search for 'Chinese@OU' in the App Store (iOS devices) or Google Play Store (Android devices), and click Install. This pdf has more details on the Chinese@OU app

Both apps can be used independently or as a revision tool for the  characters taught on OU’s L197 Beginners’ Chinese.

We would like to hear your feedback on ‘Chinese@OU’ app. Please select this link to complete a short survey.

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!

However, once you have built up about 100 characters, you will notice that you can use them to make up more words!

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.”

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.

Do I need special keyboard to type Chinese characters?

No, you do not need a special keyboard! You can easily enable Chinese font onto your computer, smartphone or tablet. And you can also add Chinese Handwriting onto most smartphones' keyboard in order to use your touch screen to create typed characters.

The link between innovation & teaching and research

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

Try a free course extract

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


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