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Design and user evaluation of a mobile app to teach Chinese characters.

Chinese is a language which presents additional learning challenges when compared with more commonly-taught languages. Among these are: a non-alphabet based script (characters), tones (many words sharing the same tones but with different script and different meanings), and the lack of obvious sound and written script correspondence (hence learning two systems at the same time: the script and pinyin (Romanisation of Mandarin sound system).

This paper presents the pedagogical rationale and challenges faced during the development of a mobile app to support learning, recognising and practising writing the most commonly used 400+ Chinese characters at beginners’ level. These include design principles (bitesize learning, efficient use of mobile platform to tackle challenges in learning Chinese, support for reading and writing in SLA) and the difficult balance between pedagogy and technical affordances, including gamification.

The app was launched in 2010 on the App store. An Android version was launched in 2012. It has generated over 20,000 downloads so far.

The paper will also present the results of a survey which gathered data from over 120 users of the app: profile, their reasons for learning Chinese, patterns of learning, expectations of the app, and evaluation of the different features for their own personal learning. The preliminary results offer a profile of the language learning app user (more males than females, mostly over 25, informal learners) and very positive attitudes towards learning with apps: a very high proportion of respondents claim using the app has improved their learning of Chinese.


Fernando Rosell-Aguilar    
Department of Languages
The Open University (UK)
United Kingdom

Fernando Rosell-Aguilar is Lecturer in Spanish at the Open University, United Kingdom, where he writes teaching materials and chairs the presentation of courses with 800+ students. He also coordinates the provision of materials from the OU department of languages on iTunes U. In 2004 he received the Open University teaching award for his online learning materials. His research focuses on online language learning, mainly podcasting and mobile apps as teaching and learning tools, CMC learning environments (such as audio and video conferencing) and digital literacy. He has published his research in international journals such as Computers and Education, Language Learning and Technology, ReCALL, CALL, JaltCALL and Reading Matrix, and regularly presents at international conferences.

Qian Kan    
Department of Languages
The Open University (UK)
United Kingdom

Dr Qian Kan is the module chair for the Beginners' Chinese course L197, and head of Chinese at The Open University. Before joining the Open University, she was Senior Language Teaching officer in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge for eleven years. She has also lectured in Chinese Studies at Lancaster University and worked for the BBC World Service as translator and presenter. She is currently Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Christ's College, University of Cambridge. Qian is interested in the use of online forums in assisting the learning of Chinese language, the use of reflective forums for intercultural learning and various issues to do with mobile learning.


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