The Apps I Use for Learning Chinese


Toolset Overview

At the core of my method of learning Chinese is the idea that we should copy the pronunciation of native speakers to achieve basic fluency. We should literally mock a phrase recorded by a native speaker until we begin to sound very close to them, and only then can we proceed to the next phrase. I believe that this work on pronunciation is what most of our studying should consist of until we reach elementary or intermediate level.

Luckily, there are a lot of apps these days that we can use to facilitate language learning and make the whole process quite comfortable. Today I'm going to tell you about the software I've been using for Chinese. All of it is free, opensource, and crossplatform.

I practise Chinese on my laptop. This is how my screen looks like during a typical session:



As you can see, there are just three windows:

  • The audio editor Audacity in the upper-left part of the screen.
  • The PDF that comes with the audio course (to the right).
  • A text file for notes, bookmarks, etc.

This minimalist yet powerful setup is all a self-learner like myself needs to diligently progress from total beginner to elementary/intermediate.

Let's take a closer look at each of these three windows.



Audacity is a free professional audio editor with a lot of features. As language learners, we are mostly interested in the following ones:

  • Visual waveform representation
  • Convenient loop playback
  • Adjustable playback speed

The ability to see the waveforms of the phrases you're working on saves you a lot of time and effort. You can visually identify and select the phrase you need (or its part) with your mouse. Then you can hit the space bar to play it, repeat it out loud, then hit the space bar again to play it again without having to touch any other controls, repeat it again, and so on.

In the screenshot below, you can see a dark-grey vertical rectangle. It selects the waveform of the phrase 你好 (nǐ hǎo) around the time 2m 25s of the first audio file of my Scurfield & Song course.



Sometimes the speaker on the recording fires such a mouthful that you can't even hear it clearly, let alone say it yourself. This is where playback speed feature comes in handy. In Audacity, you can adjust playback speed on the fly with 1% precision. If you're struggling with a phrase it often pays to first reduce speed to, say, 70%, then increase it by 5-10% each time you play and repeat the phrase.

Why use a heavy-weight audio editor such as Audacity instead of a media player? You could use a media player like VLC, which does allow you to put a phrase on a loop, slow down playback, and do other things. However in such software it is very difficult to accurately select the time fragment you need, whereas Audacity lets you do that with pinpoint accuracy. VLC and other players tend to produce a noticeable delay of about 0.1-2 seconds when rewinding back to the start of the fragment on loopback, which is annoying and can seriously damage your ability to copy native pronunciation.

I'm generally against overcomplicating things, and were I not learning a foreign-language I would definitely say that using a professional audio editor for playing phrases is overkill. But it is obvious that Audacity gives you a powerful performance boost. It actually simplifies things for you. So, I would call it the main software tool in our language learning toolset.


Book (PDF)

As I explain in detail here, second-language learners should first focus on listening and speaking, putting off reading and writing for as long as possible. I'm still taking my first steps in Chinese, so I should avoid reading and writing Chinese characters, as well as Pinyin.

Why do I need a book then? Well, I don't need most of its material. At this stage, I'm mainly interested in the English translations of the phrases I'm learning. Besides, the book contains valuable cultural information, for example:

"Traditionally the Chinese neither shake hands nor kiss when they meet or say goodbye..."

Of course, you can use any PDF viewer to work with the book. Just make sure that yours is convenient enough because the slightest annoyance can handicap your progress. I personally like Evince (Linux).


Text Editor

I need some kind of bookmarks to be able to quickly come back to the spot in the audio file where I left off last time and to the material of previous lessons. I daresay nothing serves this purpose better than a simple plain-text file. Here is what I put in it:



Lines like 0:16 - 0:25 represent the time ranges of new material (in minutes:seconds). I get these from Audacity's timeline. My everyday routine is to first repeat the material of yesterday's session, so I just open the audio file in Audacity and go to the time that I see on the last line in my text file (1:52 - 3:09 in the screenshot). Once I'm done with yesterday's phrases I put a tick v to the left of the corresponding time range in the text file.

At some point, I'll probably want to put down a note somewhere (in English), which can be as concise or as extensive as I wish. In this respect text files are better than built-in bookmark features in media players and PDF viewers because of plain text's versatility and flexibility.

Again, you can use any text editor you like as long as it doesn't slow down your routine or annoy you.