Anthony Thomas on an educational app with a difference
The Chinese language is notoriously difficult to learn. A colleague of the man behind A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, one of the first important works of its kind, noted that learning Chinese required “bodies of brass” and “heads of oak”. Yet, he managed to grasp the lingo enough to introduce the printing press in several Chinese-speaking states, as well as convert locals to Christianity in the 1800s. These days, if you want to conquer Chinese, all you really need is a single finger of pointiness and an iPad, at least as far as new app Hanzi Hero is concerned.
Created by Somerset start-up Three Tall Cranes, Hanzi Hero aims to make the mammoth task of remembering hanzi (Chinese characters) that little bit more fun. The app presents “lessons” in the form of chapters in an on-going comic. The story follows the bizarre adventures of a teenager who’s recently moved to Beijing and has a basic grasp of Mandarin and hanzi. When he bumps into two mysterious natives slugging it out in the streets, he’s suddenly enrolled in a crash course in China’s written language, whether he wants to or not!
As the story progresses, the hero is gradually introduced to new hanzi in a context that explains its meaning, as well as offers a way of remembering how to write it that relates to the story. It’s here where Hanzi Hero’s greatest achievements lay, in its cohesive method of educating – everything’s connected.
Previously I had used several methods to learn Japanese kanji (which are based on hanzi), all of which relied heavily on self-revision. From flash cards, to repeatedly writing characters out, to eventually trying Kanji Pict-o-graphix, a book that would turn each character into an image that would hopefully stick in the reader’s mind, they all had pros and cons but essentially every character learnt was independent of another, making it difficult to retain the information – at least for this old brain.
Hanzi Hero is free to download and includes the first chapter, weighing in at 42 pages. Chapter two will set you back £4.49 but contains more than double the page and hanzi count. Don’t expect to become a master any time soon, though. So far Hanzi Hero has introduced around 40 characters over the existing two chapters (by comparison, Kanji Pict-o-graphix contains 1000 characters), making it a slow affair and one that users with an existing basic knowledge may get frustrated with. It also includes a quiz section as well as an index, both of which are lacking when compared against existing language apps. But hey, it’s still early days, and for offering a fun and unique way to remembering hanzi, this could indeed be a much needed hero.
Hanzi Hero is currently available only on iPad (iOS 8.0 or later), and is planned for release on iPhone and Android devices in the future. For further information, check out the app’s homepage.