Free iPhone/iPod/iPad Chengyu (成语) Apps

"I really want to listen to some spoken Chinese, I think." -- Not a strange thought to cross a Mandarin student's mind, to be quite honest.

成语 anyone?
Whenever I feel like listening to Chinese, I usually just open up YouTube and watch a bunch of random videos (interviews and the likes, mostly related to two artists who shall not be named...not in this post anyway, however if you know me, you'll know exactly whom I'm referring to). That or I'll watch a movie or an episode of a my favourite Chinese or Taiwanese soap / drama. In short, I've plenty of options. I like to listen to Chinese how it's actually spoken; for me it makes picking up the language that little bit easier. That and I have an aversion to listening to the news (in Chinese). Listening to/watching the news in English or German is bad enough. It bores me to death so it really isn't surprising that Chinese news do the same to me. I'll stick with it for a while for the sake of it but I really have to force myself to pay proper attention. If I do the maths, the effort vs. what I learn from watching the news in Chinese just doesn't pay off. Nevertheless, studying can't always be all fun and games, sometimes you'll just have to bite the bullet. Therefore an hour of news a week somehow always manages to work it's way into my lesson plan some way or another.

Tonight however, to get what I wanted, I decided to go down a different route altogether. Partly because I hadn't quite figured out my fleeting thought and partly because I felt like pushing my luck. So I picked up my iPhone, tapped the icon for the app store and started to type the words "Chinese audio book". I got an avalanche of results and started to randomly weed through the apps I'd been offered. A couple of minutes into my search I found what I was looking for...not that I was actually looking for anything in particular.

But anyway, let's cut a long story short.

If you've been learning Mandarin Chinese for a while, chances are that you'll have heard of those famous four character 成语 (Chéngyǔ | Idioms) - both my first Chinese teacher and my current Chinese teacher appear to have an endless supply of these 成语 and every now and then they find their way into a lesson (they seem to be convinced it's a good punishment). To be quite honest, I have a bit of a love and hate relationship with those 成语. I mostly love them and the stories behind them but when it comes to actually using them, I get frustrated (at times). Thankfully I have an extremely patient teacher who will explain the use of those 成语 again and again and again until I start coming up with example sentences of my own to show her that I actually got what she's been trying to teach me -- 加油老师,你真太棒了!

I'll be the first to admit that those 成语 are all-round awesome for Chinese class. Why? Well, for starters there's the reading part and the chance to learn new characters (which can be used for the writing practice part towards the end of class). Then there's the story that comes with the 成语. I find learning about Chinese culture intriguing and those 成语 do a fairly decent job at teaching me. Grammar also factors in while you're reading the story. If I can see how a word is used in a sentence, I'll know where to place it next time -- here's to learning without learning. Lastly there's the discussion part where my teacher explains the 成语 in her own words, uses an example or two and then I'll have a go myself. So there you go. One 成语: listening (to the teacher), reading (out loud), comprehension (new words), character writing, talking about the 成语 and making example sentences. This is why I think I'll always love those 成语 more than I'll hate them -- you get so much out of a single set of four innocent characters.

My apologies, I've sort of (slightly) trailed off topic here.

Sadly my teacher isn't around to teach me 成语 24/7 -- I wish she was, although we would probably waste the majority of the time nattering away about this or that. Trust me, when two girls get together there's always something to talk about even when they're teacher and student. Again this makes for brilliant lessons because I'll get the chance to have an authentic conversation in Chinese, the same type of conversation that I have in English (and sometimes in German).

So anyway. I've found a bunch of pretty cool apps designed to teach you 成语. They have been created by a company called ChinaHCM in cooperation with JoyOrange and feature both a Chinese and English interface. Not all the apps are free but there are enough free ones available to keep you happy for a while. The apps are designed for children (I think!) but that doesn't mean adults can't use them because let's face it we should use whatever material available to us to learn. The interface is easy to use, the pictures are colourful and they aid understanding of the 成语 in question. In the English interface the story relating to the 成语 of your choice is narrated by an English speaker with an American accent but I'll have to honestly admit that I did not waste much time listening to the English story + the speaker's pronunciation of the Chinese names is more than a little weird.

To make up for this, I'm happy to inform you all that the Chinese version of the 成语故事 (Chéngyǔ Gùshì | Idiom Story) is narrated by a native Chinese speaker. The pronunciation is quite clear and while the story is read out you can read the relevant Chinese characters. The written story comes without annoying Pinyin to distract you from the characters and each page of the story  features a colourful picture that will help you understand the context of the story. The narration finishes with a quick explanation of what the idiom means and how it is used, before you're asked whether you understand. If you didn't you can just go over the story many times as you wish/want.

Here a few 屏幕截图 (píngmù jiétú | screenshots) for you.

Chinese interface
Instructions (In Chinese)

The Idiom -- for example: 双管齐下 (shuāng guǎn qī xià) --
The idiom literally means "to paint holding two brushes" and translates into something along the lines of: "to attack one problem from two angles at the same time". I've tried to find a suitable example for the usage of the idiom, however I fear the only one I've found (courtesy of may be a little too difficult for beginners. Not sure, I would suggest you see for yourself how you get on. I understood the sentence and the meaning of idiom.

Chinese: 家长与老师积极配合,双管齐下,同心协力,方能实现让孩子取得进步的目标。
English Translation: Only when teachers and parents make a joint effort to work together, can the progression of the child (towards the target) be archived.
Pinyin: (Jiāzhǎng yǔ lǎoshī jījí pèihé, shuāng guǎn qí xià, tóngxīn xiélì, fāng néng shíxiàn ràng háizi qǔdé jìnbù de mùbiāo.

I apologise in advance if my English translation isn't spot on, I used Perapera Chinese Popup Dictionary to translate the sentence word by word and puzzled the English meaning together afterwards. If you would like to correct me e.g. offer a better translation, I'd really appreciate it.

By the way, the sentence also uses a another idiom -- that will show you just how common idioms are in the Chinese language:

同心协力 (tóng xīn xié lì | to work together as one)

And boy am I glad that I don't need to find you an example sentence for that one also because you can just use the one above! Yes I know, I'm lazy. I'm sure there's a Chinese idiom for that too, but I'm not going to look that up now or I'll end up finding all sorts of idioms for all sorts of things. If you know an idiom that fits me, feel free to leave a comment!

Finally the app also includes a section on "new words" which explains the words of the idioms. A native speaker repeats them a good few times and accentuates the relevant tone. You also get a quick explanation on how the word is used along with an example. Another section is titled "listen & repeat", however it appears to be similar to the new words section. Additionally a few of the apps include games. Sadly I can't give you a review on those, because I haven't tried any of the games just yet.

All in all, I think the apps are pretty good and hey they're free so I'm definitely not going to complain too much. A couple of the idiom apps are also available for purchase. I wouldn't recommend that you buy the apps for the individual idioms. Instead look for the "book of idioms" apps, which include five idioms each. These may be better value for money, however I couldn't tell you what the interface of those is like. If I decide to purchase one of those, I shall update you on that.

Download Links 成语 (prompts to open iTunes/app store):

下载 "双管齐下" (see above for explanation)

下载 "专心致志" (zhuān xīn zhì zhì | "to devote yourself heart & soul")

下载 "脚踏实地" (jiǎo tà shí dì| "to have one's feet firmly planted on the ground")

下载 "鸿鹄之志" (hóng hú zhī zhì | lit. "to have the aspirations of a swan", meaning: "lofty ambitions")

Bonus: If you want a break from those 成语, there are also a bunch of stories to keep you happy. I've downloaded a few and I'll be checking them out over the next couple of days. Just listening and reading will do me, it's definitely great material to fit into my lunch break or the bus journey to/from work. Another major plus: plug-in your headphones and go a.k.a. the smart way to use your time for studying instead of being bored.

Download Links 故事 (prompts to open iTunes/app store):

下载 "白雪公主" (bái xuě gōng zhǔ | Snow White)

下载 "不莱梅市的乐师" (bù lái méi shì de yuè shī | The Town Musicians of Bremen) -- I loved this story as a kid!!!

There's more than two available but I picked those I thought you may know. There's also a story about a helpful, little monkey and a little fish in the big sea. So let's all enjoy a trip back to when life was easy and we could all snuggle up in bed and listen to a bedtime story.

P.S. Writing a useful blog post is hard work. Just saying.