The Chinese-learning community is all aflutter over Skritter. This is the highly anticipated iOS version of the popular web-based tool for learning Chinese, particularly writing hanzi with correct stroke order. Although I haven’t yet talked about the web version here, I jumped on the chance to review the app (thanks to Nick at Skritter for making it available in beta and to Marjolein @CleverClogs for putting us in touch).
The app itself is free, but to take full advantage of it, you need to subscribe to the Skritter service. You get a week’s free trial when you create an account, so that should give you a reasonable chance to see if you want to pay for a subscription. The following review assumes a subscriber account.
More than just a writing trainer, Skritter for iOS can be set to test you on any combination of the following skills: writing hanzi, knowing the pinyin of words, knowing the tones of words, and knowing their definition (toggle each type of question on or off under Settings>;Vocab).
The testing uses a spaced repetition algorithm so that new words are added gradually and ones that you know less well are tested again sooner. You can adjust the rate at which new words are added; you can also tell the app to add some new words (ranging from 1 to 144) whenever you like by tapping the + icon.
You can study simplified or traditional characters, or both at once.
The pinyin and definition questions are in a familiar format; they simply ask whether you know the pinyin or the definition; you think about it and indicate whether you do or not on a scale of “not yet—so-so—got it—easy.”
The tone questions, however, require you to answer by drawing the tone mark(s) of a given word. Note that this is not strictly a listening comprehension activity, since you are prompted with a definition, although you can play audio during it.
Training you to write hanzi properly, however, is where Skritter really shines. Your writing is rendered with a virtual ink that is very smooth. Your handwritten strokes are converted to a standard font, but you have the option of leaving your handwritten strokes visible along with the standardized ones (look for “raw squigs” in the Settings; see the images at the beginning of this review and below).
You get a prompt with at least a definition (pinyin can appear by default in the prompt or you can hide it so that pinyin only appears if you tap). Audio can be played automatically, and/or by tapping the speaker icon. If you hide the pinyin, of course, you may be fooled by synonyms. For the “bon voyage” prompt (see image below), I first thought it was 一 路平安, but it was actually 一路顺风; accessing the pinyin or audio will clear up any ambiguity.
If you write an incorrect stroke, you will see a hint as to what it should have been. If your stroke is slightly off, you may see a tip like “backwards” or “should hook.” In general, the stroke recognition works very well, although I found that I had to exaggerate some of my strokes, particularly hooked ones. It can keep up with quite fast writing, as long as the writing is not sloppy. You can adjust how much the app cares about your stroke order in the Settings.
If you don’t know the next stroke, you can tap the screen for a hint. If you really have no idea of the whole character, just double-tap in the middle to see it, along with an indication of which stroke to start with (see image). This model character then disappears as soon as you start to write it. There’s no tracing in Skritter. You can erase the character that you are writing (by swiping upward), even after you’ve finished and been graded; this lets you practice writing it again immediately.
The big difference between practicing hanzi with Skritter vs. other apps is that Skritter is much more rigorous. For example, when you write a character in Pleco’s flashcards, you get a character picker to choose from. Ironically, because Pleco’s handwriting recognition is so good, you can be pretty far off and and the right character will still show up as one of the choices. You’ve got to be honest with yourself and not just pick the right one if that’s not in fact what you wrote.
A subscription to Skritter gets you access to a huge content base of ready-made wordlists, both from textbooks and other sources. Users can share their lists, or you can keep your account private.When you select a list that has subsections (like chapters of a textbook), you can select which subsection to start adding new words from. Multiple lists can be studied at one time.You can create custom lists in the app or on the Skritter website. On the website, you paste in just a list of characters. The characters are matched to existing information (definitions, audio, etc.) to complete your word list. It even offers to eliminate duplicates.
Don’t miss the Info pane; there is a wealth of goodness to be found by tapping the i icon in any question. It reveals individual definitions for each character in the current word. You can ban certain words from your study sessions (you might want to do this for proper names of characters in textbooks, for example). Conversely, you can “star” words.
Also from the info pane, you can jump to the Pleco Chinese Dictionary app (if installed) and then easily return to Skritter. In Pleco you can access all the features you normally have available (which will vary depending on what add-ons you have installed), such as other dictionary definitions, other words that include the same character, each character’s radical, stroke order animation, etc.
There is a lot more to like about Skritter:
- The app keeps track of how long you study and how much you learn. You can see your progress displayed with nice graphs by day, week, month, and year.
- Your progress stays in sync across multiple devices. This seems extremely well implemented. Unlike some other apps, it doesn’t rely on Dropbox and you don’t have to manually move files around. It just works seamlessly.
- Multiple users are supported. This is great if you have, say, two family members sharing an iPad.
- Sociability is built into Skritter. You can share your progress via Facebook and Twitter, or share the Info for a particular word. Skritter also maintains leader boards. Your account can, however, be private, which keeps you off the leader boards.
- For things that are auto-graded (writing and tones), you can override the grade by swiping up from the bottom to reveal the grading scale.
- The app’s documentation is good. The tutorial and the Help page do a good job of explaining the various options, but there are also tips that appear as you are studying.
- You can send the developers feedback for a word from its Info pane.
- When you are studying, the app encourages you at intervals with praise in Chinese.
- Theme options
- a type-in option for the pinyin questions (for students who want extra rigor)
- an option to e-mail progress or word info (e.g., to a teacher or classmate), in addition to sharing on Facebook and Twitter
- an easier way to add custom lists with custom definitions (ideally by uploading/pasting a csv file)
- an option to have the handwriting recognition wait until the whole character is written.
If you are willing to invest in a subscription, Skritter is a truly outstanding app for learning Chinese. It looks good and functions perfectly in my experience. The developers really seem to have thought of everything and learned from extensive user testing. If you want to build and maintain your vocabulary, and especially if you want to learn to write hanzi with correct stroke order, try Skritter.
Skritter for iOS is available on the App Store .