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Pinyinpal app review by Rene Ritchie

It’s the lunar New Year, so what better time to look at PinYinPal, and app that hopes to make learning Mandarin fun for kids. We had to a chance to talk to Jen Gross about PinYinPal at Macworld|iWorld 2013, and if it looks like Words With Friends meets Chinese 101, that’s not by accident.

The creators of the app had been teaching Mandarin online for a few years but, after seeing iOS and the iPad, thought it would be better if they came out with an app. They’re starting off with single, simplified Chinese characters, but they’ll be updating with traditional characters and more complicated words in the future. They’re also thinking about running online tournaments to further increase engagement.

I really like these kinds of apps, and this approach to education. Teaching is in desperate need of innovation. It’s criminally underfunded and understaffed, and the promise of online learning has been wasted by people who sign up but don’t attend or engage. Yet, everyone has time for video games, and no one fails to engage with them.

We know what needs to be taught, we know how to capture interest. Gamified learning my sound ridiculous if not abhorrent, but it might also be the answer to getting people involved and educated again. Insert Sam Seaborn rant.

Macworld pinyinpal app review by Aldrin Calimlim

Hiragana Pixel Party proved that learning Japanese, or its basic writing system at least, can be fun and entertaining. Now, PinYinPal is out to prove that the same can be said about learning Mandarin Chinese.

PinYinPal was among the various products exhibited during Macworld/iWorld 2013. And our own Dom had the chance to meet with one of the folks behind the game. You can watch the video of their brief chat below.

Released for iPad in December last year, PinYinPal is said to be “the only free Mandarin Chinese word game available played with letters of the alphabet.” That right there is actually its subtitle in the App Store.

As you may have already figured out, the name of the game is a combination of the words pinyin and pal. Pinyin refers to a system whereby the Chinese language is written with the English alphabet. And pal, of course, is another word for friend.

Hence, PinYinPal is a friend that helps you learn Chinese using the pinyin writing system — a friend that happens to be in the form of a word game.

Specifically, PinYinPal is a word game designed in the manner of Scrabble and Words with Friends.

If you can’t see the video embedded above, please click here.

In PinYinPal, you can challenge a friend or even a random opponent by placing your letter tiles on the board so that they form a Chinese word.

You get more points for correctly identifying the Chinese character and definition of the word you just played. But you lose points if not.

No idea what Chinese word to play next? Don’t worry, just seek help from the game’s Word Finder or Dictionary.

Word Finder helps you find your next word based on the letters on your tile rack. For its part, the Dictionary feature lets you find the meaning of a word and look up the pinyin translation for Chinese into English. Both tools include audio pronunciations for words.

PinYinPlan also features an in-game chat section where you can talk with an opponent in both Chinese characters and English.

Note that PinYinPal is completely free of charge and free of ads and in-app purchases. This is because the game is funded by a grant from the Chinese Character a Day Foundation, which is dedicated to teaching Mandarin Chinese to anyone who wishes to learn. It was founded by Dr. Adeline Mah, a physician and writer. Born in China, Dr. Mah lives in California with her husband, Professor Robert Mah, a microbiologist. In 1997, she wrote her memoir Falling Leaves which became an international best-seller. To bridge the gap between East and West, she established her foundation with her book proceeds. Conceived in the Mahs’ living room, PinyinPal was first played on a sheet of paper with cardboard cut-outs as letter-tiles.

Compatible with iPad running iOS 5.0 or later, PinYinPal is available in the App Store for free. The game is set to be released for iPhone and iPod touch in March 2013.