Following up on the last post about Skritter, we’ll be looking at another sophisticated flashcard app specifically developed for Chinese, trainchinese: Dictionary & Flash cards. The free app allows use of the dictionary and a free account allows flashcard use for a very small number of new words per week, but this is enough to decide whether you want to upgrade to a paid account. With either a paid or free account, you can also practice your flashcards on the trainchinese website.
The app uses a spaced repetition system to test you less often on words that you know better.
There are two basic methods of testing: “honesty” and multiple choice. “Honesty” is the familiar flashcard method where you are responsible for indicating whether or not you knew the correct answer. Multiple choice is self-explanatory. In both modes you can get a hint without penalty.
For each method, you can choose what skills to practice from among reading, translation (into Chinese), audio recognition, and dictation. In addition to the global settings, you can vary the skills tested for each word. So if there’s something you only care about recognizing and not producing, you can turn off dictation for that word.
How each skill is tested varies between “honesty” and multiple choice. Using the “honesty” method, for most skills you simply get a prompt (hanzi for reading, English for translation, or spoken Chinese for audio recognition); you think whether you know it or not, flip the card to check, and mark yourself right or wrong.
But the dictation (writing) training using the “honesty” method is much more interesting. After getting the audio/pinyin prompt, you write the whole character(s) in an empty box (no tracing, unless you ask for a hint). There is no feedback as you write and your handwriting stays exactly as you wrote it (see first image). The experience is pretty close to doing dictation exercises in a classroom setting. To grade yourself, you can compare your characters side-by-side with model ones. In addition to comparing the overall character, you can choose to animate your handwritten hanzi and the model simultaneously (in the image, my version of 考 and the model are in the process of being animated. This lets you grade yourself on stroke order, if you wish. If you tap the “hint” button after writing, the model character will be animated right on top of your writing.
Using the multiple choice method, the skills are tested as follows:
Reading: choose English from hanzi prompt
Translation: choose pinyin from English prompt
Recognition: choose English from audio prompt
Dictation: choose hanzi from audio prompt. The choices can be devious (see image).
The app gives access to pre-made lists, including lists made by other users, but some of them are limited to paid subscribers. There are lots of lists based on themes or situations (e.g. job titles, musical instruments, pharmacy, dating). Other lists are organized around particular textbooks (although most of these are user-contributed), character/radical, tests (HSK and TOCFL), or student level. Some can be accessed from the app, but it seems as if user-contributed lists can only be accessed from trainchinese.com.
Since the flashcard feature is integrated with the dictionary, it is very easy to add a word that you have looked up to one of your wordlists.
From trainchinese.com, you can add multiple words at once simply by pasting in a list. The service will look them up in the dictionary and add the pinyin and definitions for you.
Other nice features
- Tapping the Details button will show your study history for that word, example sentences or related words (which can be added to one of your wordlists), plus a field for your own notes.
- Your progress syncs through a trainchinese account. You can see how many words you’ve learned by day, week, or month.
- You can choose which skill to start with.
- You can train traditional and simplified at the same time.
- There are options to color-code characters by tone and/or show tone marks over hanzi.
- An app icon badge reminds you to study.
- The documentation is good. In addition to the Help screen, tapping the i “info” icon offers screen-specific help.
- Some way to test tone recognition or knowledge.
- More grading options in “honesty” mode than just “right” or “wrong.” It would be nice to be able to distinguish between situations when you really had no idea and those when you were nearly right.
- Option to hide the pinyin during dictation (I had thought this was possible, but now I cannot find how to do it; I hope the developers will correct me if this is actually possible).
- An easier way to add a custom list with custom definitions, rather than the dictionary definitions
- Better audio; it sounds mechanical much of the time.
The trainchinese: Dictionary & Flash cards app is free, but the flashcard functionality is very limited unless you pay either for a subscription (unlimited lists for a period of time) or for a set number of lists/cards (yours forever).
The app is worth downloading, in my opinion, if only for the example sentences in the dictionary. But do yourself a favor and try the flashcard component. The two study methods (“honesty” and multiple choice) add some variety, as well as letting you start with the less demanding multiple choice when you’re first familiarizing yourself with a bunch of new words. The most striking feature, however, is the dictation/writing testing. You can write quickly without worrying about the app recognizing your strokes correctly. And reviewing your writing side-by-side with the model afterward, lets you pinpoint your problems. If you do choose to subscribe, using one of the links to trainchinese.com on this page will earn me a month’s subscription.
trainchinese: Dictionary & Flash cards is available on the App Store.