Ninchanese Review – Playing Games to Learn Chinese

Ninchanese - Learn Chinese From Games

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Quick Review
Summary: Ninchanese is one of the most unique resources for learning Chinese. It’s a mixture between a course and a game and manages to do quite well in both regards – being both fun and extensive. You’ll need to use a few other resources to cover a few gaps that Ninchanese has. However, it’s one of the best tools for learning Chinese that I’ve come across.

Quality
Works great as an app or online. I was pleasantly surprised by the speaking practice component.
Thoroughness
Lessons go from absolute beginner all the way to an advanced level.
Value
Extremely good value. $10/month is an absolute steal.
I Like
The lessons are very thorough. You’ll learn new words, grammar, practice speaking, and listening.
The lessons tie together very well based around a story. The vocabulary words you learn will be reinforced in other sections.
It’s one of the most fun ways to study Chinese.
I Don’t Like
The audio is recorded by text-to-speach. This is the biggest issue currently, but there are plans to add human recordings soon.
You’ll want to use other resources for a few gaps like pronunciation and extra reading practice.
Lessons can start slow and you may initially get demotivated in the “Learn Words” section. It’s worth pushing thru though.

Price: You can try Ninchanese for free. A one-month subscription costs $10, a half-year costs $54, and a full year costs $96.

Use the promo code “ALR15OFF” to save 15% on a subscription to Ninchanese.

Alternatives:

This post outlines several different Chinese courses.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Or, in this case. Don’t judge an app based on the cat in the logo.

I seriously underestimated Ninchanese. I had reviewed around 25 Chinese learning resources before finally getting around to trying it out. I’m honestly not sure what took me so long. I had the app downloaded on my phone for months. I even opened it up and played around for five or ten minutes before getting bored and moving on. I gave up on it far too soon.

It’s much better than I expected. I thought it was a silly game but really it’s so much more than that. It’s one of the best resources for learning Chinese.

Ninchanese is fun. Many apps try to use points and gamification techniques but for the most part, it doesn’t help much with motivation. Ninchanese actually feels like a game. It’s fun and somewhat addicting. I found myself studying more than I otherwise would have in an attempt to climb the leaderboards.

Don’t let the fact that it’s a game lead you to not take Ninchanese seriously. It’s extensive. Seriously, there is an absurd amount of content. Many resources claim they can take you from absolute beginner to fluent. Generally, this is BS. Ninchanese comes as close to following through on that claim as anyone could hope to.

I usually hate it when resources take a broad approach. It almost never works. LingQ, Rocket Chinese, and many others have tried to do too much and they end up doing nothing well.

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.

Lessons

There are five levels (or rather, worlds) to choose from. These represent different difficulty levels: Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, and Advanced. You can start playing/studying at whichever level you choose. You’ll then be able to work through the lessons to complete the level. This is no small feat. There is a lot of content to complete before moving onto the next world.

Each lesson is composed of three subsections – learn words, build sentences and express yourself. They are all related to each other and you must complete one before moving onto the next one. First, we start with learning new words.

You can play online or with the app. The lessons are available in both Simplified and Traditional Characters.

Detailed lessons to learn Chinese

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Learn some words!

First, you’ll be introduced to a short story in English. These stories tie together the character’s journey throughout every lesson. They’re quite short but my initial reaction was, “huh, this isn’t for me.” I’ve never been a gamer. I came here to study Chinese and now I’m reading something kind of weird in English. This isn’t what I came here to do. But, after trying Ninchanese for the second time, I enjoy them much more. They’re harmless fun and sometimes include interesting cultural information. It gives the characters a little bit of personality. And they’re short, if you’re not interested, you can just skip past it.

Now, it’s time to learn new words. This is similar to other SRS flashcard decks that you can use to learn or review words from. However, it is a bit different in a few ways that are worth discussing.

There is a set number of words to learn in each of these sections. This fluctuates pretty significantly from lesson to lesson. The very first lesson of the first world of Ninchanese only has five new words. Other lessons may have over 60 words for you to learn. Of course, learning 60 words can take some time and you can’t move ahead to the other lesson components before completing this.

You’ll be introduced to a few new words. These words aren’t necessarily organized by difficulty level and some do seem like they don’t belong. For example, there have been some HSK 1 or 2 vocab words being introduced in the upper intermediate lessons. These are somewhat rare but still odd when you come across them. Most words are at appropriate levels with some being more difficult than the lesson level would dictate. An example of this would be that both 她们 (they) and 发型 (hairstyle) were introduced at the upper intermediate level. While strange, it does actually make some sense. Each lesson is composed of the three subsections I mentioned earlier. So, the new words you learn now will be reinforced later in the grammar, speaking and listening sections. There is a loose story that ties everything together so if a word hadn’t been introduced in a previous lesson, it’ll be shown as a new word here.

Learn new words in Mandarin Chinese

First, you’ll type the pinyin of the character you see. You’ll do this a few times with other words being introduced and reviewed. Then later, you’ll have to type the English definition of the word. The words come up based on an SRS review system and you’ll have to answer correctly to have the word marked as known. This is another thing that I didn’t particularly like at first but has grown on me. I typically review words with Pleco which only tests me in one of the areas. With Pleco, it’s not uncommon that I know the pinyin and have a rough understanding of the meaning of the word but don’t remember it perfectly. Having to type in the English really does significantly help me remember the word.

There’s one drawback to typing English definitions – it has to match the dictionary they used. Generally, there are enough variations of the definition where it’s not a problem but this isn’t always the case. For example, 洗手间 was marked incorrect when I answered with “bathroom.” I needed to type “restroom” or one of the other variations of the word. Honestly, this sounds like a bigger problem that it is in practice. It doesn’t take long at all for you to remember which definition to use. There are almost always enough definitions to choose from. This is also constantly improving. Users will often send it requests for certain words to be accepted in the dictionary and they’ll later be added.

You can get a lot of extra information about any of the words you learn. By clicking “help” or “learn more” you’ll see the HSK level, character stroke animation, definition, character composition, related words, along with idioms and proverbs containing the word. This is an awesome feature. I really like being able to see the related words part. Because of the nature of Chinese words and characters, there are a lot of new words you come across composed of characters you already know. Sometimes when I see a new word in this section, I can’t help but think “Of course that’s how you say it.” Of course, 跳伞- (literally, jump + umbrella) means “to parachute.” I may not have learned this word anytime soon but now I’m pretty certain I’ll remember it. The character composition is helpful for understanding how characters are formed. It makes them much easier to remember them when you can see them for their separate parts.

Learn character composition and related words

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Zizzle is a fun app that specializes in helping people remember characters and their components. However, what’s included in Ninchanese will be more than enough for most people.

When you complete this section, you’ll get stats on how you did.

One major downside is that the audio and sentences use text-to-speech and are not recorded by an actual person. In most cases, the audio still does a good enough job but sometimes the pronunciation and flow of the sentences is a problem. With any other resource, I’d probably say that this alone is a major reason not to use the product. However, Ninchanese is so incredibly extensive that this is worth overlooking.

When I first tried Ninchanese, I quit after making it about 30% of the way through the first “Learn some words!” section. I didn’t get the story. The text-to-speech turned me off and it took far too long to move past the vocab section. I wish I had spent some more time with it because there’s a lot more to discover.

Time Attack!

There is a Pinyin Time Attack and an English Time Attack included in the Learn Some Words! section. These are basically just fun ways to review. In the pinyin version, you’ll be shown a character and you have to type in the pinyin. It’s similar to the rest of this section, except there’s a timer and you’re pressed to finish it as fast as possible. For me, this actually provides some nice motivation. There’s a leaderboard and you can see how your score relates. In the English version, you just type in the English definition instead of pinyin.

Build Sentences

Again, you start out with a story. As I mentioned, I thought this was stupid at first but it grew on me. Sometimes there will be a little motivational dialogue here. It only takes a minute to move past.

Extensive mandarin grammar lessons

Next, there is a grammar lesson. The depth and quality of the grammar lessons completely took me by surprise. This section is incredibly thorough. The grammar points are explained very clearly. It may outline the differences between how two similar words are used. There will be lots of example sentences. The differences in meaning and usage are explained very well. However, just reading about grammar points is almost never enough. You need to practice what you just learned.

Now, you’ll practice making sentences by dragging and dropping characters in the correct place. You’re given the sentence in English and you have to make the correct sentence in Chinese. Sounds easy right? I struggled with it. So, if you just learned the difference between 刚 and 刚才, now is the time to see how well you really understood what you read.

It’s just like if you were to learn grammar from a book. Using the textbook is great for explanations and as a reference. But, you really need a workbook to practice what you’ve learned. This section is essentially an online grammar textbook and workbook.

Chinese Grammar Practice

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However, not everything is perfect. The grammar section is available for every lesson, even if you haven’t completed the other tasks leading up to it. However, only the lesson part. You can’t practice the grammar point by building sentences until you complete all the lessons before it. My understanding of grammar is probably worse than my other areas of Chinese. So, for me, it’d be nice to read and practice grammar from previous lessons but I’d have to complete all of the “Learn some words!” and “Express yourself!” sections as well. This would just take too long and I wouldn’t get as much out of them. It’d be nice if there were a way to skip around a bit more. Although, it’s a tough balance for Ninchanese because they want to keep the game elements in place.

Express Yourself!

Speaking Mode

Again, we start out with a story.

Next, it’s time for the speaking component. When I heard that there was a speaking part to Ninchanese, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought, and still think, the best way to improve your speaking is by talking with a native speaker. Most voice detection software doesn’t do a great job. This software also isn’t perfect but it works better than I expected.

You’ll hear a line of dialogue and then your microphone will become activated. You’ll repeat that line of dialogue. Words you say correctly will be marked green and ones you miss will turn red. It’s a great way to get yourself practicing speaking. At the end, you’ll see your score and the percent you got correct. Truthfully, it isn’t perfect but it’s more than good enough to be useful. To me, it’s sort of like a more fun version of Glossika. The dialogue also uses words and grammar points that you learned earlier so it’s especially helpful in reinforcing those.

Ninchanese speaking practice

Listening Mode

Here, you’ll listen to the sentences and have to type in the Chinese characters. I really like this part as well. In life, a large part of your communication in Chinese will be through typing characters. So, this is a great place to improve your listening comprehension, character recognition, and typing skills. On a desktop, there’s already a Chinese keyboard so all you have to do is type. However, I vastly prefer to use Sogou and you can download it for free. The listening mode is very similar to the dictation exercises included in ChinesePod Premium plan.

The biggest weakness in the Express Yourself! section is that the audio recordings use text-to-speech and aren’t recorded by someone. Just like before, this would normally be a big problem but I feel that the quality and depth of the lessons makes this a problem worth overlooking. They’re also planning on adding human recordings when World 6 is completed.

The cycle repeats

These sub-sections repeat in this order – Learn some words!, Build sentences!, and Express yourself!. Everything connects to each other and builds on each other very well. There is so much content here. In the Upper Intermediate world, there are 95 of these sub-sections. Each one of them takes a fair amount of time to complete as well.

Ninchallenge

There is also a feature where you can challenge other users. I didn’t find this to be very exciting. You can challenge a friend or play against a random opponent. You then choose a card and are shown the character – you’ll type the pinyin. You’ll alternate turns with your opponent and whoever gets the most correct will win. One issue is that there are not enough active users so you may choose a card and then your opponent might take a full day to choose his. Second, it’s not all that fun compared to other features of Ninchanese. Perhaps, I’d feel differently if I were to challenge a friend and we both played at the same time.

Ninchallenge

What’s missing from Ninchanese?

No app, course, website or teacher will be able to teach you everything you need to know to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Ninchanese probably comes the closest. The lessons are incredibly comprehensive. There are however a few things that you should look to other resources for help with.

Find Chinese tutors on italki

Pronunciation – This is especially important to work on elsewhere because the audio is text-to-speech. Check out the Pronunciation Wiki and pinyin charts for basic help. ChineseFor.Us has extremely thorough pronunciation courses. The “Say it Right Series” included in the premium version of ChinesePod is very thorough as well. Speechling is a really cool app where you can get feedback on recorded sentences. The best option would probably be to work with a tutor and get real feedback from a person. italki is the cheapest and most flexible option for finding a Chinese tutor.

Handwriting – This is mostly overlooked besides showing the stroke order of characters. I’m actually glad they chose to focus on typing instead of adding a handwriting element. I type in Chinese all the time but rarely find myself needing to write something by hand. If you’re interested in learning to write characters by hand more, you should consider subscribing to Skritter.

ChinesePod would be a good compliment to Ninchanese

Listening – Improving listening comprehension is essential. The listening component of Ninchanese is a good start but I’m not certain that it’s enough. In the listening section, you aren’t being exposed to new audio and the fact that it’s text-to-speech is an extra reason to look elsewhere for listening practice. I’ve mentioned ChinesePod a few times in this review because it’s a great service. It’s the best option for improving listening comprehension with tons of audio for varying difficulty levels. It also makes studying easier when you can’t devote your full attention to it, such as during a commute.

Reading – You’ll get quite a fair amount of reading practice with Ninchanese. However, an app like Du Chinese or The Chairman’s Bao that has a main focus of reading would be a great supplemental resource.

None of these are obligatory and not using them won’t detract from the value you get out of Ninchanese. They’re just other valuable tools that you can use to learn Chinese.

Final Thoughts

Ninchanese is an incredibly powerful resource for learning Mandarin. It’s really fun to use and this will encourage you to continue studying when your motivation is lower. The amount of content is staggering. No resource by itself is enough to completely teach you Chinese. Ninchanese does, however, come about as close as you can hope for in accomplishing this. You can also try Ninchanese for free. I highly recommend you do just that.

Use the coupon code “ALR15OFF” to get 15% off any plan.

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  1. Thanks for this review on this awesome software and how you mention other that add missing parts to this one. I always wanted and tried to start self-learning some Chinese, finally I find very nice way to do it!

  2. Pingback: Mandarin Weekly #131 – Mandarin Weekly (每周中文)