Resource Review: Rocket Chinese

A while ago I started learning French, and picked up the Rocket French course (which had gotten some pretty good reviews) to get started.  Around the same time, my girlfriend, who had wanted to learn Chinese for quite some time, bought Rocket Chinese.

I hadn’t seen many useful reviews of Rocket Chinese, so I thought I’d write one up on this blog.  First, two disclaimers:

  • I have signed up as a Rocket Languages affiliate, so if you buy the program through this link, I get a commission.  However, I am going to be completely honest in this review, pointing out the limitations of the program as well as the benefits.  While the commission would be nice, I don’t want you to buy a product that’s not suitable for you (and Rocket Chinese is not suitable for everyone).
  • I haven’t had the chance to compare it with many other Chinese learning programs yet.  I hope to be able to review other programs in time.

Now, on to my review.  This will be quite in-depth – skip to the end if you want the cliff notes version.

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Self-study Chinese – what’s worked and what hasn’t

In this post, I’m going to give a broad overview of what resources and learning techniques have worked for me while trying to learn Chinese by self-study (and will provide links where applicable).

I understand now why people say that learning more languages is easier after you’ve become fluent in two.  Part of it is because you have two possible languages to which you can make connections (e.g. for mnemonic devices, etc – this strength is far more applicable when your second language is something like French and your third target language is something like Spanish, because there are so many similarities between those languages), and part of it is because you’ll understand your native language better (not only things like nouns, adverbs, auxiliary words, sentence structures, etc. but also how one word like “efficiency” might actually be so flexibly applied in your native language that it does not have an equivalent in another language).

But also, part of it is because you spend an awful lot of time learning how to learn in the process – you learn which techniques and resources work for you, and which ones don’t.  This is especially the case when you’re learning a language through self-study (and unless you’re taking intensive and comprehensive language courses, you probably will be – or should be – doing some degree of self-study).

Here’s a summary of what I’ve found has worked well and what hasn’t:

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Resource Review: Pleco

I cannot give enough praise to the makers of Pleco.  It is, without a doubt, the tool I have relied on the most in my self-study of Chinese.  For those who are unfamiliar with Pleco, it is a Chinese-English dictionary app, with built in flashcard system.

Pleco as a Chinese dictionary

Pleco is a very comprehensive Chinese dictionary, available on both iOS and Android.  It is free to download, but some of the premium features (such as flashcards or more advanced dictionaries) are paid.

You can enter words into Pleco by writing on your touchscreen with the handwriting input (I think this is now paid, although it was available for free when I installed it), which is great when you see words that you don’t know how to pronounce.  You can also enter words into Pleco by typing in the pinyin – e.g. guo or guo2 for 国  (tones are optional), or using the radicals (this is harder, and I’ve never used it, so I’d recommend buying the handwriting recogniser).  You can also enter English words into Pleco, and it will return all Chinese words which include that English word in their translations.  If you have a chunk of Chinese text to read on your phone, you can copy it and then go to the Pleco screen reader, where you can get the dictionary definitions simply by touching each word.  Not a feature I use often because I don’t read much Chinese on my phone, but if you do, you may find it helpful.

My Chinese friends have often been impressed by how comprehensive Pleco is – several times when I started to look up an unfamiliar word on Pleco, my friends said “That’s slang, you won’t be able to find it”.  They were proved wrong when Pleco returned results for words like 屌丝 (internet slang for “loser”) and 宅男 (Taiwanese slang for a male always on computers, games, etc indoors).  Pleco also contains many chengyu (成语), which is very impressive for a dictionary.

All of Pleco’s entries contain an audio pronunciation by a male or female speaker (you may have to install it as an add-on, but it’s free).  Sometimes it will sound stilted, as it pronounces the syllables for each word separately.  You can pay for the extended audio pronunciations, which include specific recordings for a greater number of words, and sound less stilted.  This is “nice to have”, but is not a necessary add-on.

Many of Pleco’s entries also contain example sentences, showing how that word is used in practice. The more advanced dictionaries on Pleco are nice, but not necessary as the free ones are very comprehensive already.  I have purchased a Chinese-to-Chinese dictionary, and another comprehensive dictionary.  Pleco also has dictionaries for Traditional Chinese Medicine (free and paid), medicine (paid), business (paid), classical (paid), Cantonese (free), German-Chinese (free) and Chinese French (free and paid) available, among others – and they regularly add to the list of dictionaries also.

Pleco is also designed to be used offline, and so is very fast.  The downside of this is that it is very large – it currently takes up over 500MBs on my phone, although around 400MBs of this is on my external SD card.

Pleco as a flashcard app

Pleco as a flashcard app is also excellent, although you have to pay for it to unlock the full flashcard features.  It is absolutely worth the $14.95 for iOS or $9.95 for Android, though.

When you look up a word, you can add it to your flashcard deck immediately.  You can maintain multiple flashcard decks, and you can also choose how to test yourself for each deck (e.g. you may choose to test your writing for one deck, reading for another).  Pleco has built in spaced character recognition setting, but it’s very customisable so you can tweak the algorithms as well.

There’s too much to the flashcard system to write about in one post, so I’ll write more about how I use Pleco as a flashcard app in an upcoming post, with screenshots.