With a business trip to Shanghai coming up, Elizabeth Day tests out free language learning apps to see how easy it is to master Mandarin.

For years, the prospect of learning Mandarin, with its unfamiliar characters and baffling array of pronunciations, has simply been too daunting for most Westerners. We tend to rely on that lazy fail-safe: the ready ability of educated foreigners to speak excellent English.

Mandarin Chinese is the world’s fastest-growing language. By 2050, it will be spoken by a majority of the global population and is increasingly essential for business travellers. And yet, for most of us, the closest we ever get to speaking it is when we order a chicken chow mein with a side order of crispy aromatic duck.

It’s also because, until relatively recently, there was a dearth of
user-friendly apps for learning it. DuoLingo (duolingo.com), one of the most comprehensive language apps, which offers 68 different courses and has 150 million registered users, still hasn’t developed a Chinese course for English speakers because it’s too complicated to achieve this (although a Klingon course is currently in the incubation phase).

Still, with the prospect of a work trip to Shanghai approaching, I was keen to find out whether there were any other ways of learning the rudiments of Mandarin online.

My first port of call was Pinyinpal (pinyinpal.com), which was developed by Chinese-American philanthropist Adeline Mah. Mah and her husband, Bob, are Scrabble obsessives and had been playing the online version, Words With Friends, for years.

Pinyinpal uses the same principles: it’s a two-person game where the aim is to play words with the highest score. What makes it unique is that it transposes Mandarin characters into the Latin alphabet, so you’re being taught how to pronounce each word as you play.

For beginners like me, there’s a useful “Word Finder” function that automatically shuffles your letter selection into an array of options, each one listed alongside its Mandarin character. Then, when you choose to play the word, you are tested on the Mandarin character to see if you remember it.

The beauty of Pinyinpal is that it’s enjoyable: the competitive element means I stay engaged in the game and want to do better and get a higher score using longer words. It’s a great way of being introduced to the subtlety of Chinese. Through this, I learn that, depending on the context, ni can variously mean a Buddhist nun, to daub with plaster or a secondary rainbow.

Of course, because Chinese is a tonal language, pronunciation is key. That’s why the audio-play function in Pinyinpal is so crucial. When speaking Mandarin, intonation and stress completely change the actual definition of words. You might think shuxue means “maths”, but if you place the stress slightly differently, it actually translates as “blood transfusion”, which is not a mistake any traveller wants to make on their first trip to China.

Reading is also a complicated business. Literacy in Chinese requires you to recognise at least 3,000 to 4,000 characters of the tens of thousands that exist, so memorisation is vital. That’s where the Memrise (memrise.com) app comes in. It teaches you to remember Chinese characters with the help of animations and mnemonics.

It’s cleverly done. When I’m given the symbol for “cow”, the illustration uses the lines of the character to depict the silhouette of a cow carrying a neck yoke. That leaves an instant visual reference point and I find it much easier to remember with the associated picture. Similarly, the character for “noodles” is drawn to resemble a bowl of noodles being eaten with chopsticks.

I’m encouraged to review the characters repeatedly so that I commit them to memory. This also helps those who have a stronger visual ability than verbal one to recall them.

It’s a great idea, but it’s quite difficult to keep the characters and their pictures at the forefront of one’s mind. Several times, I invent different pictures and end up confusing myself. Still, it’s a lot of fun while you’re doing it.

Less fun but more effective is ChineseSkill (chinese-skill.com), which provides me with a course covering 45 topics and focuses on learning vocabulary and grammar with a basic gaming mechanism. My first “lesson” consists of being shown a series of illustrated flashcards for basic words such as “people”, “man” and “woman”. I am given four “pandas” as lifelines. When I answer a question wrong, a panda disappears.

I’m then tested on each word in random order, and am given the opportunity to practise writing them on the touchscreen. It seems deceptively easy at first, but soon I’ve lost all my lifelines and a tearful panda appears on screen. On the second go, I only get one wrong and am rewarded by being told I’ve defeated 92.57 per cent of all other ChineseSkill learners. No tearful pandas. I then move on to grammar and the construction of simple sentences.

Does any of it actually work when I get to Shanghai? Well, yes and no. I’m immediately overwhelmed by the signage and rapid-fire spoken Mandarin. But after a few days, I begin to recognise a few – the sign for “exit”; the character for “man” and “fire”. I can also speak a selection of basic words, including nihao for hello and xiexie for thank you, and I’m even complimented on my pronunciation by a native speaker.

Pinyinpal was the most helpful app and I’m surprised that something that is fun to play can also be so informative. If you were to play the game for half an hour every day for a month, you would garner a fairly extensive rudimentary vocabulary. This is what I intend to do. I might never be fluent, but at least, by 2050, I’ll be able to communicate with the global majority.