Game-like apps are nothing new to the language learning world. Just hop onto the Google Play store or Iphone app store and you're likely to find a slew of Chinese learning apps.
With such a large number of options for learning a foreign language, it can be hard to wade through the lackluster options and find the apps that are effective and fun to use.
In today's review we hope to spare you some of that trouble. In this post we review Ninchanese, an app that distinguishes itself from the pack through it's effective lessons, creative design, and all around great user experience.
Let's dive in!
What exactly is Ninchanese?
Ninchanese is an app that helps you learn Chinese Mandarin through a game-like format.
Learning Chinese through a game-like approach
An unfolding story
Ninchanese is setup into several distinct "worlds" (think of them as course levels). Each world is built around a story with a small array of especially adorable characters (most of which resemble cats).
At the heart of the game is an unfolding story
Each level is broken into miniature episodes, which are essentially lessons. Before each lesson you are shown a short animated video which propels the story for the level, and sets the backdrop for the lesson.
The story adds another level of fun to the app. In the very first lesson of the beginner level, a character (a cat named Nincha) discovers a mysterious egg which then hatches into a cute baby dragon. The baby dragon doesn't know how to speak and Nincha begins by teaching him how to say "hello" and "My name is.." in Chinese.
Ninchanese teaches Chinese in the context of a story based game
Thus the first lesson is made up of these words. In a future lesson Nincha takes the dragon to his village and introduces him to a new friend (a girl cat). In that lesson you end up practicing listening and speaking (as if the dragon were talking with the new character).
These are just a couple examples of how the element of story is woven throughout the app.
Points and progress
Each lesson also functions as a bonafide game. Throughout the lesson you are required to write, read, listen, or speak Chinese. Each time you answer correctly you receive points.
A streak of right answers unlocks certain bonuses you can use later (like being able to see a word in a sentence before you answer a question).
Fans of Duolingo will see some similarities here. Though Duolingo feels a bit more straight forward and lacks the abundance of cuteness and extra features that Ninchanese has.
Ninchanese lets you practice your Chinese through challenges with other people. These challenges are essentially mini games that pit your Chinese skills against a fellow student. It's a fun and competitive way to practice the language.
How does Ninchanese teach you Chinese?
Games, stories, and kittens are all well and good, but does Ninchanese actually help you learn Chinese? I would argue yes.
Chinese character recall
One of my favorite aspects of this app is that it requires you to recognize Chinese characters (which are one of the most foreboding aspects of learning Mandarin). You are repeatedly asked to write the pinyin or English translation of a given word or sentence.
At first I was a little thrown off by this, as it felt a bit like rote memorization. That is, until I realized it started working. Chinese characters aren't exactly my specialty, but by the end of a lesson I was able to correctly recognize 3 or 4 new characters without any help.
Listening, speaking, and reading
As you work through each lesson you will repeatedly learn and work with Chinese vocabulary, sentence construction, reading skills, listening comprehension, and a bit of speaking practice too.
Ninchanese helps you practice speaking, writing, listening, and reading
The lessons follow a predictable pattern of introducing new words, helping you build sentences with those words, and then using those words via listening comprehension and speaking practice.
One particular way Ninchanese helps you develop your listening skills is through voice recognition. The app is able to pick up on whether or not your tones are correct.
Anyone familiar with Chinese knows how vital the tonal aspect of the language is. Correct tonal pronunciation literally means the difference been being understood or misunderstood when speaking Mandarin.
Ninchanese strategically sprinkles Chinese grammar lessons throughout the app. Users will never see a grammar lesson at the beginning of a new level, and there's a good reason for that.
The app does a good job of keeping the train in front of the caboose, by introducing new grammatical concept only after a student has had a chance to interact with that concept on their own.
This way learners get the chance to intuitively feel out Chinese grammar rather than simply getting slammed with a rule book. If desired a user can look at a grammar lesson prior to progressing to a new level on the app.
A Closer Look
What I like most about Ninchanese
A beautiful aesthetic
Ninchanese is the most visually striking language learning app I've ever come across. The design and animations really help give you the impression that you are on a curious Chinese learning adventure, albeit a cute one.
Because the app is so visually appealing, I simply want to use it more. You can tell a lot of thought and care went into the design of Ninchanese.
It's fun AND it helps you learn Chinese
Sometimes there's a bit of tension when it comes to language learning apps. The fun ones tend to not teach you much, and ones that claim to teach you well often feel as dry as a desert.
This app strikes a golden balance. There are enough game-like themes and features to keep things engaging, but not at the expense of helping you learn the Chinese language.
Ninchanese is an effective way to develop your Chinese skills
It teaches Chinese holistically
Here at Live Fluent we're huge fans of learning Chinese in a way that incorporates reading, speaking, writing, and listening. We believe one aspect of the language serves to reinforce the others. You simply learn more quickly when you have to read, write, speak, and listen to a new word, versus simply just reading it or repeated it.
Ninchanese teaches all four aspects of the language (short of hand-written Chinese of course). If you use this app you will engage with just about all aspects of Mandarin, which is something we can't say about other learning apps.
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Some limitations of Ninchanese
No app or course is perfect. They all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Here are few of the limitations we found with Ninchanese
It's not a standalone course
Ninchanese is a great learning tool that will help you learn new vocabulary, sentence structures, and practice using the Chinese language. However it's important to remember that it's not a standalone course.
It doesn't quite have the comprehensiveness and depth that you're likely to find in beefier text books, or large courses. Students who enjoy thorough examinations of grammar (yes there are such people), may find the app lacking.
In the end though, this isn't a problem. The app doesn't pretend to be something it's not. It works great a supplemental tool or addition to your learning, which is exactly what it was designed to be.
You'll need to look elsewhere to learn pronunciation
Ninchanese does have a decent voice recognition component, and it will help you nail down the Chinese tones. However the app is still hard press to help you develop a fully natural accent.
While the app does supply with tons of Chinese audio, the voice and pronunciation is artificial and not spoken by a real person.
A good accent is crucial to helping you understand and be understood. The best way to accomplish this it to listen to native speakers, and imitate their pronunciation (recording yourself for comparison also helps too). You simply won't get this much needed practice in Ninchanese.
Not available in the Apple app store
You can download it on the Android App store or through their online platform. Unfortunately though, Ninchanese isn't not available in the Apple app store.
What others day about Ninchanese
"The game is somewhat addicting. I want to know how the story continues and progressing through the levels makes me feel accomplished. I would definitely say this is a point in Ninchanese’s favor. You don’t have to worry about finding the motivation to study – the game is engaging and addicting enough that you want to go back to continue working on your Chinese."
Shannon Kennedy // Eurolinguiste.com
"Ninchanese takes a broad and deep approach and they manage to pull it off quite well. The lessons cover vocab, grammar, speaking, listening and typing characters. They don’t just skim over these topics. Everything is very in-depth. That’s not to say Ninchanese is perfect or that it’s the only resource you should use. There’s quite a bit of room for improvement. But, they do a lot of things well and at a very affordable price."
Nick Dahlhoff // AllLanguageResources.com
Alternatives to Ninchanese
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
ChineseClass101 features audio lessons in a podcast format. Lessons are great for grammar and vocabulary. Each lesson is designed around a Chinese conversation between native speakers, and the teachers do a great job of keeping things engaging.
Chineseclass101 is a substantial learning tool. The site features transcripts, an in-site flashcard system, and many other useful features.
Starts at $15 per month
5+ minutes a day
Fluentu is a site that helps you learn a language through native videos. Use in site flashcards, captions, and games to learn new words in context while watching Chinese TV shows, movies, commercials, and more. It's a great way to push your listening skills and vocabulary.
FluentU helps you engage with the Chinese in way that is natural and effective.
At the end of the day Ninchanese is an excellent learning resources and can be a powerful tool in your Chinese learning arsenal.
The app isn't the end all be all of Chinese learning resources, nor does it pretend to be. But it is an effective and fun way to increase your vocabulary and language skills.
You'll need to pay for premium features in order to get the full Ninchanese experience. However the app is free to download and has a lot of free features.
I recommend downloading the app and trying it out for yourself, to see if it's right for you!
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