Skritter iPhone App and other Chinese learning tools

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 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.


The “Bi” word

An American translator in Beijing reflects on the word niubi and what makes it so difficult to translate, and it’s a delightful read. A taste:

On the face of it, niubi is not untranslatable at all: the characters niu and bi can be rendered into English with great precision by the words – and I beg your pardon – ‘cow pussy’, niu being the zoological reference, bi the anatomical. But though the denotation of niubi is embarrassingly plain, it’s connotations are far from obvious.

Niubi is a term of approbation, perhaps the greatest such term in colloquial Chinese. Niubi is an attitude, a lifestyle: a complete lack of concern over what other people think of you, and the resulting freedom to do whatever you please. It is knowing exactly what you’re capable of, making the decision to act, and to hell with the consequences. It is the essence of ‘cool’, but taken to the nth degree, and with a dirty word thrown in.

Of course, like all great philosophical concepts, niubi has an inverse side – an excess of niubi leads to self-importance, arrogance, hubris, imperiousness, and very dangerous driving.

His examples of what makes someone a niubi alone are worth the price of admission. Don’t miss it.


Taiwan seeks World Heritage status – for traditional Chinese characters

I’m not making it up:

Taiwan plans to apply for World Heritage status for the complex Chinese characters that China stopped using after 1949 but Taiwan continues to use today, President Ma Ying-jeou said Saturday. “In order to preserve the world’s oldest and most beautiful language, I have entrusted minister without portfolio Ovid Tzeng to prepare for making the application,” he told an international seminar on teaching Chinese, held in Taipei.

Ma said he has asked Tseng to “actively apply” for world heritage status for complex Chinese characters, but did not say when Taipei will make the application.

Ma reiterated his appeal to China that the Chinese mainland, while using the simplified Chinese characters, should still let people know how to read the complex characters.

And from the AFP yesterday:

Ma said he was afraid that the traditional system, which he said was a “beautiful language” that has documented China’s history for more than 3,000 years, was giving way to the simplified one.

“Only about 40 million people in the world, mostly in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are using traditional Chinese characters,” Ma said while addressing hundreds of Chinese-language experts at a seminar in Taipei Saturday, according to a statement published on the presidential office website.

“The number accounts for a marginal one-33rd of the people using the simplified system,” he added.

Ma said he had ordered the government to set up a special committee tasked with pressing the UN to place the traditional Chinese characters on its world cultural heritage list.

I’ve heard all the arguments about why each system is better, and even heard arguments for the abolition of both in favor of pinyin. (This site has some interesting thoughts on the subject.) All I can do is speak for myself. I started learning traditional characters in Taiwan and after a year switched to simplified when I moved to the motherland at the end of 2006. The verdict: simplified characters are a hell of a lot easier to memorize, and traditional are undoubtedly more like works of art. Easier doesn’t mean better. Esperanto is probably a lot simpler to learn than English, but I want to read Shakespeare and Milton and Dan Brown in their native language.

No matter which you feel is better, is Ma’s approach a sensible one? It almost has the makings of a publicity stunt. What will World Heritage status actually mean for traditional Chinese?

Thanks to the reader who sent me this story and links. It’s a strange one.


Did you know….

…that half of China’s population cannot speak Mandarin? I knew it was a large number, but fifty percent?!