HelloChinese is the best free app to get started learning Chinese.
This is coming from someone who has tried out pretty much every Chinese learning resource there is.
It’s super quick to get started using. The lessons include a ton of information and they provide you with ample opportunities to practice what you’ve learned.
At the same time, the app is designed wonderfully. It looks great and runs very smoothly.
HelloChinese essentially started as a replica of Duolingo, before Duolingo released a Chinese course. But, it has gone on to become packed with many more features, and is in every way, far superior to Duolingo.
The lessons are engaging and broken up into small chunks – making it easy to study even when you only have a little bit of free time available.
While a huge portion of HelloChinese is available for free, there is also a Premium and Premium+ plan.
HelloChinese has three different sections – Learn, Train, and Immerse. These sections correspond to three different price points.
The “Learn” component is completely free. This part is comprised of around 50 units focused on a variety of everyday topics.
Each unit generally contains 3 or 4 lessons with each lesson containing a number of exercises that will help you learn vocabulary, grammar, listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
The Premium plan grants you access to the “Train” section and costs $6.99/month. This section includes lots of extra games that you can use to review the material you’ve learned throughout the course. They may focus on listening, writing, reading, speaking, or characters. There are currently nine games total, with more coming in the future.
The Premium+ plan gives you access to everything in the app, including the “Train” section, and costs $19.99/month. This is similar to a podcast, but with some extra features and exercises to go along with it.
Let’s now take a look at each of these sections of the app individually, starting with the free parts.
Learn Chinese for Free – Getting Started
The nice thing about using HelloChinese to start studying Mandarin is that it makes it easy to simply get started. Instead of stressing which course to buy or what to do in the beginning, you can just download the app and get started.
The lessons progress in a logical manner and build upon each other. You can also test out of the lessons and skip ahead if you’ve already learned some Chinese.
I’m happy to see that the first mini-unit you’ll come across is pronunciation. I’m a strong proponent of spending a lot of energy learning pronunciation early on. You’ll be speaking Chinese constantly, so it’s important to build good habits in the beginning.
I really like that they give quite a bit of detail into understanding pinyin and how it works early on. A lot of resources, especially free ones, but even ones you have to pay for, tend to skim over this information.
They go into quite a bit of detail regarding the sounds of the pinyin initials and finals. There’s a nice interactive chart where you can click and hear the pronunciation as well as tips on how to make the sound, including how it may be similar or different to the English sound.
There are also speaking exercises early on as well. You’ll hear the syllable and record yourself speaking. The voice recognition software will let you know how you did. You can also listen to your own recording which is a nice way to check your own pronunciation.
The voice recognition software isn’t perfect, but I’ve never seen voice recognition software that works perfectly. It shouldn’t be the only tool you use to check your pronunciation. Instead, I’d suggest using it as a rough check on how you’re doing. It generally works better for full sentences compared to individual syllables. More than anything though, it’s a good way to get yourself speaking Chinese out-loud and provides you with some feedback.
Moving on from the speaking exercises, you’ll then have several listening exercises. Here you’ll choose the pinyin for the sound you hear. There are a couple different question styles for these and they are a good way to gauge how well you’ve understood the pinyin lesson.
There is also a lesson on tones. The exercises in this lesson are similar to those in the pinyin lessons. They test your listening and ability to distinguish between the sounds of the different tones.
While living in China, I’ve heard countless foreigners say that they just can’t hear the differences in the tones. It’s truthfully not that hard, and this is evident by how quickly after starting to use HelloChinese, you’ll be able to distinguish between the different tones.
Finally, at the end of the unit, there’s a quiz. This will test you on how well you understood the content in this pronunciation unit. You’ll have four lives, or hearts rather, to complete the quiz. If you run out of hearts, you’ll have to start over.
Overall, I’m impressed with this first unit of HelloChinese. Pronunciation is something that is too often brushed past too quickly in favor of learning vocabulary. I like that they teach the content in a clear manner and then provide a lot of opportunities to practice what you’ve learned.
However, there’s still some room for improvement here. Compared to the rest of the features in the app, the pronunciation part is a bit more boring. But, they’re planning on making improvements to this section in the future.
I’m someone who often stresses focusing on learning pronunciation early on. This post shares some additional resources that you may find helpful for improving your Chinese pronunciation.
The units following the pronunciation unit are similar in structure but focus on different parts of the Chinese language. Each of these units is centered around a certain topic, such as family, animals, food, and so on. If the lessons are too easy, you can take a shortcut and jump ahead.
Let’s take a look at another unit on HelloChinese – Adjectives and Adverbs. One thing you’ll notice for most lessons is that there is a “Tips and Notes” section. Here you may find some explanations of a grammar concept in more details or some interesting information about Chinese culture. It’s a very nice addition to the regular lessons.
Moving on, the lessons progress in a similar manner with a variety of exercises.
Some of these are quite simple where you simply match a word to the picture representing it. This works well as a way to introduce you to key vocabulary.
Other exercises are multiple choice where you’ll choose the translation of a sentence. For these, you can play the audio of the sentence, click on words to see their meaning, and in some instances, there are additional grammar explanations as well.
In other exercises, you’ll drag and drop words to translate a sentence.
There are also character questions as well, which can be skipped if you prefer. The stroke recognition works pretty well too.
One other thing I like about the translation exercises is that they often choose multiple similar answer possibilities. If you’re a newer student, it’s not necessarily obvious which is the correct answer.
There are also exercises to practice word order. In these, you have to choose among possible blanks to place the word.
Throughout the units, there are quite a few speaking exercises. I really like how much HelloChinese emphasizes the importance of actually speaking.
In this next one, you’ll have to delete the word that isn’t needed in the sentence.
These styles of questions repeat themselves covering different material throughout the lesson.
There are also occasionally some videos of a normal person saying a short phrase and you have to choose the correct translation. To me, this adds a nice level of “authentic-ness” to the lessons. Not sure how to explain it really, but I like it.
I’m really impressed with the variety of exercises used in these lessons. They really make sure that you understand the material and cover it in many different ways. More so than any other app, I’ve found HelloChinese to vary the way they ask questions. It makes sure that you have learned the content and not simply figured out how to answer the questions correctly.
The other lessons follow this type of pattern.
While there are speaking exercises throughout the regular lessons. At the end of each unit, there is also one lesson dedicated specifically to speaking.
These speaking exercises also include a few different variations. In some instances, you’ll simply record yourself speaking the sentence. Other times, you’ll compose the sentence and then speak. Sometimes, you’ll repeat a sentence without the translation given (unless you get stuck), which is a good way to also test your listening comprehension.
As I mentioned, the speech recognition isn’t perfect, but I don’t think that’s the most important thing. What’s important is that you get to practice speaking. That’s something that few other apps are able to get people to do.
There is also a review component. Here you can find vocabulary, grammar, and character writing practice. You can use flashcards to review the various things you’ve learned in the course. You can review by lesson, or by a certain number of cards. It’s not necessarily my favorite review tool, but it’s still very useful. They’re also planning on redesigning this segment in the coming months.
The Free “Learn” Part – Conclusion
The Learn component of HelloChinese is completely free to use and really a great way to get started learning Chinese.
Although it’s free, there’s a lot of content here.
There are around 50 units, with each unit containing between 3 and 5 lessons. And each lesson has around 18 to 25 exercises to help you learn the content.
The grammar notes you’ll find throughout the lessons can be really helpful. I also like that they manage to hit all of the areas quite well, such as speaking, writing, listening, reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary. You can also skip parts like speaking and writing if you’d prefer.
Overall, I don’t think you’ll find as good of a free resource for learning Chinese as HelloChinese.
The Premium “Train” Plan
Now, let’s take a look at the premium version of HelloChinese. This will give you access to the games found within the “Train” section of the app.
Accessing the Premium version costs $6.99 / month, $12.99 / 3-months, or $39.99 / year.
There is also a Premium+ plan that I’ll talk about soon.
The train section of the app includes a bunch of different mini-games to help reinforce what you’ve learned in the “Learn” section of the app.
These focus on different skills related to listening, reading, writing, speaking, and characters. Currently, there are nine games in total with more to be added in the future.
I have a few mixed feelings regarding this section. Some games I found to be quite fun and helpful, whereas others weren’t so exciting.
All of the games are beautifully designed though.
My favorite games were “Word Recognition” where you have to chop the pinyin of the corresponding character before it reaches the bottom.
I also like the grammar game because it makes you look at sentences and decide if they’re correct or not. If you answer incorrectly, you’ll see a tip that explains why your answer was incorrect.
Some of the games though, although they looked great, I found to be rather boring. For example, the listening translation game wasn’t particularly fun. For this, you listen to a word and drag and drop the answer over the opera mask.
The games are designed to be adaptive, so they’ll adjust to the user’s performance. In reality though, this area still needs a bit of work.
I found I prefer traditional SRS flashcards, like with Pleco or Anki, over these games as a way to review. The main reason is that although the games adapted to my level, I felt like it didn’t happen fast enough and there wasn’t a way to jump up levels quicker.
However, I wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion of this changed completely in the near future. I brought up this issue with the HelloChinese team and they were already aware of it and working on improving their algorithm. Their end goal is to make the games more adaptive than SRS flashcards.
Another thing is that they really are working on continuing to add new games.
I made a suggestion to include a tone-training game to help students learn to hear the differences in tones. It turns out that they’ve already designed one, it just hasn’t yet been implemented.
It’ll be very interesting to see how the “Train” section of the app develops over time.
If you’re on the fence about the Premium plan, I’d suggest considering the Premium+ plan as it gives you access to all of these games, plus a lot more useful features.
The Premium+ “Immersion” Plan
The Premium+ “Immersion” Plan consists of podcast type lessons, with extra exercises that are unique to HelloChinese. It also gives you access to all of the games found in the Premium “Train” plan.
This plan costs $19.99/month, $89.99/6-months, or $149.99/year.
These lessons cover four levels – Beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, and Intermediate.
In the past, I’ve used ChinesePod rather extensively. I’ll end up making comparisons between the two services as they are similar in many ways. In fact, HelloChinese’s co-founder, Vera, was the academic manager of ChinesePod for several years.
The intermediate lessons on HelloChinese are significantly easier than the intermediate lessons on ChinesePod. They would be closer to ChinesePod’s elementary level lessons.
One other difference worth mentioning is that on HelloChinese, the difference between levels is quite minor. So, going from an elementary to a pre-intermediate lesson, won’t be overly challenging. This is the exact opposite as with ChinesePod. Every time I moved up levels there, it felt like a major challenge and would take many lessons before I finally felt comfortable at the next level.
The Immersion lessons are composed of five parts.
First, you watch a short video. This is pretty cool as it provides a visual aid of the dialogue that will be discussed.
Next up, is the audio lesson. This is generally between 10 and 15 minutes long. You’ll hear the same dialogue as in the video. There are two hosts, one Chinese and one foreign, that will go through the lesson line by line. They provide a lot of extra details including grammar and vocabulary explanations, along with interesting cultural information.
The audio lesson layout here is also very nice and smooth. It’s really easy to follow the dialogue as you go with the transcript shown on the screen.
There is a lot of English used in the lessons, even at the intermediate level. That’s to be expected though given that the intermediate lessons are relatively easy. The amount of English is about the same as you would see in other resources aimed at students at this level.
The third part of the immersion lessons is learning the dialogue. In this section, you’ll go through the dialogue one line at a time. You’ll hear each line as it was spoken in the video, and then you’ll record yourself speaking it. You’ll receive a score based on how accurately you repeat the line.
Fourth, you’ll do an exercise. In this part, you’ll complete the dialogue by filling in the blanks.
The last part is quite fun and something I’ve never seen anywhere else, Role Play. Here, you’ll see the video across the top part of the screen. Then, similarly to the third part, you’ll record yourself speaking each line. You don’t receive a score on your recording, only a happy or sad voice. At the end, you’ll have a version of the initial video, dubbed by you.
The Premium+ “Immersion” Plan Conclusion
I’ve really enjoyed the Immersion part of the HelloChinese app. The audio lessons by themselves are enough to justify potentially paying for a subscription. When you add in all the extra exercises in the immersion part of the app, it becomes quite good value. Also, don’t forget, with a Premium+ plan, you’ll gain access to all of the games from the “Train” section of the app as well.
I love how the lessons really get you to practice speaking. That’s one thing you’ll need to constantly be doing as you learn Chinese. For many other resources, I’ve found it easy to be more passive in my studies and only really improve my listening or vocabulary skills. Because you practice the dialogue in a variety of ways, it’s easy to internalize it. The final role play part really adds a bit of silliness to it all, which further solidifies what you’ve learned in the lesson.
Lastly, new lessons are released around three times/week.
Before I wrap up this review, there are a few more things worth mentioning.
First, and very important for many students, you can choose to study using either Simplified or Traditional Characters.
In fact, quite a bit of HelloChinese is customizable to your preferences. For example, you can choose whether you want to display pinyin, hanzi, or both.
Learning to handwrite characters isn’t a priority for everyone, so if you’d prefer to skip those exercises, you can turn them off in the settings tab. Similarly, if like me, you’d prefer not to do speaking exercises while riding the subway, you can turn those off as well.
You can also choose to change the language that you learn Chinese from. There are many options here as well, so if you’d like to learn Chinese while reviewing another language, or if English isn’t your first language, you can change that.
Finally, and something that a lot of people will benefit from, you can download lessons so that you can use HelloChinese offline.
There are other cool motivational features too like tracking the total days you’ve studied, your daily streak, and the total time you’ve spoken. You can adjust your goals and choose to set a reminder message.
I’m really impressed with HelloChinese. While it may have started as a simple app to fill the void missing by Duolingo, it’s gone on to become something much bigger and better.
HelloChinese includes lots of content and presents it in a fun and exceptionally well-designed manner.
It’s not necessarily for everyone though. It’s a great app for beginners, but for students that are past the initial stages of learning Chinese, there are other resources better suited to their level.
The free version is an excellent option for people getting started with Chinese. You’ll learn a ton from this portion of the app.
The Premium Plan, while not perfect, is still quite useful and will definitely get better as time goes by.
The Premium+ Plan can help you to take your studies a step further. All the while, in a way that’s more fun than you’ll find other places.