Mobile phone university 手机大学

This week, another “technical” post (focused on resources for language learning).

Yes, I made up the word in the title, by joining “mobile phone” and “university”, mimicking the name of other universities from my course books- but, at least, the title is a “mini-abstract” of this post.

I wrote before about my objectives while learning a foreign language: first, understanding; then, talking and writing.

This, obviously, doesn’t match that well with courses that try to deliver everything at the same time- but both those courses and those that I prefer (based on learning patterns from the real spoken or written language) in the end can be useful.

Obviously, you might have a different objective, i.e. show on your CV that you passed a language test, and get proficient in it later.

In my line of business, I saw often that that seem to be the approach followed by way too many freshly minted university graduates, who show the votes of each exam that they passed on their CV, but are unable to discuss the “rationale” embedded in those courses, to use that as a springboard for further learning.

Or: while learning it might well be it suits better your learning style to just act as a “sponge”, simply absorbing and being able to repeat what you are taught, but in the end… you should derive your own “navigation thread” through what you have learned, or otherwise you built up a wall between yourself and reality.

Since I was interviewing new recruits that were shipped to the barracks, I always looked not just at what they already knew, but also at their “attitude”, “potential”, call it what you want: basically, what they could deliver, not just what they had delivered or had learned, as reality isn’t just a replica of the past or the classroom.

I know that it is an old cliché, but learning a language cannot be a target, it must be a journey, as you never stop to learn- moreover when you start learning a second or third language after you get past what I call the “imprinting years”, i.e. when you grow up within a specific cultural context.

For some of my friends from the USA or other multicultural societies: as in less cosmopolitan parts of your own countries, most Europeans born before the 1980s grew up in an environment where there was just a primary culture, and any other was either an oddity, a relic, or something considered “exotic” (yes, even American visitors were fitting at least the first and third category- and sometimes even the second).

It is only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s and ensuing migration waves, that by and large we Europeans really started experiencing everyday multiculturalism- and I saw in my own birthplace, Turin, or in Milan and Rome, a sudden increase of foreign faces, foreign voices, and the growth of foreign communities in the open, as well as the first common multiculturalism (as a new generation was used to hear multiple cultural voices everyday in a classroom).

In my learning experiments with Chinese, I “tested” (and continue to test) multiple courses, first because I am learning it in my spare time and as a personal form of daily meditation, and second because, since I was a kid and started developing my own library, I have developed an attitude: I do not like libraries or learning as a “show off”, but as both entertainment and an investment, and consider a waste of time to have everybody redo the same trial-and-error, also if I acknowledge that it is exactly that the way to integrate any new information within what you already know.

Personally, I adopted since I was a kid (as older brothers often do) the attitude that whatever I learn, I should be able to communicate about- and in business I trained and coached people this way (not necessarily younger than me), when they were then expected to work with or for or replace me, but obviously there are other equally sound methods to “fix” what you learn, and it depends on your context and purposes what is more appropriate.

Today I want to share something that I tested using an Android phone- hence, the title.

My concept with Chinese is that if you mix voice (listening and reproducing sounds), hand movements (writing- or, in my case scribbling; and replicating the stroke sequences while learning), you actually associate a picture, a sound, and a “physical memory” to each character or idiom.

Being my first real test with a non-European language (decades ago I bought a book on Sanskrit, but it was more a cultural curiosity to see its structure, than a learning objective), I knew that I had few elements that I should get rid of in order to learn: a limited set of letters, the “trick” of having a fixed pronunciation for each letter or combination of those letters, and some “embedded clues” deriving from Latin and Germanic languages, i.e. the ability to often guess the meaning by just looking at the root of a word, and making up new words.

The funny part is: if you know just one language (e.g. English), those “cultural boundaries” are not as strong as when you learned few languages from the same group, and therefore you brain assumes as “normal” a limited set of sounds, syntactic structures, and word formation “rules”.

Obviously: Chinese too has a similar set of “shortcuts”- but you have first to get rid of those that you are used to, to see them.

So, the first step is a certain element of “de-programming”, almost getting a “tabula rasa” approach, i.e. empty writing table- yes, from when writing wasn’t on paper, but on tablets with wax on it or similar tools, and writing something new meant erasing what was there.

In my case, as my first objective is to expand my vocabulary and “awareness” of syntactic niceties as soon as possible (I did the same with English- via books, speeches, etc.), to be able to read printed material and understand, I focused on the differences, started with some basics, then read few grammars, then reviewed the basics, and then, only then, started using “standard courses” (e.g. right now I am “fixing” a course that I completed between April and June, on A1/A2, i.e. HSK 1 and 2, while doing a first round on the B1 part of the B1/B2 course, i.e. HSK 3 and 4).

Before that? The Headstart2 course I referred to, and, since 2011, watching Chinese movies with subtitles once in a while, after studying a little bit in 2009 and 2010 through online resources and books that I bought mainly in Paris, while in Brussels.

Chinese is a tonal language- luckily, I opted first for Mandarin, so that it has just four tones, but my understanding of the dialogue is limited.

Let’s say: with subtitles in both English and Chinese, I can now follow bits and pieces of dialogue that follow “patterns” that I learned, individual words or idioms (mei guanxi, suan le ba, etc.), and the communication relationship between those involved, and sometimes even more than that.

The only reason I bought a smartphone few years ago was… to test some new technologies (e.g. NFC, proximity payments by mobile; Android itself; geo-localization), but my main phone is half-dumb (i.e. without any of those embedded Big Brother siblings, iOS and Android).

But as since the 1990s I am used to keep on my smallest portable computing device learning material (then it was a Toshiba Libretto, now the smallest Samsung smartphone), I tested few dozens Chinese learning and Chinese dictionary applications.

Disclosure: I tested also “phrases collections” material, but, as I said, I bought it and used it also in the past in other languages (e.g. Latvian), but, frankly, I hate that kind of material- so, in this post I will share only information on what I kept on my smartphone and keep using.

“PinyinLite” is a free application that you can use to learn recognition of individual sounds in Pinyin, initials, or double Pinyin tones, and while you can eventually upgrade to get more, it is good to start.

I tested various HSK vocabulary learning applications, but eventually I kept using the HSK StarChinese series, that costs just few USD per level (you can test for free, but I bought the levels 1 2 3 for the time being): there are plenty of applications in that area, but these contain each word, a dictionary, sound reproduction, and a way to test your skills.

Estroke animated has a huge database (100 MB), but allows to see the stroke sequences of each character.

Chinese Writer Lite delivers a Tetris-like learning game where you have to actually write the characters as they are falling, to score points; the basic (free) version contains only the characters for HSK1, but you can upgrade to further levels (purchasing), available from

I used occasionally Estroke and Chinese Writer Lite, as I prefer to the DimSum on my Windows and Linux PC (; free), but I often use the other applications, e.g. while waiting for or riding a bus.

A small free application to check if you learned a character is Chinese Writer, which contains 5000 characters, and basically is a flashcard system (for both simplified and traditional characters).

Obviously, you can add Pinyin input keyboards, Chinese dictionaries, etc- but there, it is more a matter of taste than usability.

The upside is that none of these application (also the most expensive one) goes beyond the price for “impulse shopping” (i.e. skip a coffee, and buy an app), and by embedding them in your spare time, there is a chance that you will use them when you feel like doing it, getting more focused, instead of just as out of duty.

Learning is a personal commitment, and being motivated implies that even your “duty” becomes entertaining, as otherwise you risk just learning as I wrote above- up to the exam, and then you forget.

As a last suggestion: scout for movies and documentaries with dual Chinese and English subtitles, as often both translations are quite “loyal” to what is said (in English and Chinese- have a look on YouTube to see what I mean).

Then, do use your movie player to “freeze a frame” and “print a screen copy”, to collect segments of dialogue more entertaining than those contained on most courses: but, of course, you will have to use a dictionary.

Still, this could be entertaining, and deliver new “patterns” that you can actually use while talking, and you can immediately check after completing your translation exercises (by watching the movie) if you really understand and “feel” the pattern well enough to be able to use it.

Have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂


2 thoughts on “Mobile phone university 手机大学

  1. Pingback: The future of yiguoliangzhi 一国两制 | My Mandarin learning shelf

  2. Pingback: Culture and language 文化和语言 | My Mandarin learning shelf

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