It’s back-to-school time, so this is the first in a series of posts showcasing some favorite free or low-cost iOS apps for helping you learn Chinese.
First of all, new students usually need a reference chart for pinyin, with audio. The best that I’ve seen is AllSet Learning Pinyin (free and add-free as of this writing). It’s easy to keep track of where you are in the chart, thanks to fixed headers and shading. It can display two romanization systems simultaneously (pinyin and IPA are included; zhuyin and others are $0.99-each add-ons). Since I reviewed it, the developers have added an option to play a syllable with each of the four tones consecutively. Allset Pinyin may be unique among pinyin charts in having the final i separated into two columns to reflect the different pronunciation of i after zh, sh, ch, z, s, c, and r.
Unfortunately, Allset Learning Pinyin is iPad only. For iPhone/iPod Touch, I recommend Pinyin Chart (free with ads or $0.99 to remove them). It also utilizes fixed headers for easy orientation, along with row/column highlighting that clearly shows your selected syllable. You can play a syllable with any tone, including the fifth (neutral) tone. And you can play all the tone variants for a single syllable with one tap. Pinyin Chart HD for iPad fits the entire syllable inventory on the screen, which may be an advantage, but makes the text small and harder to read, although the highlighting helps a lot with that (see image below). Notice also that Pinyin Chart lists the initials alphabetically, rather than grouping related sounds together. Contrast this with the image above, where you can see how AllSet Learning groups, for example, the retroflex sounds (ch, sh, zh) together, which I believe is more typical and more useful to learners.