Pinyinpal mentioned in business travel article by Elizabeth

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 (, 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
(, 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 ( 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 (, 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.

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.

Pinyinpal App review by John Pasden at sinosplice

OK, so I feel a little dirty typing out “PinYin,” but that is the name of the app. (Words can be capitalized in pinyin, but syllables within words should not be capitalized or spaced out.) I guess that’s my main linguistic complaint about PinYin Pal for iPad; it seems to confuse syllables with words. Still, it’s a pretty decent “Words with Friends” clone (read: Scrabble clone), and the incorporation of characters is done in a smart way. The relative short length of pinyin syllables (as opposed to English words) is also cleverly skirted with a purple extension tile.

Some screenshots of me playing an AllSet Learning teacher:

Right from the get-go you can see that we had a little bit of trouble coming up with long pinyin syllables.

Then we started to successfully create longer syllables.

Finally, we were forced to figure out how to use the purple “spacer” block. (It turns into a blank orange square when you place it. You can see it near the top under “jun.” Blank tiles make you choose a letter, and then the letter appears on the tile, but with no points.)

It’s true that native Chinese speakers don’t have a huge advantage when playing this game, since you’re creating syllables rather than words. (In fact, you can’t string syllables together and create actual words, which is a little frustrating.) So in order to play, the learner just has to know what syllables are possible in Mandarin (and I hope you have the iPad Pinyin app for that), and be able to match the syllables you created to one correct character and definition. Tones are added when you choose your character, but you’re not tested on them.

Overall, the game felt less fun than Scrabble. I think it’s mainly because there are so few syllable finals in Mandarin (you can’t end a syllable in m, p, g, z, y, etc.), and this can slow the game down a bit. Still, it was fun playing this classic game in Mandarin, and the app is free! It was also fun playing such a well-known English-language game with a Chinese person who had had absolutely no exposure to Scrabble (or “Words with Friends”). So if you’re learning Chinese, check it out: PinYin Pal.