7 ways to upgrade your Chinese reading skills in China

Reading skills are vital, not only for high-level proficiency of the Chinese language, but also for daily survival: from opening a bank account to ordering plane tickets. Reading is key. Here are seven ways to boost your Chinese reading ability while staying in China.

In China?

Presently, entering China is (still) a real challenge. Flight prices are skyrocketing and the costs for a mandatory two-week quarantine in a second rate hotel room have to be covered by yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not. Also, tourists and international students currently aren’t permitted into the country. So I mainly share this article with you in the hope that in the near future people can visit China again, for leisure and study, without restrictions. And some tips work outside of China as well.

The best price Skyscanner could give me for a flight from Berlin to Beijing and back.

1. Photograph Chinese characters you encounter

One of the things I liked the most about learning Chinese in China is that you find Chinese characters on every corner. As soon as you leave your apartment, all kinds of Hanzi are waiting to be decoded by you. This can be almost anything: the local notice from the security post, scribblings on the wall, shops with strange names, flyers in your bicycle’s basket and so on. If you’re serious about learning Hanzi, one of the most original ways to improve your reading skills is taking snapshots of Chinese characters you encounter “in the wild” for further study. You’ll also find that asking locals about these mysterious signs is an excellent conversation starter.

Two interesting characters I spotted in China: the left on reads “chāi” (), meaning “tear down”. It can be found on many old buildings that are to be demolished. The right one reads “fú” () and stands for good fortune, typically sighted around Chinese New Year.

What if you want to know the character’s meaning right away? The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco provides an optical character recognizer that allows you to instantly look up Chinese characters and words by pointing your phone’s camera on them. WeChat has a similar function that scans and translates Chinese words or texts you hold in front of your camera into English.

2. Change your smartphone’s language settings to Mandarin Chinese

Most people spend more than one hour on their phone every day. Why not challenge yourself and switch your phone’s language to Chinese? You can also change the language settings of frequently used apps. At first, this slows you down, but the more you practice, the better you get. It’s an easy way to increase your exposure to Chinese characters. I wouldn’t recommend it for WeChat though, since you lose the ability to translate Chinese text to English.

3. (We)chat with Chinese friends

Mentioning WeChat – it’s hard to survive in China without it. Literally everyone uses it. If you meet interesting people, ask them the rhetorical question if they use WeChat and scan their personal QR code to become friends on the Tencent app. Once this becomes a habit, chatting in Chinese with your expanding network is the next best thing to do. Simply ask one of those many questions you have as a foreigner in China. There’s no better practice than real communication, be it oral or written. If you never want to stop reading, you can join group chats about almost any topic. And did you know you can read books on WeChat as well?

4. Purchase Chinese children’s books, comics and manga at your local bookstore

Books! Normally I don’t recommend reading Chinese children’s books, because they tend to be much harder than they look. Even books for 5-year-olds typically contain plenty of difficult and less frequently used vocabulary. But that being said, Chinese bookstores usually offer a broad array of reading material that is worth checking out. Books like 小王子” (The Little Prince), “儿童十万个为什么” (Science for kids) or “成语故事” (Chinese idiom stories) are worth a try for more intermediate learners. The key is to find something you’d really love to read. Just don’t expect the book to be easy.

books for children I bought in Chinese bookstores
Books for children I bought in Chinese bookstores: “小王子” (The Little Prince), “儿童十万个为什么” (Science for kids) or “成语故事” (Chinese idiom stories).

5. Try Chinese Graded readers

Children’s books aren’t working for you? Consider giving Chinese graded readers a try. The great thing about graded readers is they’re not limited to intermediate or advanced levels. Instead, they allow you to start reading right from the start, that is to say from a 150-words-level.

The idea is simple: improving reading fluency by reading as broadly as you can within your level (extensive reading), instead of focusing on a narrow selection of relatively complex textbook texts. I’m not saying anything new here, but the best way to speed up your reading is to read (a lot). Our brain needs time to adapt to Hanzi.

If you don’t want to order hard copies, try Pleco’s graded readers like “Journey to the West” which you can read comfortably in the dictionary app. And while you’re reading and discovering the story, you’ll learn new words on the go, without much conscious effort.

Chinese graded readers
Graded Chinese readers: lots of choice for different levels.

6. Watch Chinese soap operas with subtitles

Speaking of learning without conscious effort: many Dutch people (the writer of this article happens to be Dutch) state they’ve learned English not by paying attention during English class, but by watching English spoken TV with Dutch or English subs. The same approach can be applied to learning Chinese, using Chinese-English (or Hanzi-only) subtitles. Getting even more exposure to Chinese isn’t going to hurt. The power of “extensive watching” shouldn’t be underestimated. When you’re already doing plenty of active learning, a little passive learning is a great supplement. Watch Chinese TV shows like “Love defense wars: 爱情保卫战“ or drama series like „Women in Shanghai: 上海女子图鉴“ with subtitles. 

7. Reading and writing with Journaly

Reading and writing are closely connected. You may have heard about Journaly. It is a new foreign language journaling platform that you can join for free. Basically, Journaly is like blogging in a foreign language. As a Chinese learner you can write in your target language about the stuff you really care about or that has a big impact on your life, living in China for example. The best thing: you receive instant feedback from native Chinese speakers. This feedback becomes part of your posts. It can be studied and reviewed anytime. Moreover, there’s a steady flow of new Chinese content being published every day. By reading the articles of other learners you can learn from their mistakes as well.

That’s it. Do you know of any other tips? Feel free to leave a comment down below!

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Learning Mandarin: how to continue after you leave China?

In 2016, I studied Chinese in China for six months. Returning to Europe, I felt that I had made remarkable progress, but I should have stayed longer. The time simply wasn’t adequate to study such a vast language and become fully fluent. Back at home, I knew I couldn’t continue studying with the same speed and intensity.

Once you fly back to your home country or where ever you’re heading, you exit the only real Chinese language environment and stop being immersed 24/7. You’ll also no longer be “forced” to say what you have to say in Chinese, have fewer opportunities for this kind of “natural practice” with native speakers and test freshly learned vocabulary and other things. Whatever learning routines you may have adopted, it will be hard – at least in my experience – to maintain them outside of China as your old or new life continues. But there are a number of things you can do to counter these circumstances in order to keep improving your Chinese skills.

How to continue improving your Chinese after you left China?

Keep regular interaction

First and foremost: keep regular interaction with Mandarin. Don’t let your Mandarin skills rust away. Because that is what happens if you stop. You have to keep swimming against the current, so as not to be washed away. This can mean watching Chinese tv-shows, scrolling through Weibo, reading Chinese books, listening to Chinese audiobooks and lots of other things like writing a Chinese journal or chatting with Chinese friends. The better you know why you’re learning Chinese, the easier the “how” becomes.

Maintain high-quality input

Maintaining high-quality input is another crucial thing. Use the internet to get that daily Chinese language input that suits your target level. You’ve probably already covered the basics, so you’re free to be more picky and focus on topics that really interest you. Here are some Chinese language learning formats I enjoy for example:

Even more choice you find here. The great thing about these two websites is that they sort completely subtitled / transcribed videos by HSK level, so you always find something to watch and study:

Do more reading

You hardly can do enough reading. Maybe you focused on communicating during your stay in China and didn’t have enough time to read authentic Chinese. When it came to reading in China I for instance mostly read textbooks and HSK study material. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the benefits of extensive reading and broadened the scope of my reading with the help of graded readers and apps like DuShu and WordSwing. Here I listed some other useful reading resources that I’d recommend if you want do more reading.

Keep communicating with Chinese friends

At least equally important is to keep learning by real communication. Since by now you’ve probably made a number of Chinese friends who you can contact, this is quite possible. If you haven’t, consider joining some Mandarin learning groups on Facebook or other online learning communities. Here you find plenty of native speakers who want to learn English or other languages and are willing to “teach” Mandarin in return.

Failing that, you can also book online lessons with a Chinese teacher on a tutoring platform:

  • Italki – An online tutoring platform with probably the biggest range of teachers to choose from. 
  • Verbling – An online tutoring platform similar to Italki.
  • Preply – Find native speakers and certified private tutors.

Solidifying & finetuning

Once you’ve left China and your learning progress is decelerating, it can be a good time to look back on the covered terrain and not only review what you’ve learned, but also work on some specific areas that didn’t receive the attention they require. In my case that would include the pronunciation of the tones and understanding and writing characters. As far as tones are concerned, I wasn’t corrected as much as I should have been after ending Pinyin base camp. When it comes to writing, I learned to write a fair deal of HSK vocabulary, but sometimes neglected understanding the basic components. In other words, it can be useful – after a time of quick progress – to “retrospect” and solidify the foundations.

Chinese learning challenges

In the long run, keeping that motivation to improve your Chinese skills and maintain those daily learning routines is essential. That’s why the final thing I’d like to recommend is to team up with other motivated learners and join the Chinese learning challenges by hackingchinese.com. The idea is to join with other motivated people for a kind of Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal like listening to 20 hours of Chinese this month, make it public and give it what you got. I always find that I’m far more focused and productive teaming up with enthusiastic people who share the same objective. To join simply check the upcoming challenges and sign up.

Be inspired

Oh and if you run out of inspiration, listen to the You Can Learn Chinese Podcast once in a while. John Pasden and Jared Turner form an expert panel for everything related to learning Mandarin and host interesting guests who share stories about how they achieved Mandarin fluency.

I hope you enjoyed this post. As always feel free to leave a comment down below!

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Improving your Chinese writing skills on Journaly

1

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is discovering new learning resources and tools. Recently, I tested the new online platform Journaly and found that it has great potential for Mandarin learners. Although maybe not for everybody. Here’s why!

Writing to improve your speaking skills?

First I have to say a few words about the benefits of writing.

Writing as a means to improve oral fluency in Mandarin is undervalued. This is mainly because to most people writing texts in general isn’t particularly enjoyable. Moreover, most Mandarin learners value speaking, listening and reading skills over writing skills. They more or less tend to overlook writing or associate it with school and exams. I’m no different: except for writing messages to Chinese friends, I “dropped” writing pretty much after passing HSK 5.

Writing texts – from keeping a (language) diary to writing short articles or essays – does have two major benefits though:

  • Writing helps to improve your ability to build correct and more complex sentences by using new and more daring sentence structures you’d avoid in a rapid conversation.
  • Writing helps to expand your vocabulary in a focused and thoughtful way. This is like slowly conquering new territory.

And let’s not forget feedback, because when nobody’s offering feedback on what you wrote you might as well speak Chinese with your parrot. Is it correct what you’re writing? Is there a better way of saying it? Is it correct what you’re writing but do you still sound like a laowai / foreigner? This kind of thing. Feedback is essential.

But most important of all: writing should be enjoyable. This is where Journaly comes in.

What’s Journaly?

Journaly is a foreign language journaling platform and online language learning community and both are growing fast. People on Journaly obviously want to improve their writing skills, but it’s more than just writing for the sake of being corrected by native readers. Journaly is a way to involve in meaningful communication by writing about the stuff you really care about. This can be almost anything, from every day life to quantum mechanics and robotics. And it’s about helping each other.

How is this different from lang-8?

Lang-8 was the first successful language learning platform where native speakers correct what you write. When I tried to create an account back in 2019, I got the message that “new sign ups for Lang-8 are currently suspended”. This actually has been the case since 2017. But to compare the two anyway, let’s see what Robin MacPherson, the man who created Journaly, has to say about Lang-8 and how Journaly is going to be different:

Lang-8 was very useful, but the design was incredibly outdated and they closed off the ability for new users to sign up years ago. There’s been a great need in the community that we aim to address, but Journaly is so much more than a Lang-8 replacement. Lang-8 was transactional, whereas Journaly has been designed from the first moment through the lenses of User Experience and habit-forming product design to help you not just write often, but also to help you build meaningful connections in the community with fellow learners who share your interests.

You’ll be able to find not just perfect language matches, but also perfect people matches. Let’s say you’re an English speaker who’s learning French. You like rock climbing, food, and movies. You’ll be able to use our robust filters to find French speakers who are learning English, and who write about one or maybe even all of your interests!

Robin MacPherson in his post “Introducing Journaly”, 25.09.2019

This idea to connect language learners with the same interests or background has great potential and goes beyond the simple quid pro quo of correcting and being corrected. Journaly’s ambition is to be one of the major online language learning communities of the future where people engage in meaningful interaction, build relationships and share skills and inspiration.

But let’s start with the basics first…

Native readers correct your posts

Once you publish something native readers usually correct your posts within hours, depending on the language. Mandarin is one of the most popular languages on Journaly – after German, English, Spanish, Italian and French, so timely response isn’t a problem. This, for example, is a comment I got on one of my texts:

Journaly - comments by native readers

You correct their posts

In return, you can correct other people’s post in your native language(s) and contribute to the community. Since I’m from the Netherlands, I feel most comfortable correcting texts written in Dutch. Yes, there’s even a place for relatively “small” languages like Dutch which is great. To add a comment, you simply select the part of the sentence and start writing, not unlike editing a Word document:

Journaly - I corrected a Dutch post

Is “correcting” the right word?

It’s not about wrong or right actually. I’d comment for example: “people usually say this” or “If you mean X, the word Y is more commonly used”. On the other hand, there’s no denying that writing on Journaly is all about learning from your mistakes. The whole point is making mistakes and getting the instant feedback you need. This can hurt a little bit, yes. I have to admit that even though I see the “greater good”, I didn’t much like the idea of being corrected in front of everybody and have my “mistakes” pointed out. But in the end, this is really a mentality thing that’s simply not helpful when learning Mandarin (or indeed learning anything).

And if your comments are useful to others, you actually “receive thanks” that are displayed in your profile. This means you’re being encouraged to support other learners:

Journaly - an example of a user profile on Journaly

Read what others are writing and learn from their mistakes

If you’re not writing or correcting, you can read the corrected posts by fellow learners in your target language. You can filter by languages and topics:

Journaly - my personal feed on Journaly

And start reading. There’s plenty of Chinese posts to choose from. This Chinese post for example is about the difficulties of choosing the right Chinese name for oneself. The author also asks questions and starts a discussion with native speakers. That’s the kind of meaningful communication what foreign language learning should be all about:

Journaly - example of a Chinese post by a fellow Mandarin learner

What to write?

Anything you want. Anything you want to share with others.

Really ANYthing? Well, I couldn’t find any community guidelines on Journaly, but I also didn’t encounter any spam or other unpleasantness. Either content moderation works or people here are really focused on learning languages.

Any tips on writing on Journaly?

Disclaimer: I only tested Journaly for one month. My thoughts:

  • Write according to your level. I tried to write something about the corona situation in Germany, but it got to a point where I had to look up too many words, because I wanted too much.
  • Writing should be fun and it shouldn’t take too long. No one says a post should have at least 400 words.
  • Write about your life and daily stuff. This is difficult enough as you have to write about it in a way that outsiders can understand, but it’s also the most universal stuff everyone can relate to.
  • Engage with the audience, ask questions (why is it that so many people in China hardly have any holidays?) and ask for advice.
  • Have a good time. At the end of the day, the main point is having fun. Being active on Journaly should be enjoyable to such an extent that you keep coming back to write more.

Start writing

Journaly is like a basic version of WordPress. It’s kind of like blogging. Simply start writing. Add a title, pick your language and select one or more topics:

Journaly - it's very easy to write and publish a post

Journaly is a very promising platform

Journaly is an excellent online learning platform if you want to improve your Chinese skills by way of writing or simply enjoy writing and reading in foreign languages and engaging with other learners. Here you receive the instant feedback you usually don’t get or can’t process fully when speaking Mandarin. Plus, this feedback becomes part of your posts. It can be studied and reviewed anytime. In a way it’s like blogging in a foreign language. You can make it as interesting and challenging as you want. Your language level doesn’t really matter.

Some people who love writing or blogging anyway will immediately be drawn towards Journaly. Others who hate this kind of silent, introverted activity probably prefer face-to-face communication and don’t want to waste their time with writing. But lots of people in the middle should give Journaly a try to see if it works for them.

Long story short: I’m looking forward to see both the Journaly platform and online learning community develop and grow in the time to come. It’s exciting to be part of this young community (almost) from the beginning. Here you can sign up for free.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu! What are your thoughts on improving your writing skills to become more fluent in Mandarin or indeed any other foreign language? Feel free to let me know about your experiences with Journaly.

Update (1-5-2021): Journaly Premium is now live with a first premium feature: inline post images. This allows you to include an unlimited number of images inside your posts and bring them to life. More premium features will follow in the future.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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HSK 6 Chinese graded reader review: The Art of War

HSK 6 Graded Chinese Reader - The Art of War

Who doesn’t want to be able to say “I read The Art of War in Chinese”? Reading classics in their original language is cool. Graded readers are supposed to simplify this process. The HSK Academy’s graded reader version of The Art of War completely fails in this respect. Here’s my review!

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

First some basic information about this graded reader:

  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Level: far beyond HSK 6 (classical Chinese)
  • Audio: no
  • Pages: 114
  • Vocabulary list: no
  • Characters: simplified
  • Pinyin: yes
  • English: yes

Difficulty

Based on the famous “Art of War” from Sun Tzu (5th century BC), this bilingual graded reader is designed for the most advanced learners of Mandarin Chinese as well as for the HSK test candidates. Its vocabulary comes from some of the 5,000 most common Chinese words, and also from rarer ones which are grayed out in the text to help you focus solely on the characters and words that matter to your level.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The Art of War (Sun Tzu) – Foreword

Although the title and foreword state differently, this graded reader is definitely not suitable for HSK 6. This is the unabridged version of the classical text by Sun Tzu which requires knowledge of classical Chinese to read and understand. The difficulty lies not so much in the variety of characters used (most of which I can read), but in the interpretation of the classical prose which is very different from Modern Chinese.

How to read it?

This book offers Chinese simplified characters, pinyin and English translation one after the other for each line of text or dialogue. As this book is for the most advanced in Chinese, the translation is a classical one, rather than a literal one. You can also find at the end the full text in Chinese characters (hanzi), in pinyin, and its English translation.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

I have to admit that I’m completely at a loss as to how to read this ancient text. The reader includes pinyin and the English translation (by Lionel Giles), rare characters are grayed out, but apart from that, the book offers no guidance or help. To give you a small taste of the text:

怒而挠之,卑而骄之 Nù ér náo zhī, bēi ér jiāo zhī Anger and scratch, humble and arrogant (Google translate) If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. (Lionel Giles)

First Chapter, Laying Plans (page 10)

This is not like anything I’ve read in Chinese before. It is striking how compact the Chinese text is (8 characters) compared to the English translation (20 words). I’m sure this text can be understood somehow, but I’m afraid I’m going to need more than pinyin and the English translation…

This somehow reminds me of studying Latin as a student. It took months of preparation to be able to read even the simplest, ancient text in Latin, but even then, we’d first read some kind of short introduction and there would be lots of footnotes, explaining details that otherwise would go unnoticed – highlighting sentence patterns, peculiarities, grammar structures and the like. This graded reader doesn’t provide any of these things. As a reader without knowledge of classical Chinese I’m completely left in the dark. Surely I can enjoy the English translation, but that’s not the point of a Chinese graded reader.

What about the story?

The book contains a detailed explanation and analysis of the Chinese military, from weapons and strategy to rank and discipline. Sun also stresses the importance of intelligence operatives and espionage to the war effort. Because Sun has long been considered to be one of history’s finest military tacticians and analysts, his teachings and strategies formed the basis of advanced military training for millennia to come.

Wikipedia – The Art of War

Like most people, I had heard of this classic text, but never read it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only similar book I’ve read is the samurai warrior code known by the name Hagakure. The Art of War, however, is all about strategy and how to defeat your enemies. In any case, this is non-fiction, so you won’t find a story with a main character in the conventional sense. The text is divided into 13 relatively short chapters, each containing a series of strategems:

  •  始計 – Laying Plans
  •  作戰 – Waging War
  •  謀攻 – Attack by Stratagem
  •  軍形 – Tactical Dispositions
  •  兵勢 – Energy
  •  虛實 – Weak Points and Strong
  •  軍爭 – Maneuvering
  •  九變 – Variation in Tactics
  •  行軍 – The Army on the March
  •  地形 – Terrain
  •  九地 – The Nine Situations
  •  火攻 – The Attack by Fire
  •  用間 – The Use of Spies

Lay-out

Considering the price for this self-published paperback book, the lay-out, binding, paper quality are reasonable. The cover looks serious. Here you can see for yourself:

Publisher

HSK Academy is the ground-breaking educational platform dedicated to the Chinese language and HSK proficiency tests. Our team creates resources tailored to your needs, providing simplicity and offering an actionable knowledge for better and faster progress in Mandarin Chinese.

Self-description on Amazon

Contrary to what you might think, HSK Academy doesn’t represent the organization behind the standardized Chinese test HSK (Hanban) in any way. They acknowledge this fact on the back of the title page. They published three other graded readers (HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 4) and a number of HSK vocabulary lists. With regard to graded readers, HSK Academy is doing what Hanban could be doing if they were a commercial entity, that is selling HSK readers and other learning materials with the “official” HSK stamp on them. HSK Academy is capitalizing on the “HSK-brand” quite successfully: it has its own Facebook channel with almost 100.000 followers and even sells HSK Academy t-shirts. Most people probably (mistakenly) think that HSK Academy is linked to the HSK test…

Opportunities for improvement

I do see some areas for improvement:

  • The book presents a 1500 years old, Chinese classic, so it should provide more guidance for the reader. This isn’t the kind of text that explains itself. It requires a proper introduction and additional, page-to-page explanations. If you ask me, selling it in this form is irresponsible to interested readers.
  • A vocabulary list should be included.
  • Since this is supposed to be a HSK 6 graded reader, it would be helpful if the vocabulary for this level would be highlighted in some way.
  • Audio would be nice. This could even include an introduction and explanations, after all, there are plenty of Chinese materials on this classic to be found. Takes some effort, but would be worth it. I found an audiobook version right here by the way.

Conclusion

In short, this self-published book provides the reader with an affordable, Chinese-English version of the classic The Art of War. It should be added that both the translation and original text are in the public domain and can be found on the internet. Be careful: this is not an abridged or simplified version like Pleco’s graded reader Journey to the West! That’s why I think it’s wrong to pitch this book as a graded reader. It simply is not. Moreover, the “HSK Academy-label” wrongly suggests this is official HSK material which – again – it is not. In my opinion, potential readers deserve more transparency.

That being said, I’d recommend this book only to those studying classical Chinese with the serious constraint that it completely lacks an historical introduction, footnotes etc. If you’re preparing for HSK 6 or expecting to receive some kind of simplified, adapted version for Chinese learners, you probably are going to be disappointed by this book like I was.

Thanks for reading this review! Do you have any Chinese graded readers or other books to recommend or maybe you completely disagree with me? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Affiliate links

The Art of War Collection: Deluxe 7-Volume Box Set Edition (Arcturus Collector's Classics) (Englisch)
The Art of War (Englisch)
The Art of War: The Essential Translation of the Classic Book of Life (Penguin Classics) (Englisch)
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature: (1000BCE-900CE) (OXFORD HANDBOOKS SERIES) (Englisch)
Classical Chinese Primer (Reader + Workbook) (Englisch)
A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Englisch)
Du's Handbook of Classical Chinese Grammar (Englisch) Paperback edition

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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HSK 6 Chinese Graded reader review: The New Housekeeper

HSK Chinese Graded Reader - The New Housekeeper - Front 2

Finding suitable HSK 5 – 6 reading material is still surprisingly hard. That’s why I purchased a copy of Edmund Chua’s and Ranny Ran’s Graded Chinese Reader for HSK 6 called “The New Housekeeper”. I’d only recommend it to a specific group.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The New Housekeeper

Here’s some basic information about this graded reader:

  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Level: HSK 6 (5000 words)
  • Audio: no
  • Pages: 172
  • Vocabulary list: no
  • Characters: simplified
  • Pinyin: yes
  • English: yes

Difficulty

This book is for all learners of Chinese, especially learners planning to take the HSK exams. Most of the vocabulary used in the stories come from the 5000 words required to pass the HSK Level 6 Exams. I have kept the use of words outside HSK Level 6 Exam word list to the minimum.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

Like the authors suggest, the reader is suitable for HSK level 6, but definitely not for “all learners of Chinese”. Reading should be enjoyable, not a struggle, so I wouldn’t recommend this book to beginners or even lower intermediate readers. In fact, it could be labeled as “HSK 6 only”.

How to read it?

Every sentence comes in simplified Chinese, pinyin and its English translation. Start by reading the English translation to understand the story. Then, read each Chinese word or phrase using its pinyin. You may choose to read the simplified Chinese characters instead. After you can read each word or phrase, read the entire sentence. Finally, read the story by paragraph.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

A good Chinese graded reader should come with some hints for the reader as for how to use the book and provide a short introduction to the story. The authors Edmund Chua and Ranny Ran offer some reading hints, but miss the chance to provide more background information about the story (e.g. author, year, why this story etc.). That’s a pity, cause I like to know what I’m reading.

What strikes me as odd though – considering this being a graded reader for HSK 6 – is the instruction to first read the English translation and the pinyin and only then read the characters. “Start by reading the English translation to understand the story.” Really? Isn’t that spoiling all the fun?

That’s a peculiar instruction coming from experienced Chinese teachers. In my opinion, upper intermediate learners can do without pinyin, not to mention English translations. The reason is this: once I’ve read the English translation, there’s no need for me to “crack” the Chinese text. My brain already processed all the information I need. The suspense of seeing the story unfold is destroyed.

What about the story?

Wu Xiao Ping became the new housekeeper for an old lady. She worked hard and managed to please the old lady. The old lady then assigned her a new task. This task would change her forever.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Synopsis

A graded reader may be primarily for reading practice, but the story should still captivate the reader. In this case, not only the plot – and I very much wish it was different – is thin and artificial, but also the main characters remain shallow and stereotyped. It pains me to write so, but the story reminds me of the kind of cheap novelettes that are sold in supermarkets, except that the quality of the story telling is actually below that standard. After all, even a silly and sentimental story can be told in a fashion that convinces me as a reader. “The New Housekeeper” however, doesn’t pull it off.

Language issues – fitting in as many HSK 6 words as possible?

It seems this graded reader has been written focusing on HSK 6 vocabulary. In a way, that’s excellent and very useful, here comes the ‘but’ though: some HSK 6 words are being used “wrong” or out of context. Since it’s hard for me to judge, I asked a native speaker (who happens to be my wife^^) to have a look. She helped me to find examples of words that seem out of place. They all happen to be HSK 6 vocabulary, so I guess the idea was to fit in as many HSK 6 words as possible or even come up with a story based on the HSK 6 vocabulary.

Here are some examples:

  • 捍卫自己的权利 (page 7) – This sounds a little over the top for a simple housekeeper, because “捍卫” means defending or safeguarding (like defending one’s motherland, defending national sovereignty, national interests etc.). “捍卫” is normally used in formal contexts where something abstract has to be defended (Example: 每个公民都要捍卫自己的公民权).
  • 对此,朋友遭到其他室友的批判 (page 69) – Again, “批判” (criticize, critique) is a formal word that doesn’t fit here very well. (An example from the Line dictionary: 她批判贵族,站在低层阶级一方)
  • 她们当场达成协议 (page 76) – This is very solemn way to state that two parties reach an agreement. In this case, an uneducated girl and an old woman agree on something. (Dictionary example: 如能达成协议,欧盟必须开放其市场).
  • 今天肯定要收到老夫人的谴责 (page 140) – “谴责” means condemning someone or something (like condemning violence for example: 我们谴责暴力和屠杀的循环,谴责过分使用武力). I understand what “谴责” is supposed to mean here (the old woman will tell her that she’s not satisfied with her), but this is not how the word is commonly used.
  • 妈妈要网上创立了一家低成本的小公司,贩卖风味独特的小吃 (page 155) – “贩卖” means so much as “dealing in” (e.g. art work, drugs, weapons, slaves). Here “妈妈” is selling local snacks online, but she doesn’t “deal” in them. (Dictionary example: 他两个月前因为贩卖毒品而被捕).

Lay-out

Considering the price for this self-published book, the lay-out, binding, paper quality are reasonable. The drawings are a bit childish, but I can live with that. Have a look yourself:

Opportunities for improvement

Here’s some things that could be improved:

  • I already pointed out that the pinyin and English translation aren’t necessary for this particular level (or could at least be printed considerably smaller). They occupy too much space – or to put it bluntly – they are a waste of paper. The actual story covers about 30 to 40 pages. That’s something to remember if you consider buying this book.
  • There’s also no need to first print the text in short paragraphs (with pinyin and English) and another time in longer paragraphs (with pinyin and English). It’s (again) a waste of paper and gives a wrong impression of the story’s length.
  • The provided vocabulary lists are too short and should at least include all “literary expressions”, idioms and less frequent words.
  • Since the text is packed with HSK 6 vocabulary, it would be great to highlight them or make them more visible in some way (or even include them on the vocabulary list).
  • The graded reader should have audio, so reading and listening can be combined.

Conclusion

Long story short: I’d only recommend this book if you’re preparing for the HSK 6 exam and want to brush up on your HSK vocab. If you aren’t put off by excessive use of pinyin and English, this graded reader is perfect for just that. Ask your Chinese friends what they think about the text, if it feels “unnatural” to them, which words seem out of place and why… In this way, the reader can be used to spark a discussion.

If you’re looking for a good story, however, one that is really enjoyable to read, and don’t care so much about HSK stuff, this graded reader is probably going to disappoint you. The story is mainly a carrier rocket for HSK vocab and unfortunately doesn’t have much to offer beyond that.

Thanks for reading this review. Do you have any Chinese graded readers or other books to recommend? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

My 2021 overview of resources for Mandarin Chinese

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Looking for a more or less comprehensive overview of learning resources for Mandarin Chinese? I hope this list can help you to find the tools you need or try out something new. It’s the product of my own experience learning Chinese and blogging here on Kaohongshu.

PS. Of course this list isn’t complete and it probably never will be. Please let me know if any relevant Mandarin Chinese resources are missing or if I should correct any information provided here.

Mandarin Chinese resources

Table Of Contents

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Best Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources for Tones

“Speaking Chinese but without the tones”? Just kidding. If you’re working on your pronunciation, these links can help.

  • Hacking Chinese – A practical guide to Pinyin by Mandarin expert and teacher Olle Linge, explaining common traps and pitfalls. [free]
  • Chinese Pronunciation Wiki – Online resource for pronunciation, tones, and Pinyin sorted by language level (A1, A2, B1). Extensive resource that is still growing. [free]
  • Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills – Progressive method that helps elementary and intermediate students practice tone pairs, designed by John Pasden. [free]
  • Yoyo Chinese Introduction to Mandarin tones and tone pairs [free]
  • Mandarin Tone Trainer – Online exercises to train recognition and pronunciation of Mandarin tones. [free / $$$]
  • Pinyin Master – Gamified app that helps improve pronunciation and listening skills by comparing similar sounding words which are easily mistaken. [free]
  • SpeakGoodChinese – Browser application to train Mandarin tones, offers instant visual feedback and tips for your pronunciation. Voice settings can be problematic. [free]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Listening Material

The good news: there’s an overabundance of Chinese spoken audio. The bad news: it’s hard to find “comprehensible input” that fits your interests and language level. Here’s an overview of podcasts, Chinese music and audiobooks.

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Podcasts

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for beginners

  • ChinesePod – An enormous library of podcasts [free / $$$]
  • Coffee Break Chinese: partly free content, Chinese-English [free / $$$]
  • I love learning Chinese – Out-of-date website but lots of audio material with transcript and vocabulary list. Not only for beginners [free]

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for intermediate learners

Mandarin Chinese podcasts for advanced learners

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Music

Music is probably the most pleasant form of language immersion. Tastes differ though, here are some random suggestions.

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Audiobooks

Here’s an overview of Mandarin spoken audiobook websites. Most audiobooks found here definitely qualify for advanced listening. For learners that haven’t reached that level yet listening to the audio of graded readers might proof a better choice.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese with TV & Video

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Chinese TV & video platforms

The following video platforms offer an overload of Mandarin content, their websites mostly are Hanzi-only.

  • youku.com – Mainland Chinese online video and streaming service platform similar to YouTube with its own streaming services for TV shows and movies. [free / $$$]
  • tv.cctv.com/live – Watch live Mainland Chinese television just like you’re in China. [free]
  • iQiyi – Mainland Chinese video platform based in Beijing. [free / $$$]
  • Tencent Video – Mainland Chinese video streaming website, also available in English. [free / $$$]
  • viki.com – American video streaming website that specializes on Asian TV shows and movies, with English subtitles. [free / $$$]
  • tv.sohu.com – Mainland Chinese video platform based in Beijing. [free / $$$]
  • ifsp.tv – Movies, series, documentaries and more, usually lacking English subtitles for Chinese. Many “non-Chinese” content with Mandarin subtitles. [free]
  • PPTV – Mainland Chinese video streaming website. [free / $$$]
  • 56.com and Tudou – Mainland Chinese video sharing websites, both headquartered in Shanghai, where users can upload, view and share video clips. [free]

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: TV shows and series

This is my selection of some commonly recommended Mandarin spoken TV shows and series.

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for beginners

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for intermediate learners

  • 外国人在中国 – CCTV docuseries about foreigners living in China
  • 爱情保卫战 – Mainland Chinese live-show where couples fight out their problems on stage (2010)
  • Happy Chinese – educational melodrama produced by the Chinese TV channel CCTV to teach Mandarin to foreigners (2009)
  • 新葫蘆兄弟 – newer adaptation of the Chinese cartoon “Huluwa” (2016)
  • 惹上冷殿下 – Mainland Chinese “idol drama” called “Accidentally in Love” (2018)
  • 绅探 – Detective series set in Shanghai in the 30s called “Detective L” (2019)
  • 我的前半生 – Mainland Chinese drama series called “The First Half of my Life” (2017)
  • 欢乐颂 – A Mainland Chinese drama about five women who live on the 22nd floor of an apartment complex in Shanghai called “Ode To Joy” (2016)
  • 爱情公寓 – a sitcom from Mainland China called “iPartment” (2009)
  • 下一站是幸福 – Mainland Chinese television series about a love story between an accomplished career woman and a younger man, English title: “Find yourself” (2020)
  • 我只喜欢你 – Mainland Chinese TV-series called “Le Coup De Foudre” (2019)
  • 世界青年说 – Mainland Chinese talk-show that hosts a panel of foreigners living in China, holding discussions in Mandarin on various topics and issues called “A Bright World” (2015)
  • 奔跑吧兄弟 – Mainland Chinese reality game show called “Running Man” (2014-2016)

Mandarin Chinese TV shows and series for advanced learners

  • 锵锵三人行 – Famous talk show produced in Hongkong (1998 – 2017)
  • 铁齿铜牙纪晓岚 – This Mainland Chinese historical television series is about philosopher-politician Ji Xiaolan and based on events during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor in the Qing dynasty. English title: “The Eloquent Ji Xiaolan” (2002 – 2010)
  • 雍正王朝 – Mainland Chinese historical television series called “Yongzheng Dynasty” (1999)
  • 走向共和 – Mainland Chinese historical television series about the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China called “For the Sake of the Republic” (2003)
  • 人民的名义 – Mainland Chinese TV drama series about government corruption, considered as the Chinese version of House of Cards. English title: “In the Name of the People” (2017)
  • 精英律师 – Mainland Chinese drama series called “The Gold Medal Lawyer” (2019)
  • 都挺好 – Mainland Chinese family called “All is well” (2019)

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese on YouTube

Chinese lessons on YouTube

These YouTube channels offer Mandarin video lessons and are worth checking out. Difficulty level, use of English, teaching experience, teaching style and pace vary. In my personal YouTube top 10 I discuss them in more detail.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Textbooks

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Books about learning Mandarin

Best Mandarin Chinese Learning Resources: Chinese learning forums

Chinese learning forums: here you can ask questions, share knowledge and connect with other learners. You got a particular Mandarin learning problem you’re struggling with? You need help with a translation? Here you’ll probably find the right answer and the help you need.

  • Chinese Forums – Longstanding forum for learners of the Chinese language. It’s hard to find a Mandarin-related topic that hasn’t been covered on this forum.
  • Chinese Stack Exchange – Another longstanding forum for students, teachers, and linguists discussing the ins and outs of the Chinese language. Extensive list of topics and questions.
  • Pleco Software Forum – Online community of Pleco dictionary users.
  • Reddit’s r/ChineseLanguage – Questions and answers on almost any topic related to Mandarin.
  • WordReference.com – For any linguistic questions related to Mandarin and translations between Chinese and any other language.
  • Duolingo Chinese Forum – Online community of Duolingo Mandarin learners.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Dictionaries

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Dictionary apps

  • Pleco – Dictionary app with handwriting recognition, Hanzi stroke animations, audio pronunciation, document reader, flashcard system (premium feature), full-screen handwriting input and live camera-based character search (premium feature) and other features. [free / $$$]
  • Hanping Chinese Dictionary Lite – Dictionary app with Chinese handwriting recognition, Hanzi stroke animations, audio pronunciation, soundboard for Pinyin and other features [free] or Hanping Chinese Dictionary Pro with even more Hanzi stoke animations, AnkiDroid Flashcards support and additional premium features. [$$$]

Related posts

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Popup dictionaries for browsers

Mandarin Chinese learning resources: Web dictionaries for Mandarin Chinese

  • Chinese Pinyin Converter – Not a dictionary but a tool that helps you reading difficult texts by adding Pinyin, highlighting tones, extracting vocabulary lists etc. [free]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Grammar

Yes, Mandarin Chinese does have grammar.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Reading Material 

When it comes to improving your reading skills in Mandarin the main challenge is to find proper texts that suit your level and needs. Paid online resources tend to offer a wider range of materials and additional features. Below I listed some free and paid resources with an indication of their difficulty level.

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Free online resources

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Non-free online resources

  • The Chairman’s Bao – Comprehensive news-based graded reader for students of Chinese, lots of new articles added weekly (all levels)
  • Du Chinese – Popular Mandarin reading app, intuitive and practical interface, includes English translations (all levels)

Mandarin Chinese reading resources: Graded readers and more

One thing that cannot be stressed enough is the importance of reading when learning Mandarin, especially so-called extensive reading, which is basically reading as broadly as you can within your level. Not just for more advanced learners, but for beginners too! That’s where graded readers come in. They help your brain to adapt to Hanzi, speed up your reading and – perhaps most importantly – to grow your vocabulary.

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Flashcards & Vocabulary Training

The following apps operate with a spaced repetition system to help you handle large quantities of new vocabulary. Each has its unique features:

  • Pleco – Its built-in flashcard system allows you to create flashcards quickly based on dictionary entries. Very comfortable if Pleco is already your dictionary of choice. The flashcard feature is a paid add-on module that includes HSK word lists. [$$$]
  • Skritter – Skritter (for Android and iOS) also provides a built-in flashcard system and lots of pre-made word lists to choose from. The app does a good job on introducing new vocabulary with examples too. Skritter’s “core business” is improving Hanzi writing skills though. [$$$]
  • Anki – Supposedly less user-friendly, but very effective flashcard tool once you know how this free computer software works. Plenty of shared decks for Chinese provided by other learners you can profit from. Anki is also available as app for Android (free) and iOS ($$$).
  • Daily Chinese – Simple & effective vocabulary trainer providing helpful ready-made word lists for intermediate and advanced learners who want to expand their vocabulary in specific areas, from economics to sports and computer software. [free / $$$]
  • Chinese Flash Cards Kit for HSK Levels 1 & 2 – Actual flashcards for Mandarin learners who prefer the old-school way (which is completely fine).

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Writing Characters

Learn to write Chinese characters by using “old-fashioned” books or an app like Skritter that instantly corrects every wrong stroke or dot (and more beyond):

  • Skritter – Probably is the number-one application for writing and understanding Chinese characters, also well-known for its spaced repetition supported vocabulary training. [free / $$$]
  • Reading and Writing Chinese (2,349 Chinese Characters and 5,000+ Compounds) – Guide to reading and writing Chinese characters, both simplified and traditional, study book as well as resource for reference. [$$$]
  • Scripts by Drops – A popular app that introduces Chinese characters and radicals, offering a gamified learning experience for visual learners. [free / $$$]
  • Daily Mandarin – A very basic app, designed to practice writing all level HSK characters. [free]
  • Kangxi – A game-based app that helps you group characters by their radicals. [free]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Apps for Mandarin Chinese

A selection of popular and less popular apps that give a taste of the language and help expand your Mandarin skills in an entertaining way.

  • HelloChinese – A gamified learning app for absolute beginners with many free lessons. [free / $$$]
  • LingoDeer – Language learning app that offers a solid introduction to beginners, many features behind paywall, similar to Duolingo. [free / $$$]
  • NinChanese – A gamified learning platform that is based on the HSK curriculum. [free / $$$]
  • Pandanese – Vocabulary training platform, browser-only, with free trial. [free / $$$]
  • Drops – Learn vocabulary through mini-games and mnemonics, free version is limited to one 5-minute session per day. [free / $$$]
  • Memrise A gamified flashcard app that uses spaced repetition to support your vocabulary learning. [free / $$$]
  • Learn Chinese – ChineseSkill – A learning app for Mandarin Chinese beginners offering a variety of mini-lessons. [free / $$$]
  • Infinite Chinese – A learning app based on interactive mini-games. [free]
  • Super Chinese – A gamified learning app with animated videos and thematic lessons. [free / $$$]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: Online Tutors and Language Partners

Tutoring platforms help to match teachers to students who want to learn a new language. They allow you to book classes directly with a (Chinese) teacher. Usually, these lessons are more like complementary learning sessions than a structured, step-by-step course.

  • Italki – An online tutoring platform with probably the biggest range of teachers to choose from. [$$$]
  • Verbling – An online tutoring platform similar to Italki. [$$$]
  • Preply – Find native speakers and certified private tutors. [$$$]
  • Amazingtalker – An online tutoring platform that connects students with language teachers. [$$$]
  • HelloTalk – Phone app for finding language tandem partners. [free]
  • Instant Mandarin – A 1-to-1 online Chinese learning platform with certified Chinese tutors [$$$]

Best Resources for learning Mandarin Chinese: HSK

More on Kaohongshu

5 apps that help you to understand and write Chinese characters

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From the great number of apps that claim to boost your Mandarin skills only a few focus specifically on understanding and writing Chinese characters. I tested five of them and only one application really convinced me. Here’s my top 5 of apps for learning Hanzi.

Learning Chinese characters is difficult. In my view, it’s not so much the ancient writing system itself that poses a problem, but primarily the teaching and study methods we use for Hanzi which can be awful. Even in this decade of the 21st century, lots of people continue to “binge-write” Hanzi (for example write the character 爱 30 times) hoping that this somehow is enough for our brain. There’s nothing wrong with diligence, is this really the best method we got though?

Let’s imagine for one second that our best teaching methods and study practices can flow into an app that makes learning Hanzi easier, more efficient and fun, both for beginners and more experienced learners. Which apps can meet these straightforward qualifications?

5. Daily Mandarin

Daily Mandarin Hanzi practice for iOS
88.8 MB, iOS only

Daily Mandarin is a very basic app designed to practice writing all level HSK characters and uhm.. that’s about it. You simply open one of the six well-known HSK-vocabulary lists in the app, select a character you want to practice and the app will show the stroke order and play the audio. If you feel you’re getting the hang of it, hide the stroke order. Additionally, you can look up characters with the search function. The app is completely free.

Unlike Scripts, Daily Mandarin is not very practical in terms of daily use. Where to start with 5000 characters to learn? How to memorize them all? These questions need answering, but Daily Mandarin doesn’t give any clues, let alone any form of spaced repetition. It’s pretty much like being handed a dictionary. This reveals a lack of didactic considerations on the side of the developers. Besides, they could have made the character writing smoother.

Bottom line: Daily Mandarin is a potentially helpful app, but how to properly use it remains unclear.

4. Scripts

"Scripts by Drops": Learn Chinese characters, the Korean alphabet or the Japanese writing system with illustrations and mini games.
31 MB, Android and iOS

Scripts by Drops is a popular app for introducing you to new writing systems, Chinese Hanzi being one of them. It’s designed for a gamified learning experience, making the first steps into the world of Hanzi as amusing and colorful as possible.

The free version allows you to learn the most common radicals, including stroke order, visualized meaning and pronunciation, for five minutes. After this 5-minute session you have to wait for ten hours to have another go. Why? Well, to quote the app developers:

Limiting learning time may sound counter-intuitive but it makes Drops Scripts incredibly addictive. And that’s a good thing in terms of language learning. The obstacles standing in your way of finally starting to read and write in a new language are made obsolete. No excuses: you ALWAYS have 5 minutes!

Addiction in this particular case indeed isn’t a bad thing. Being limited to 5-minute sessions is though. The only solution – you guessed it – is to upgrade to the premium version which offers you:

  • Access to BOTH Scripts and Drops Premium
  • Unlimited practice session times
  • More topics
  • No ads and offline access

Which – to be honest – is not that spectacular – assuming we’re only interested in writing Hanzi (Scripts) and less in learning vocabulary (Drops). Browsing the free version of Scripts I merely noticed the usual list of Hanzi radicals which you can find almost anywhere. What’s more, study all of them is not necessary for beginners – apart from being pretty dull – since most radicals are character components, not actual characters that you use on a daily basis! Moreover, you first have to know a substantial number of Chinese characters to grasp and appreciate the actual use of (all) radicals. So for me to purchase the premium version I’d definitely need to see a broader variety of content first.

Apart from this lack of vocabulary, the biggest downside is – as we now know – intended: the 5-minute session limit. This makes the free version almost useless for beginners, because 5 minutes simply isn’t enough. Going premium currently costs €5/month (yearly subscription) or € 8.49 (monthly subscription).

3. Kangxi

KangXi: learn characters by their radicals
Size 12,9 MB, free, iOS only

Kangxi is a fun app which focuses on radicals. Basically it’s a game in which you match characters with the same radical as quick as you can. There are five HSK levels to choose from, audio and traditional characters included. It’s a quick and painless method to boost your knowledge of radicals and certainly worth a try.

The only issue I have with the Kangxi app is that in some cases knowing the radical isn’t very advantageous. The developer arguably could have picked more ‘meaningful’ semantic components instead, but then the app wouldn’t be called Kangxi, I suppose.

2. Hanzi Study

Size 11 MB, Android only

This app should be called HSK Hanzi Study, since it ‘only’ contains the 2600 characters from the HSK-test (2.0). Hanzi study provides you with a self-paced learning structure that breaks down all that vocabulary into manageable bits, namely 6 grades with a X number of lessons.

HSK 1 consists of 9 lessons teaching you 20 words each for example. The characters in each lesson seem to be randomly put together, which in my opinion is just as good or bad as alphabetic order. You get a short “briefing” for each new character, showing:

  • Example sentences
  • Stroke order and stroke count
  • Radical of each character
  • Frequency

That’s nice! Here comes the ‘but’:

  • Upgrade needed for the test function (€2.09)
  • No audio in the free version
  • Example sentences are too difficult for beginners
  • Can’t remove Pinyin during test, no traditional characters

The app isn’t complete without the test / flashcard function. Without it, you’re only able to preview the lessons, but can’t track or indeed test your progress.

1. Skritter

Size 30 MB, for Android and iOS

Yes, yes. Skritter. For anybody serious about mastering writing Chinese characters Skritter is the best app I’ve used so far, but also one of the most expensive (monthly subscription $14.99, yearly subscription $99.99). But if you’re really invested in Mandarin and thinking long-term, Skritter probably is the number-one tool for writing Hanzi and vocabulary training.

I know this introduction has an elevator pitch tone to it, but that’s how I feel about Skritter. It’s worth checking Skritter’s browser version and especially the app. The free version naturally only offers a small taste of Skritter’s functions, where as premium subscribers get the full deal:

  • Learn to write Chinese characters and deepen your understanding of Hanzi (radicals, semantic components, stroke order)
  • Lots of content (HSK, commonly used textbooks and decks created by users)
  • Learning history and progress tracking
  • Master characters in three steps: learn, test and review with spaced repetition (this order is actually pedagogically responsible which can’t be said for all learning tools)
  • Skritter’s little game ‘Time Attack’: test your writing skills in a race against time (lots of fun, even for natives who want to refresh their handwriting)

It’s the kind of language tool I wished I had discovered earlier, because – let’s be honest here – I wasted insane amounts of time studying Hanzi with old-fashioned methods, writing, rewriting and then forgetting them again. I believe Skritter – when used properly – can ‘professionalize’ this whole process and make it more efficient and rewarding.

You not only save, but you also win time, since you can use Skritter to study anywhere and anytime you feel like it. Skritter’s SRS also makes it much harder to forget what you learned. SRS is never perfect, but it’s much better than studying at whim and more efficient in the long run. Furthermore, the app allows you to keep track of your progress, so you know exactly where you’re at and what you’ve been learning.

Does Skritter have to be so expensive? Well, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell it’s the only serious tool for writing Chinese characters on the market. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if Skritter works for you and whether or not is its money’s worth.

Of course this is list is far from complete. Which apps have been particularly helpful to your Hanzi adventure? Any apps that should be included in this list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Reading above your level: Game of Thrones in Chinese

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Reading is key to expanding your vocabulary. I finally felt ready for reading a serious work of fiction in Chinese. Not an abridged version, not a children’s edition, but the real thing. This is how it went…

Some thoughts on reading in Chinese

Not at your level

Most of the content you find free available on the web isn’t at your particular level and doesn’t necessarily fit in with the vocabulary and sentence patterns you’ve covered so far. Graded readers are the best solution, but their pricey – you want to read more than just one – and chiefly written for beginners and lower intermediates. So once you’re past that level, there’s practically everything and nothing you could pick to read.

Don’t read about the southward expansion during the Qin Dynasty

If you do wish to continue reading, best pick a topic you’re familiar with. If it’s a book, choose one you know by heart. I’ve been looking for The Hobbit in Mandarin for example. Since I’ve read it in Dutch and English, I’m already familiar with the names, places and storyline. I merely have to get used to Gandalf speaking Mandarin to Bilbo and the dwarfs.

Weixin Dushu app by Tencent
The app Weixin DuShu by Tencent

Weixin DuShu – 微信读书

I used the app called Weixin DuShu, produced by Tencent and somewhat similar to Amazon’s Kindle. It’s usually linked to a WeChat account and not that well-known outside of China. It’s main attraction: it gives access to a great number of Chinese books.

Tencent…?

Tencent, by the way, was the company that released a mobile game titled “Clap for Xi Jinping: An Awesome Speech“, in which players have 19 seconds to generate as many claps as possible for Xi. Another interesting fact is that they got this big mainly by piracy or like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group stated, “The problem with Tencent is the lack of innovation; all of their products are copies.” Worst of all, the Chinese company plays a major role in mass surveillance and implementing censorship in China.

The app itself

Weixin DuShu is not optimized for language learning, but it does allow you to look up words in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary or underline certain characters. It’s not completely free. You enjoy unlimited access to the Weixin library for about a month, than you have to pay to read on. This can be avoided if others send you a book invitation and it seems you then can keep on reading for “free” more or less permanently.

Some features I find useful:

  • Change the font size: reading slightly larger characters can make reading a lot more comfortable.
  • Search the Chinese-Chinese dictionary or search the web: unfortunately, no English translation included.
  • Listening: the AI voice isn’t even that bad! You can listen entire chapters conveniently on your phone or tablet.
  • Offline-mode: continue reading when you’re offline.
  • Comment function: Nobody likes library books with little scribbles all over, but in this app everybody can comment on a word or passage. Not essential, but nice anyway.

Reading Game of Thrones in Chinese

Now to the book itself. Reading the first volume of the series proofed more difficult than I thought. Except for graded readers I’d never read a whole novel written in Mandarin before. Here’s what I struggled with:

Unknown vocabulary…

It’s words like usurper (篡夺者), lord (贵族), bastard (私生子女), armor (甲胄), queen mother (母后) that are new to me. The same goes for vocabulary like loot (洗劫), heir (继承人), the king slayer (弑君者), pray (祝祷) and many other less frequently used words.

Chengyu or Chinese idioms

If you’re familiar with the mostly four character idioms: great. If you aren’t, you’re left to guess. Sometimes they could just mean anything! Here’s a selection of the chengyu I encountered while reading the first chapters:

  • 措手不及 – be caught unprepared
  • 大失所望 – to one’s great disappointment
  • 摇摇摆摆 – swaggering
  • 视如无睹 – take no notice of what one sees
  • 口无遮拦 – have a loose tongue
  • 自然而然 – naturally
  • 甜言蜜语 – sweet words and honeyed phrases
  • 野心勃勃 – be overweeningly ambitious
  • 名垂青史 – go down in history
  • 忠心耿耿 – loyal and devoted

Much description…

Although compared to J.R.R. Tolkien George R.R. Martin’s novels are written more straightforwardly and the narration flows much quicker, the author does have lots of heroes and history to introduce to get the story going. Martin takes his time describing swords and the history and mindset of the royal houses. Sometimes minor details contain important clues about places, characters or events. This doesn’t make for easy reading.

The names…

With every royal house having its own family history, the story shifting back and forth between different places and protagonists, remembering all the names is tricky enough, even in English. But in Chinese the who-is-who turns into a guessing game of a whole different category. Sometimes you don’t even recognize the characters at hand as a name. Judging from the sound of the Pinyin you may connect “Nai de” to “Ned” and “Shi ta ke” to “Stark” or – more likely – you don’t and wonder who the hell “Qiong en Xue nuo” is (it’s Jon Snow) and why a person named “Robb” should be called “Luo bai” and so on.

Like others before me I don’t get the “system” behind the translations, but I accept them. A few more examples:

  • 艾德·史塔克
  • 凱特琳·史塔克
  • 羅柏·史塔克
  • 珊莎·史塔克
  • 艾莉亞·史塔克
  • 布蘭·史塔克
  • 席恩·葛雷喬伊
  • 瓊恩·雪諾
  • 提利昂·蘭尼斯特
  • 詹姆·蘭尼斯特
  • 瑟曦·蘭尼斯特

A longer list you can find here. I’ll put out the English names in the comments later on.

Overall difficulty

For an upper intermediate learner like me (HSK 5 / 6 – for what it’s worth) who has watched the entire series the novel is still astonishingly tough to read in Mandarin and I didn’t make it all the way through. I did manage to pick up some speed (still 10 times slower than me reading in English), combining and switching between two reading styles: Intensive reading for detail, extensive reading for speed and breadth. It still took me ages to finish the first five chapters, so I guess I have to admit that this novel is above my level still. The experiment was enjoyable though. I did learn lots of new details that somehow didn’t make it into the series, not to mention words like bastard (私生子女!) and king slayer (弑君者!) in Chinese.

Do you have any thoughts on reading in Chinese? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Ideology in Chinese textbooks

Chinese learning materials have improved a lot over the last 50 years, however more often than not the Chinese learner gets that feeling of being stuck in an artificial world while the real thing – authentic communication – is being kept away from him. But what happens when this artificial world is an ideological world?

Every learner of Mandarin is familiar with it: dialogues that are written just to present grammar patterns and a bunch of key vocabulary; fictional characters that talk like robots, exchanging bits of information nobody cares about. Some new stuff is introduced, then everything gets explained with multiple examples, exceptions and little footnotes. The learner is supposed to do a number of exercises and after all that he should be able to reproduce most of that on his own and then move on to the next chapter. Furthermore, he’s expected to progress at an ever steady pace, at the end of the book reaching the language level it says on the cover.

Screenshot from the Karate Kid

Now we all want to master Mandarin and speak with native-like fluency. What we don’t want is to linger in this artificial realm where non-existing people have endless minimalist conversations like “ni shi Jianadaren ma? wo bu shi Jianadaren, wo shi Meiguoren.” and so on. We don’t want to be children in our target language, we want to be treated like adults from the start. Like in the movie The Karate Kid the black belt is our goal, but we’d like to skip the part with the hard work and suffering.

Ideology and politics

But there is something far worse. Learning materials thankfully have evolved away from that, though not completely. And you could even argue that it’s impossible for any foreign language textbooks to be completely “clean” of it. Older learners who started learning Chinese in Mainland China way back still remember in particular. It’s the presence of ideology and politics in textbooks.

Although this probably has to do less with didactic aspects than it has to do with the simple fact that back in the time of Mao everything was about ideology and politics. Whoever wanted to understand China had to read Mao and the founding stories of that era. Everything referred to that particular set of beliefs and principles of Mao’s political system and the party. You just couldn’t escape it.

In fact, all that was very relevant. Let’s not forget the communists had kicked all foreigners out of the country. Those few foreigners who did come from abroad to visit the People’s Republic of China had good reasons to know their deal about Maoist China and it’s main narrative. After all they had to know how to behave diplomatically in the New China and not to hurt anybody’s feelings.

The Chinese Reader (1972, Beijing)

The Chinese Reader series, 1972, Beijing

This Chinese reader published in Beijing in 1972 is a perfect example of how politics infiltrated the study of Mandarin on every level. This series of readers was developed for intermediate learners. And in some ways I’m surprised by its quality. The chapters are well arranged, the characters nice and clear to read. Black and white drawings visualize what you’re reading. There’s even one color picture of the Great Wall. You’d expect that 50 years later the books would be falling apart, but clearly they refuse to do so.

Sacrifices for a socialist future

The first book starts out with the founding of the PRC, looks back on the Second Sino-Japanese war and shares many “educational” stories about the Mao-era, like the student girl from Shanghai who is sent to the countryside to learn from the poor peasants. It also contains a speech from the Chairman where he urges his countrymen to make sacrifices for the great cause, even to die if need be. It’s rather heavy stuff that would repel any present-day learner who’ll probably ask what all this propaganda is doing there in the first place. Let’s say it’s a different experience…

Dong Cunrui – a true warrior

Dong Cunrui, a Chinese warrior hero?

But it doesn’t stop there. We also meet the great war hero Dong Cunrui in the first book. It’s a short meeting, since he decides to blow himself up with dynamite to destroy a Japanese bunker, shouting “for a new China!”. There is no way to effectively place the explosives so he chooses to support the bomb with his hand, thus loosing his life. From what I hear the story of Dong Cunrui is still being told in Chinese schools today. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

A revolutionary party is, in its essence, the party of its leader that carries out his ideology and cause, and the main thing in its building is to ensure the unitary character and inheritance of his ideology and leadership.

Kim Jong-Un

Liu Hulan – “A great life, a glorious death”

Liu Hulan, a Chinese hero?

Where you mention Dong Cunrui, we should also not forget the Liu Hulan. She was a local communist youth leader in a village in Shanxi Province. One winter day in 1947, the Kuomintang surrounded the village and forced the whole village to gather in a temple. The nationalists started arresting several communists, including Liu Hulan. I’ll quote a fragment of the textbook here:

“敌人把刘胡兰带到了一座庙里,匪军连长恶狠狠地问 : “你叫刘胡兰?”

“刘胡兰回答 我就是刘胡兰!”

“你跟八路军哪些人走联系?”

“和谁也没联系!”

“没联系? 有人已经供出你是共产党员了!”

The army officer urges her to point out her fellow communists to them, but she refuses, saying not even for a mountain of gold would she betray them. Then she states in front of them all that she doesn’t fear death. That being said the nationalists kill her. Chairman Mao, so we continue to read, remembered her with the words: “A great life, a glorious death”. She died at the age of 14.

The English Wikipedia tells the same story in more detail. The article is surprisingly subjective and quotes only a few sources. This is how the death of the young girl is described: “During the interrogation, the Kuomintang tried every possible method to induce Liu Hulan to betray her allies. Liu Hulan refused to obey and died heroically.” It seems the story of Liu Hulan still lives on today, not least on Wikipedia.

Revolutionary vocabulary

The vocabulary which we learn in this book is probably not like anything you’ve seen before, unless you’ve been – let’s say – “politically trained” the Comintern way. It’s been said that after you read Marx, Engels and thinkers like Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse and so on you’ll never be quite the same.

But this is something different. This book is supposed to teach you a foreign language. It comes however, with a totalitarian world view that separates friend from foe and good from evil. It tells you everything you need to know to function in this new society that Mao is building, even though the Chinese reader obviously is aimed at foreigners. Let’s take a look at some randomly selected vocabulary from the book:

  • 反动派 – reactionary faction (in other words everyone against communism)
  • 帝国主义 – imperialism (those nations who brought humiliation upon China by claiming parts of it)
  • 机枪 – machine gun (power comes from the barrel of a gun, right?)
  • 机械化 – mechanize (remember the Great Leap Forward?)
  • 进攻 – to attack
  • 开国 – the founding of a country
  • 叛徒 – traitor
  • 破坏 – to destroy
  • 强迫 – to force
  • 手榴弹 – hand grenade
  • 牺牲 – to sacrifice (one’s life) (this seems to be the main message in most of the chapters)

Ideology-free learning?

Mao's red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng
Mao’s red bible being sold on a street market in Kaifeng near the Henan University

I know the examples I brought here are rather extreme, but then again, Marx, Lenin and Mao still play a major part in the education of Chinese children today. However nowadays Mao’s red book is sold on the streets for little money and people don’t seem to care so much. Nobody will blame you if you don’t know your Mao-bible by heart or – for that matter – decide to sell it. Western tourists pay good money for it. But does that mean the end of ideology in Chinese textbooks for non-native learners? Have we really moved on? It actually made me think of the deeper question whether it’s possible to learn a foreign language WITHOUT absorbing (some of) its values…

What are your thoughts on this topic? Would you say your Chinese books are ideology-free? Please feel free to comment below.

Flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

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Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition vocabulary trainer and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different

  • It’s Pleco’s built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s sort of natural to build your own flashcard lists and use Pleco as a all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.
  • Can be combined with the Pleco reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text.
  • The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Sound is integrated.
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards.
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices.
  • The current US-price is $9.99 for Android and iOS.

What makes Anki unique

  • Is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects.
  • You can create your own flashcards. You want to make a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences? No problem. You want to make a set of the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing? No problem. You can make whatever set you want.
  • You can import lists from the Anki community which has a lot to offer to Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and translations in numerous languages. There is one “but”: they are not always free of mistakes.
  • Sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all sets have sound.
  • The desktop- and android- version of the software are free, the iOS-version costs 27,99€. Anki used to be considered a desktop-based application.

The limitations of Anki and Pleco

Both won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example or improving your listening skills. That’s not their purpose.

For what purpose they should be used

However, Anki and Pleco are powerful tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will support you to structure the reviewing process. “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days.

That’s where both apps are most helpful. Reviewing with spaced repetition software is a healthy habit to cultivate, but it should never be your main focus, since there is no such thing as reviewing for the sake of reviewing. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes everyday.

Which to pick?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

Why many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner actually used both apps and at the end clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

While other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. Maybe you want to create your own deck of grammar points or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes. Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

Which app is most popular?

I have noticed though that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first-time users.

Anyway, let me know what you think about Pleco or Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.

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