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So you have installed numerous Chinese learning apps, played hundreds of flash cards but are still struggling with some basic Chinese words? Same here. What’s more, I have always longed for a well-designed Chinese learning app with a pretty interface and font type.
Beauty is not skin deep when it comes to learning Chinese. The Chinese people always stress the importance of calligraphy. Strokes are the essence of Chinese characters, but not many language learning apps can use an appropriate font type to reflect that. After all, Chinese have a 5000-year-old writing tradition, and the origin of Chinese characters came from an ancient sense of visualisation. Zizzle does an excellent job in presenting a highly visual (yet clean and stylish!) method for learning the Chinese language with its vivid illustrations and stories.
How different is Zizzle?
Learning Chinese through pictures seems to be nothing new anymore. I have used different Chinese learning apps that are applying the same rationale. All of them boast their spatial repetition software (SRS) to optimise our process of memorization. Zizzle is no different and will automatically determine the spaced repetition.
But why Zizzle is particularly useful? It does not only portray the characters with beautiful pictures but also develops them into some meaningful stories. So the learning of characters does not stop at the illustrations, it extends well and beyond that.
Why I love Zizzle:
1. Cultural understanding
The first good thing I like about Zizzle is that it tries to bridge Chinese and Western culture.
For example, there is a traditional belief among Chinese that you have to have a wife and a son to have a happy life. And the dragon’s response of “How boring” reflects how nowadays the Chinese think of such traditional belief.
So, it’s a step further from simply playing an app and learning a new language. After all, we have to be immersed in the culture of the language we are learning to make more sense of the culture behind it.
2. Spaced Repetition and look-up a character
A bonus feature I find quite handy is the search function. You can type the pinyin or the meaning of the Chinese character to look it up. It is like a personal dictionary that you can rely on as a beginner.
Apart from the search function, there are 12 visually engaging decks to help you learn new words. At first glance, they may look like a little bit intimidating. I would suggest you to start with Zizzle 101 first, where 84 basic characters, fragments and radicals are introduced. Then other decks are categorised by their topics, for example, Numbers, Travel, Food and Business. If you are up for more challenges, you can also try out Integrated Chinese, HSK 1,2,3 and NPCR. I find it’s getting easier and easier to learn a new character after I have learned the basics from Zizzle 101. Simpler characters start to appear again as a component part in the new words. Fragments and radicals turn up as parts of new characters more than I expected. Nevertheless, there are no shortcuts to learning a new language. Taking time to study the decks certainly helped me build a solid foundation as a beginner.
I, like many Chinese learners, have a hard time recognising Chinese characters. Of course, it won’t be easy. The earliest forms of Chinese writing dates back to the Xia Dynasty (2070 – 1600 BC). The ancient Chinese were written on oracle bones (known as jiăgŭwén), and they show the origins of current Chinese characters.
To help with that, a really useful feature in the app is called Spaced Repetition. It is a bank of questions to test all the characters that you have learned. Newly acquired characters will show up more frequently in the test while bringing up previously learned characters just at the right time to jog the memory. The benefit starts to show when these tests are taken consistently every day.
3. Simplicity works best
Zizzle is not game-based but don’t let that put you off. You will be asked to select the characters that you already know before the start of a lesson. These characters will then be excluded. I think this is particularly useful because Chinese characters are composed of smaller elements. It is true that learning gets progressively faster with particular repetition. However, many Chinese characters or elements do look alike. Repeated learning can cause confusion. And in this way, the course content can adapt to my level.
Then you will start learning Chinese components. Chinese has root components of meaning that are smaller than words. Learning them by breaking characters down into parts, or by starting with the most basic and essential characters is an excellent way to learn.
Even if I could recognise the Chinese characters, I still had to struggle to learn the strokes’ position and direction. Chinese characters compose of 8 basic strokes, and they are essential for us who wants to recognise and write Chinese characters.
Some Chinese characters combine simpler components, which can contribute a particular meaning, or even more complex characters which could sometimes lead up to 50 strokes or more. Zizzle has turned learning them from a possible hassle or phobia to something quite pleasant.
One of the features that stands out is how visually engaging the stories are. Learning how to pronounce the Chinese characters is not as intuitive as English. It is hard to find the link between the shape of the Chinese characters and how they should be pronounced. Linkwords help you bridge that gap.
An example would be associating the English word SHOW to the pinyin shŏu. Visually, a picture of the dragon juggling is presented, coupled with the sentence ‘the DRAGON was putting on an acrobatics SHOW’. These vivid images have helped me remember how to say the character with ease. Of course, it isn’t how the academics learn the pronunciations; it is a quick and easy way to have a rough idea of what the character will sound like. An accurate pronunciation is just a tap away on the corner of the flash cards. I can practice anytime I want, just to refresh my memory again.
Finally, all of these come together to create stories. These stories will help you remember the character’s parts, pronunciation, tone and meaning. I could read them in context, but I’d regularly mix up similar looking characters or struggle to recognise them in isolation. The quick quiz at the end of each flash card helps me to reinforce the memory.
5. The characters in the stories have a life
Zizzle has five very distinct characters such as turtle, fox, dragon and so on. Each represents a different tone of the Chinese characters. Through their unique picture stories, I started to associate the characters with the tones subconsciously.
In some cases, the words do not bear a visual resemblance to their meaning. Such lively characters are useful in identifying the phonetic components and meaning of the words.
6. Competitive pricing
Zizzle, like other Chinese learning apps, offers a one-week trial. But unlike others, when the trial period expires, you can choose between one month (USD 9.99), three months (USD 24.99), yearly subscriptions (USD 59.99) or to purchase packs.
These are three packs currently for sale:
– Crack the HSK (HSK 1, HSK 2 and HSK 3)
– Master Everyday Chinese (Travel, Food, Business and Numbers)
– Chinese Textbook Companion (Integrated Chinese, A New China, New Practical Chinese Reader and Encounters)
They all cost $49.99 with a lifetime access to the included characters. Zizzle’s pricing scheme is super flexible. You can choose a suitable pricing plan according to your level and learning objectives.
A minor issue was encountered with the Android version of the app repeatedly. Whenever I tried to press the ‘BACK’ button to go back to the decks, it wouldn’t work.
I have been using Zizzle for a week but the recordings I have come across so far are all spoken by a male voice. They are clear and well pronounced, but the problem is a male voice is usually deep and less engaging (i.e. harder to concentrate and remember when listening). So it would be great to introduce a female voice talent. Also, some scenario conversations could be added so it will be even easier to remember the new words in a particular context and can practice in daily life.
But all in all, Zizzle does a great job. Download it and see it for yourself!