I have been using Skritter for years and I totally love it. This interactive online tool teaches you to learn to write Chinese characters, correcting you if you mess up the stroke order and remembering the characters you’re having trouble with. I can’t say strongly enough how much it has improved my reading ability, now that I know so many new characters. I wrote Skritter up some years ago:
Thanks to John over at Sinosplice I’ve started spending a couple of hours each day over at Skritter. If you’re working on improving your hanzi reading and/or writing skills, just go there now, sign up and start practicing. Once you sign up it starts customizing the lesson for you, repeating the characters you’ve had trouble with. Totally addictive. It’s a first: an addictive Web site that actually produces benefits. My reading ability shot up after just a few weeks. It helped me learn to spot the clues that differentiate certain characters that look annoyingly similar. It also drove home to me that memorizing characters by reading and looking at them isn’t enough. You have to write them. Priceless.
John Pasden has called it “the best online resource for practicing writing.”
The good news is that Skritter will soon be available as an iPhone app and it is outstanding. I was lucky enough to get to test it out. As I sat on long subway rides in Beijing last months, I played with the app like an addict, learning through repetition how to draw many dozens of characters, all with the correct stroke order. After a few tries, if you mess up it automatically prompts you with the next stroke. If you need help right away, you just tap the center of the screen and it gives you the prompt. Once you’ve completed the character or word, it speaks it for you. If you want to know more about a character and how it’s used there’s an Info button that shows you its usage, in both traditional and simplified Chinese. You can also import vocabulary lists from a wide variety of textbooks. And there’s lots more, such as quizzes to make sure you’re using the right tones.
If you subscribe long-term to Skritter it only costs $9.99 per month (and I am hoping the soon initiate an annual package rate). Considering the benefits, that’s a real bargain. It should be out soon; I highly recommend it.
While I’m touting Skritter let me also give a brief plug to this flashcard tool. I’ve often been skeptical about flashcards, but Remembr.it is different, helping you remember words that share the same radical and giving you a real sense of the structure of the character, which in turn helps you memorize them better. Check it out. Used together with Skritter, I’m able to keep learning to recognize new words even though I’m not in China anymore.
It’s very difficult for me to maintain my Chinese here in the US. Here in the intellectual wasteland of Phoenix there’s no school anywhere close that teaches Chinese, except to grade-school kids. There is practically no Chinese community withing 20 miles (they all live in far-off Chandler near the Intel headquarters because so many of them are engineers or have PHDs in computer science). To help me at least maintain my Chinese I also use Echinese Learning, which offers private lessons with the same teacher via Skype. (The teachers are all in Xi’An.) It gives me a chance to practice my conversational/listening abilities, and the teachers — I’ve tried four of them — are patient and knowledgeable. The only headache is the time zone difference, which means I can only schedule classes between 4 – 9pm. For maintenance, it’s perfect for me.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.