When it comes to studying Chinese, learning characters can easily become one of the more daunting tasks.
Especially when you compare it to the writing systems of other languages like Russian or Korean where you only need to learn to read a new alphabet compared to the hundreds or even thousands of characters one must memorize to achieve reading fluency in Chinese.
So how can you break down the process of learning and retaining Chinese characters so that it doesn’t seem so overwhelming?
I’ve tried a variety of methods to get to where I am today in terms of reading and writing in Chinese, but it’s really due to all of the often tedious study and rote memorization I’ve put in to learning characters. When I started, I really wished there had been a better system that I could have worked for me.
While there are texts and tools that aim to make learning how to read Chinese more engaging, many of my favorite apps and resources tended to focus on other aspects of the language. Or they taught characters in a way that didn’t really help me retain them without the help of supplemental study materials.
All that to say, there has certainly been room for a resource that teaches characters in an entertaining and memorable way, and that’s why I’d like to introduce you to Zizzle.
Zizzle is a mobile app that uses stories and images to help you learn new Chinese characters in a fun and engaging way.
They use a pyramid-based learning system, starting with the basic characters first, then build upon them to teach you more advanced characters step-by-step.
They also offer full HSK integration, with courses that support those studying for the HSK exam. The current version of the app includes about 500 characters, but it will be continually updated until the 3,000+ characters required for HSK 6 are covered. Zizzle currently only offers simplified characters, but they plan on adding traditional characters to their library in later updates.
The app uses five “heroes” to teach you the tones, illustrations to teach you the visual aspect of each character, and a short story to teach you the meaning and pronunciation. By incorporating these various elements into their learning system, you get a variety of contexts and memory aids for each Chinese character, improving your chances of recalling them.
Zizzle was founded by a German-American team including Lukas Lohove (CEO), Kevin Li (CMO), and Hagen Hübel (CTO). The CEO Lukas Lohove was the 1st place winner of the 12th “Chinese Bridge” competition held at the University of Geneva by the Confucius Institute in 2013 after only studying the language for two years.
How Does the App Work?
Overall, I found using the Zizzle app extremely intuitive and user friendly. Once you download and open up the app, you’re asked to create an account by entering your email and password (your learning history will be saved to this login). You are then given a brief introduction to the app and how you can learn new Chinese characters in just two minutes. After reading through the intro, you’re then taken to the introduction deck where you can start learning.
The main screen for each deck shows a list characters as well as the pinyin pronunciation and the English translation. You can start at the top of the list and the app will take you through it step-by-step for as long as you feel like studying, or you can skip around and learn the characters of your choice in whatever order you like.
Once you select a character, you’re shown its breakdown (if it contains multiple components), followed by a short story with illustrations that are designed to help you remember the meaning, sound, and visual aspects of each character. Once you read through the story, you then begin a quiz that tests you on each of the mentioned elements. Your final score is then added to your overall progress bar.
After completing the quiz, you’re taken to a page that shows you a few examples of the character used as a part of words and within sentences. There are audio clips for each of the examples as well.
My Thoughts on Zizzle
I enjoyed the way that Zizzle uses stories to help you remember characters. The various elements that they use to help you recall the sound, meaning, and visual for each character seem to be quite effective. Some of the stories are a little strange, but that likely plays into their memorability. Plus, they tap into two memorization techniques, both mnemonics and spaced repetition (for the review sections), to ensure that learners have every opportunity to really master Chinese characters.
The interface is very nicely designed and it’s easy to navigate through the various exercises, so it makes study hassle free. Plus, the fact that Zizzle is a mobile app with 2 minute per character study makes this the perfect tool for when you’re on the go or pressed for study time.
I also really liked the character breakdowns that are displayed when you start getting into more complicated characters. I’ve always found that knowing how they break down helps me remember them (I’ve never forgotten how to say “to wear” because I thought it was odd that the character was made up of “cave” and “tooth” and there is something to say about how what we perceive as strange bits of information tend to stick with us).
Additionally, I thought that the example words and phrases at the end of each character lesson were extremely useful. They give the material that you’ve learnt additional contexts and they also offer you useful phrases that you can use to improve more than just your knowledge of Chinese characters.
Things that I think could be improved:
You can’t see which characters you’ve already worked on and which are new when you’re looking at the deck screen. I wish there was some way that the cards you’ve studied could get shuffled down to the bottom of the list and/or become a different color so that I could see where I’m at in my learning. This also is a bit annoying when you skip around to different characters in a course because it’s hard to keep track of those that you’ve worked on and the words you’ve already studied aren’t skipped when you go back to working through the list in a linear fashion.
I sometimes ignored the tone associations that the “heroes” carried. There are five “heroes” that each represent one of the five tones, but I found that I often ignored which tone they were tied to and instead just remembered the hero alone who used in the story. The connection between the hero and the tone isn’t a big one to make, but it did create an extra step.
You can only see the example words and phrases once you complete the character quiz. There currently isn’t a way to get back that extra content without going through the quiz for that character again.
I’d love to see decks outside of HSK vocabulary added into the app. These could perhaps be topic specific apps for things like business, politics, family, hobbies, etc. That way, learners who aren’t focused on the HSK exam can pick characters and vocabulary that interest them more specifically.
I’m not a huge fan of the illustrations. But that’s just my personal preference and I am sure that most learners won’t have any issues with them. It did, however, make it somewhat harder for me to engage with the app the way that I could have if I really enjoyed the visual aspects of it.
The Zizzle app has a lot of potential and I am definitely interested in seeing it continue to develop and grow. I especially look forward to when the HSK 5 and HSK 6 decks are added since that is what I’m working on now. It’s currently in beta, but the official release date is June 30, 2016 so it will be available soon!
The app will be available for a monthly subscription fee on both Android and iOS devices of $9.99 or an annual subscription fee of $59.99. They also have a 200 page workbook available for $14.99.