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Chinese is one of the most widely-used languages in the world, with over a billion speakers. It is also one of the oldest languages in the world, dating back to around 1200 BC!
Of course, when we say Chinese, what we really mean is Mandarin. Keep in mind that Chinese is the race/nationality, while Mandarin is the language.
Given how many in the world speak the language, it’s no wonder that Chinese is one of the most popular second languages to pick up. One of the best ways to learn Chinese, especially if you’re a total beginner, is to use a combination of Chinese learning apps on your trusty mobile phone.
My experience with learning Chinese
I am a native speaker and I’ve studied the language since I was 6. I can tell you now that one of the best reasons to use an app to learn Chinese is because of how complicated and intricate the language is.
I once visited Mainland China when I was 16 and, while visiting an old courthouse, I pointed out that the character for people had an extra stroke. The guide then proceeded to tell me that the court official who first took up office intentionally made the mistake.
It was to remind himself to always put the people first, and thus added that extra stroke for emphasis! These sorts of nuances are impossible to replicate and explain in other languages!
Add to that the different characters (Simplified vs Traditional Chinese), different dialects, and different writing and phonetic systems (Hanyu pinyin vs Tongyong pinyin, mainly used in Taiwan), and what you have is a language that will truly take a long time to master.
A mix of apps to learn Chinese
With Chinese learning apps, you can take as much time as you need and proceed at a pace you’re comfortable with. A mix of apps to tackle different skills will help you master Mandarin effectively.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can build conversational skills with Pimsleur and practice speaking Mandarin using apps like italki or Lingbe. It’s a lot to unpack for sure but for now, let’s look at the top apps to learn Chinese:
Best apps to learn Chinese from scratch
One of the toughest challenges of learning Chinese (Mandarin) is learning new words and characters. That’s because there isn’t technically a Chinese “alphabet”.
Rather, there is a collection of strokes known as bushou (radicals) that SOMETIMES help learners identify and discern the possible meaning of a character or word.
Each stroke can be combined in innumerous ways to form the 378,000-odd characters in the language. Unfortunately, radicals in the Chinese language generally do not help with pronunciation.
As a native speaker, I can tell you that the only way to learn and master new words in Chinese is simply to expose yourself to the language as much as possible and to consistently practice. To start, consider these apps.
One of the top apps to learn Chinese is Mondly. This is mainly because the app gamifies the process of learning. What’s more, each lesson only lasts a few minutes and they focus on getting the learner familiar with basic words such as greetings and common vocabulary.
For a character-heavy language like Mandarin, this is one way to keep learners engaged and interested. In addition, the interactive component is a great way to help learners practice without making the process feel tedious.
Why we love Mondly:
- Offers a casual, fun way to learn and practice new words
- Appropriately-timed lessons to maximize information retention
- Lessons split up by category for an easier learning experience
Devices: Mondly is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
One of the things that make Rocket Chinese one of the best apps to learn Chinese is the fact that it also incorporates cultural nuances into its lessons. Not only does this make the lessons more interesting, it also helps learners establish a basic understanding of how Chinese characters and words are formed.
The app offers a wide range of different lessons and courses. These include audio and video lessons, writing practice (super important), vocabulary, and more. Most lessons are also based on real-life conversations so you can get a basic idea of what to expect when speaking the language.
All in all, Rocket Chinese aims to create an immersive environment for the learner and I certainly believe this helps when learning a language as complicated as Mandarin Chinese.
Why we love Rocket Languages:
- Exposes learners to Chinese culture
- Creates an immersive environment for holistic learning
- Lessons help to get learners into the habit of listening and speaking in Mandarin
Price: Lifetime access starts from $149.95. Alternatively, you can opt for a six-month payment plan at $47/month. It’s expensive, but worth it.
Devices: Rocket Languages is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
If you’re looking to build your vocabulary (which, in my opinion, is the most important thing to be doing when learning Mandarin), the one app that you should seriously consider is MosaLingua.
The main goal of this app is to help learners expand their word bank in a short amount of time. It mainly uses flashcards to introduce users to essential words and phrases with the long-term goal of helping them communicate effectively and fluently.
Each lesson lasts only about 10 minutes and includes listening and pronunciation lessons to boot!
Why we love MosaLingua:
- Fully focused on helping learners learn essential words and phrases
- Includes audio lessons to help learners nail pronunciation
- Short daily lessons that can be fit into most busy schedules
Price: Monthly subscription of $9.50/month or a yearly plan at $59.90 after your free trial. Try it now.
Devices: MosaLingua is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
Duolingo is arguably one of the best casual language-learning apps around. It is also one of the top apps to learn Chinese in a fun, entertaining way. Much like MosaLingua, Duolingo is a flashcard app that introduces learners to new words and phrases.
The app puts users into the mindset of achieving daily learning goals and uses personalized lessons to help them on their language learning journey. However, as much as Duolingo feels like a casual mobile game, it’s actually quite effective!
In addition to sending you daily new words, it also comes with comprehension and pronunciation exercises!
Why we love Duolingo:
- Promotes learning in a fun, interactive way
- Short lessons that focus on essential vocabulary
- Gamified lessons to help learners settle into a comfortable pace of learning
Price: Duolingo Plus costs $9.99/month and gives you ad-free lessons and offline accessibility.
Another great app for learning Chinese in a fun way is Memrise, a flashcard-based app that places plenty of emphasis on practicing what you’ve learned. Rather than throwing new words in your face and hoping the learner gets it, the app continually encourages the reader to revisit and review past lessons.
Apart from the great vocabulary lessons, Memrise also features audio lessons to improve your listening and pronunciation. These clips are recorded by native speakers so you know you’re in for some quality learning.
What’s more, Memrise is also one of the best apps for traveling in China (or other Mandarin-speaking destinations). That’s because it has a feature that turns your phone camera into a live Chinese translation app! How convenient!
Why we love Memrise:
- Regular practice sessions to commit new words to long term memory
- Audio lessons that double up as fantastic pronunciation guides
- Offers an instant translation feature using the phone camera
Price: Premium access starts at $8.99/month while lifetime access costs $139.99
In terms of writing, Skritter is easily the best app to learn how to write Chinese. While it relies on spaced repetition to help users learn new words, it has one particular feature that sets it apart: The on-screen handwriting feature.
The app teaches you, stroke by stroke, how to write different Chinese characters. Not only can you use it to practice what you know, but it also helps you to acquire even more new vocabulary.
And, as a bonus, it also teaches you how one stroke (or lack of) can completely change the meaning of a particular word or character. All in all, I consider Skritter an important app for learning Chinese you really shouldn’t miss.
Why we love Skritter:
- Unique handwriting feature to practice writing
- Great app to learn how to read and write Mandarin Chinese
- A hands-on way to learn vocabulary and commit them to memory
Price: Subscription plans start from $14.99/month. Longer-term subscriptions cost less on average.
Devices: Skritter is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android). Make your account via this link.
LingoDeer is the perfect app to learn Chinese for those who thrive on independent learning. Unlike most apps that look to gradually ease users into the language, LingoDeer uses minimal English and forces the user to start learning and thinking in Mandarin instead.
As a native speaker, this is one method I can truly get behind. That’s because Chinese is a unique language that has its own system that is vastly different from what most English speakers are used to. The sooner you disassociate the two languages, the better.
The app itself covers vocabulary, writing, and conversation, among other fields and topics. What’s more, each lesson comes with some exercise and you’ll receive a breakdown of your performance to help you keep track of your progress!
Why we love LingoDeer:
- Great app to learn Chinese that’s designed for independent learners
- Helps learners immerse themselves fully in the language
- Review Mode that helps you check your progress
Price: Monthly subscription starts at $11.99; lifetime subscription is available at $119.99
For many avid learners, Anki is considered one of the best flashcard apps to learn Chinese vocabulary. Not only does the app offer a wide range of vocabulary lessons, but it also allows you to build your own personalized deck to improve on a particular field or topic.
The “lessons” also come with pronunciation guides and vivid images that help with word association. What’s more, Anki is also available on desktop, and you can sync your decks across platforms to learn anytime, anywhere.
Why we love Anki:
- Cross-platform synchronization
- Ability to create a personalized deck
- Vivid images help form strong word association for new words
Price: Free on Android devices; $25 for lifetime access on IOS
Another one of the highly recommended apps to learn Chinese is Hello Chinese. This beginner-friendly app offers plenty of short, fun lessons, writing and pronunciation practice tools, audio lessons to improve your fluency, and more.
Like most language learning apps, Hello Chinese delivers lessons via a tiered system. You’ll build your fundamentals, and then gradually improve and expand your mastery of the language.
Most importantly, the app starts by introducing you to Hanyu pinyin, the closest thing to a phonetic system in Mandarin Chinese. We’ll delve deeper into Chinese pronunciation in just a bit!
Why we love Hello Chinese:
- An extremely holistic app that covers all the basics
- Teaches users how to construct sentences from scratch
- Introduces new learners to the Mandarin Chinese phonetic system
Price: A premium plan starts from $8.99/month
Best apps for improving Chinese pronunciation
One of the most important concepts to grasp to perfect Chinese pronunciation (regardless of dialect) is intonation. In Mandarin, the phonetic system that we use to learn proper intonation is called Hanyu pinyin.
First and foremost, you’ll be happy to know that Hanyu pinyin uses roman alphabets. For example, water (水) is romanized as “shui”. More importantly, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the five intonations of Mandarin Chinese.
These are depicted by the four distinct lines that are scribbled on top of the main vowel. I say five intonations because there is also a “soft” intonation, characterized by a lack of any lines on top of the vowels. Sometimes, while typing online, we can use numbers to represent the lines.
I won’t confuse you by going any deeper but just know that proper intonation in Mandarin is the only thing that helps separate horse (ma3) and mother (ma1). With that amusing tidbit in mind, let’s check out these apps to learn Chinese pronunciation:
If you want to perfect your intonation, you’ll need to expose yourself to real-world situations. In that regard, FluentU is easily one of the best apps to learn Chinese pronunciation.
Lessons on the app turn media like music videos, movie trailers, and even news reports into personalized lessons that can greatly improve one’s pronunciation and listening skills.
The best part is that these audiovisual lessons come with interactive captions. So if you see a word you don’t understand or you’d like to know more, you can just tap on it, and the app will provide you with more information. These include definitions and examples of use.
You can then add these words to your own virtual library to revisit at a later time. Finally, each lesson is also accompanied by a quiz so you can check your progress!
Why we love FluentU:
- Audiovisual lessons that focus on real-life conversations
- Presented in an interactive and engaging way
- Ability to test one’s comprehension after every lesson
Price: $30/month or a yearly subscription at $240
Devices: FluentU is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android)
Out of all the apps to learn Chinese on this list, you could say ChineseSkill is one of the most reputable selections. That’s because the entire curriculum on the app is designed by professional Mandarin teachers from Peking University, one of China’s best universities!
The app’s main draw is its automatic speech assessment. As you might have guessed, it’s an essential tool that helps you work on and perfect your pronunciation. What’s more, there’s also an animated lesson on Hanyu pinyin intonation that I’m sure many will find helpful!
Why we love ChineseSkill:
- Features curriculum designed by some of the top experts in the field
- Great way to assess and improve one’s pronunciation
- Lessons delivered in a well-structured manner that is conducive for learning
Price: Monthly premium starts from $12.99/month while a yearly subscription is priced at $79.99
12. HSK Online
HSK Online is another highly-regarded app to learn Chinese. That’s because the curriculum follows the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), a standardized international exam that measures Mandarin proficiency.
Just like the actual exam, lessons are divided according to the level of fluency and features a truly impressive vocabulary list. In fact, it is said that many flashcard apps structure their lessons based on the ones in this app!
HSK Online is best suited for those who already have a basic grasp of the language. Its curated lesson plans are designed to hone your listening, reading, and pronunciation skills.
There are also live classes that you can join to experience what it’s like to learn Chinese in a group!
Why we love HSK Online:
- Highly-reputable curriculum
- Features live classes taught by native speakers
- Offers challenging tests to assess your proficiency in the language
Price: Lifetime access starts at $37.99
As you might have already guessed from the name, ChinesePod functions pretty much like a podcast app. It features over 4,000 audio and video lessons that are meant to help learners fully immerse themselves in the language.
Each lesson starts with a dialogue focusing on real-life conversations, followed by a breakdown of the audio clip. Users will then be able to highlight and learn vocabulary and practice pronouncing certain words and phrases using Hanyu pinyin.
Unlike most Chinese learning apps, ChinesePod offers users full control of the lesson structures: you can choose any lesson you want based on your level of proficiency and start from there.
Why we love ChinesePod:
- Offers a curriculum that is almost entirely based on audio and video lessons
- Uses content and topics from real-world conversations
- Gives learners total control over which lessons they want to choose
Price: Basic premium subscription starts at $14/month
Best apps to practice Chinese conversation
Pimsleur is easily one of the top apps to learn how to speak Chinese. The app relies on its patented Pimsleur Method, which taps on intuitive learning techniques, to help learners get comfortable with speaking Mandarin.
Lessons on Pimsleur are generally delivered via audio lessons based on real-world contexts. By listening in, you’ll be able to pick up essential vocabulary, proper pronunciation, and most importantly, conversational nuances!
Why we love Pimsleur:
- Focus given on conversational skills delivered via audio lessons
- Offers offline access and hands-free mode
- Great way to pick up essential vocabulary for specific topics
Price: $150 for a bundle of 30 lessons. Get free access for 7 days!
Devices: Pimsleur is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
Another helpful app to improve your fluency in Chinese is Busuu. It uses specific articles to teach learners essential words and phrases that they can repeat and practice. How it is most helpful is in the way that lessons are segregated and categorized.
Busuu lessons are structured according to specific themes (such as travel, dining out, and more). This means that using the wide range of materials at your disposal, you can choose to focus on honing conversational skills in a specific topic.
Whether you’re due to fly to Beijing for a work trip or going for a week-long holiday in Shenzhen, Busuu will definitely have lessons that can help you prepare for your journey! Most importantly, you can also interact with native speakers on this app, which helps prepare you for real-world conversations once you arrive!
Why we love Busuu:
- Topic-specific lessons to help learners quickly master useful conversational phrases
- A holistic app that can be accessed even while offline
- Ability to interact with native speakers
Price: Monthly premium subscription starts from approximately $11.99/month
Devices: Busuu is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android)
One of the best apps to practice Chinese conversation is italki. It’s is one of the best platforms in the world to get connected with a real-world tutor and with other learners to arrange for online tutoring sessions.
Each session lasts between 30 to 90 minutes on Skype and can range from a formal class to a simple, casual chat with native speakers.
So not only will you be able to practice conversing in Mandarin, but you can also get supplementary help and learn even more while chatting away!
Why we love italki:
- Able to participate in one-on-one sessions with tutors and other learners
- Tutors on the app offer personalized lessons
- Great way to meet and interact with native speakers in Mandarin Chinese
Price: Membership is free but lessons often start from $4-$8/hour depending on the tutor’s prices. Find a Mandarin tutor now.
Devices: Italki is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
Apart from Italki, you can also look for Chinese tutors online using Preply!
Unlike Italki though, tutoring sessions offered by Preply users are often formally structured. That’s because most users on the app are professional teachers and tutors.
Even though it isn’t as casual as Italki, you can still practice speaking in Chinese. In fact, you can even say it’s better because your tutor will know how to correct you when you say something off.
It is a great way to master the fundamentals of the Chinese language in addition to getting comfortable speaking it!
Why we love Preply:
- Well-structured one-on-one lessons designed by professionals
- Lessons often cover all the bases
- Great way to practice speaking Mandarin in a controlled environment
Price: Tutor fees vary but a good average estimate is about $14-$16/hour. Find a tutor on Preply now.
Devices: Preply is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
If you’re feeling adventurous and you really want to try conversing in Mandarin with an actual native speaker outside the comfort and security of a tutoring session, then try Lingbe. Basically, it is an app where you can call either fellow learners or native speakers and simply…talk.
You could say it’s like a phone service that’s specifically designed to help you improve your conversational skills in Mandarin. However, do take note that you’ll have to pay to have a conversation with a native speaker but chatting with fellow learners is free!
Why we love Lingbe:
- A good way to have a proper conversation with others in Mandarin Chinese
- No rigid lessons. Just talk about anything you feel like talking about!
- Fun way to get connected with fellow learners and practice speaking
Price: Conversing with fellow learners is free but a chat with a native speaker is $5/hour
Devices: Lingbe is available on the App Store (iOS) and the Google Play Store (Android).
Best free apps to learn Chinese
Here’s a harsh reality check for you: with so many different Chinese characters in the world, you will probably never be able to learn them all. Even I, a native speaker, can’t claim to know every word there is in the language.
That’s why one of the best Chinese apps to have is Pleco. It’s basically your pocket dictionary which you can bring anywhere with you. Not only can you use this free app to look up the definition of words, it also teaches you how to pronounce them!
You can look up words using a multitude of ways too: from typing Hanyu pinyin to simply drawing the characters on the screen. It also works like a Chinese-English translator! Definitely one of the best free Chinese apps to have on your phone!
Why we love Pleco:
- Handy dictionary that you can use to look up words for free
- Allows learners to look up words using different methods
- Doubles up as a basic word translator
Price: Free with in-app purchases starting from $9.99
Another free app to learn Chinese that you should consider is Standard Mandarin. Its specialty is helping learners with their pronunciation. What’s amusing is that the app also tells you which facial muscles are being used when pronouncing certain words.
Apparently, this helps to get rid of your foreign accent although we’re not too sure if that’s 100 percent effective. Regardless, if you’re looking for a free app to learn Mandarin Chinese, this is one to add to your list!
Why we love Standard Mandarin:
- Teaches proper pronunciation for free
- In-depth explanations on intonation
Price: Free; $9.99 to remove adds
Devices: Standard Mandarin is exclusively available on the App Store (iOS)
HelloTalk is almost like Lingbe: It is an app where you get to connect with other users and simply practice conversing in Mandarin Chinese.
All you have to do is download the app and sign up, state your native language and what language you want to practice speaking in, and you’ll be matched to other users that fit your criteria.
The only downside is that Hello Talk mostly caters to language learners. You may find a few native Chinese speakers on the app, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Instead, take it as an opportunity to practice speaking Chinese with fellow learners and improve together!
Why we love Hello Talk:
- A completely free social networking platform to connect with other learners
- Allows users to speak with each other over text and phone calls
Price: Free; monthly in-app purchases start from $8.99
FAQs about learning Chinese
How long will it take to master Chinese as a language?
It depends. If what you want is to be able to communicate while on holiday, you’ll probably need about a year of dedicated learning.
However, if you truly want to achieve fluency on par with a native speaker, it could literally take a lifetime. Even native speakers like myself sometimes come across words I’ve never seen before!
The tip is to not rush the process and to build a strong foundation at your own pace.
How difficult is it to learn Chinese?
The short answer is yes, at least in the beginning. Having to learn how to read, write and pronounce Mandarin characters is definitely a tough task, especially for foreign learners.
Once you’ve nailed the basics (and learned how to use a dictionary), it gets a little bit easier.
Will I be able to use the Mandarin I’ve learned across different countries?
Yes, you can! Apart from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and even countries like Malaysia and Singapore have a large number of Mandarin speakers.
While there may be some differences in localized slang terms, by and large, Mandarin in China is the same as Mandarin in Malaysia, for example.
But don’t Mainland China and Taiwan use different forms of Mandarin?
Here’s where learning Mandarin gets pretty cool. Yes, technically speaking, China and Taiwan use different characters in writing. However, despite looking different, the pronunciation, meaning, and use of the words remain unchanged.
Consider it…the same content, presented in a different style of font.
What about dialects?
The Chinese language contains an incredibly large number of dialects: Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Taiwanese, and more. However, a majority of people are able to communicate in Mandarin.
Finally, what is the best way to learn Chinese?
In addition to using a combination of apps like the ones above, I would recommend using a textbook for beginners, listening to Mandopop (Mandarin Pop), and watching some movies and shows in Chinese. Even as a native speaker, my Mandarin only started to greatly improve after I started watching TV shows regularly in the language.
A note of caution though: if you want to watch shows to improve conversational Chinese, please look for dramas set in modern-day scenarios. Otherwise, if you watch historical dramas like Three Kingdoms and imitate the way they talk, you might start sounding like a time traveler!
The most important tip I can give you though, is, once again, to take your time. Understand that Chinese is an extremely complex language that takes a long time to master. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Be consistent and eventually, you’ll get the hang of it!