I’ve been in Taiwan for a week now, and while navigating Taipei is doable in English, one of the major reasons I came here was to become fluent in Mandarin. With one month before the semester starts, I’ve got enough time for an intensive self-study challenge.
I was fortunate enough to receive a monthly language-learning stipend from my organization, so I thought I would put it to good use. Most of the following resources are paid (and none of them are sponsoring this post!), but I consider all the following apps a worthwhile investment before I begin formal training. Hopefully you find these helpful!
Pimsleur [ 20.99 USD/month ]
What I like about Pimsleur is how efficient it is in exposing you to comprehensible input. Being primarily an audio course, it aims to train and recycle the most frequently-used words in the langauge. It also helps to develop a clear and comprehensible pronunciation, which is important for tonal languages like Chinese. I still remember important phrases and words after finishing Level 1 in 2017 because of how the program forced me to internalize them.
The stories and situations are useful and somewhat interesting, albeit a bit dated— for instance, who uses phone books ( 电话簿 / diànhuàbù) anymore? The speakers also use a standard Beijing accent, and I think as I transition from the course into formal classes, my accent will assimilate towards that of my local Taiwanese teachers and tandem partners.
Also, learning Mandarin is almost like learning two languages at once: one must learn both the written characters and the spoken words. Without pinyin, it is nearly impossible to sound out a word just by looking at it. While Pimsleur is mainly an audio course, it is also offers a reading lesson (pinyin) halfway through each unit. If you think about how we acquire our first languages, this mirrors the order in which we develop our skills (listening > speaking > reading > writing).
Usually, my brain will tire out after one lesson if I’m really concentrating, so I try to get at least 60 minutes in each day (one lesson in the morning and one at night). It’s better to go slowly and consistently than to burn out after a few days.
Skritter [ 99.99 USD /year ; monthly options available ]
Skritter has been praised for its extensive coverage of simplified and traditional characters (and Kanji), as well as for its SRS interval training and design which makes learning stroke order an intuitive process over time.
Radicals are the building blocks of the written script— kind of like Lego pieces. Whenever I see Chinese characters on the street now, I automatically look for ones I recognize and try to remember or predict how I would write them in the correct order.
With its compatibility with the iPad Pro and the Apple Pen, I’ve practiced my character writing on trains and planes. Character writing has become therapeutic for me.
For this first month, I am attempting to learn around 5-10 new characters each day by following the Skritter Chinese 101 course. This will cover the 75 most common radicals, leading up to about 200 words.
Chineasy [ 39.99 USD / year ; monthly options available ]
One of the things I love about the Chinese languages is how little squares contain so much history within them. As a beginner level, I have used Chineasy because of its visually attractive and imaginative graphic design.
The creator of Chineasy, Taiwanese entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh, designed the app to offer full capabilities in both traditional and simplified characters.
It should be noted that not all of the illustrations reflect the actual history where they come from. In most cases, I’ve found that where Chineasy reimagines the symbolism of a character, it also makes note of the historical symbolism in the cultural notes.
The levels can be done quickly on my phone, so I try to get at least 10 done in a day.
Of course, you can get pick up Mandarin without using fancy apps or spending money , but I’ve realized that investing in resources is important if I’m serious about acquiring a skill. My typical daily challenge tends to be striking a balance between learning as fast as I can and digesting/reviewing the appropriate amount of material each day. Generally speaking, I have a year or more here— so there’s no rush at all.