Sep 032012

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.

AllSet Learning Pinyin

AllSet Learning Pinyin; notice the two columns for final i.

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.

Pinyin Chart HD

Pinyin Chart HD

For more, check out our page of iOS apps for pinyin and tones. And if you don’t have an iOS device, see our page of web resources.

Aug 282012
OS 10.8 new and improved features: Dictionary

Mac OS 10.8 added a Chinese dictionary to the built-in Dictionary app. This is a Chinese-Chinese (simplified characters only) dictionary and so will not be very useful to beginning learners. The dictionary has to be enabled before you can use it: Open the Dictionary app (in the Applications folder). From the menubar, select Dictionary > Preferences. Check the box next to 现代汉语规范词典. While you’re in the Dictionary app preferences, you may want to enable a Chinese version of Wikipedia; both traditional and simplified are available. First check the box next to Wikipedia and then the language choices will appear. If you are looking for a Chinese-English dictionary to add to the Dictionary app, there is 小词典 Xiao Cidian by Rob Rohan. 小词典 uses CC-CEDICT. Download the desktop version (free as of this writing) from the and follow the installation instructions on the website. Once installed, you can use it … [read more]

Aug 192012
OS 10.8 new and improved features: fonts for pinyin

As promised in the last post, here’s a look at the roman character sets of the new Chinese fonts in Mountain Lion and whether they will work for displaying pinyin. The short answer is that most seem to have the appropriate letters with tone marks, but may display less than ideally. First of all, Weibei clearly lacks the necessary combined letter/tone marks. So it will work for sticking English words (with no accent marks or other diacritics) into your Chinese text and having the style match, but not for pinyin. Lantinghei and Yuppy seem to have the necessary combined letter/tone marks, but the kerning of the text goes wrong around the letters with tone marks. It may be that these characters are actually substitutions and that’s what’s throwing off the kerning, but if so, they look very like the fonts in question. Baoli, Libian, Xingkai, and Yuanti display the combined letters/tone marks … [read more]

Jul 302012
OS 10.8 new and improved features: fonts

I admit to being a bit of a font and typography geek, so I was very excited to hear that eight new fonts were being introduced to OS X for the Mac with 10.8. Only one of these, Yuppy (SC & TC), is installed by default. To get the others, just launch the Font Book app (a standard part of the system which can be found in the Applications folder). In the list of “All Fonts” look for Baoli SC Langtinghei SC & TC Libian SC Wawati SC & TC Weibi SC & TC Xingkai SC Yuanti SC Each will be labeled “Off.” With a font selected, simply go to the menubar under “Edit” and choose “Enable …” The font will be downloaded and installed. For those that have separate traditional and simplified families, you can choose which to install. I was glad to see that a few of the … [read more]

Jul 292012
OS 10.8 new and improved features: text-to-speech

Last Wednesday Apple released a new version of OS X (10.8, Mountain Lion) for the Mac, which includes several new and improved features for Chinese users. I say “for Chinese users,” rather than “for China” (the way Apple puts it), since these features benefit all users of Chinese, not just those who are Chinese. Our first topic is text-to-speech. Chinese text-to-speech was introduced in Mac OS 10.7 just about a year ago (see this post, where I predicted that this feature would get better). Now in 10.8, the two Mandarin voices Ting-Ting (China) and Ya-Ling (Taiwan) have been improved (there is also a Cantonese voice, Sin-Ji, that I have not tried). If you already downloaded the voices in 10.7, the improvements will come in a software update after you upgrade to 10.8. Note that if you did not install the Chinese voices under 10.7, you can get them by opening the System Preferences and … [read more]