In which ways Chinese learning APPs are replacing teachers

Chinese learning APPs are quite popular. Many of them have cool features. 

I downloaded quite a few and played around occasionally. There are APPs teaching students vocabulary, APPs providing reading materials, dictionary APPs with built in flash cards,  translating APPs that also work with short speeches, and as well as APPs teaching students spoken Mandarin. 

In many aspects, these APPs are of great help to students and are capable of replacing Chinese teachers. 

I recon it’s a wake-up all for all Chinese teachers that we need to upgrade ourselves.

Meanings of words

There are amazing dictionary APPs which give good English translations or explanations of Chinese words, sometimes with sample sentences available. This is the number one feature that works better than Chinese teachers. 

Students can input a Chinese word and learn many different ways that this word can be used. Students can also input an English word and learn many related Chinese words. Comparing to these learning APPs, Chinese teachers, who are with fallible human brains, can not possibly come up with so many precise answers instantly.

Many APPs are also a Spaced Repetition Software. When used well, it helps students memorise large quantity of new words.

Readings with pinyin on or off

The next best thing a Chinese learning APP can do is to provide reading materials. Students can choose between traditional Chinese characters or simplified ones, and can turn on or off pinyin. Translations of sentences or words are also available at a touch. 

This is definitely more than a teacher can do with reading materials printed on papers. The only problem is that these readings are all very short, even the high level ones. I think the reason is that the engineers wanted the readings to fit in a screen of a mobile device.

Strokes and stroke orders

Nearly all Chinese learning APPs are equipped with the animation function showing how to write a Chinese character following specific stroke orders. Before, it was a teacher’s job to show students how to write Chinese characters. Now, this job can be done by a Chinese learning APP super easily. 

Some learning APPs also provide some space for students to practice writing Chinese characters. It is pretty cool. But I don’t think it’s necessary.

One problem is that learning APPs insist that students must follow the prescribed stroke orders. If students write the character using slightly different stroke orders, the APP would consider students wrong. A computer software does not know that there can be more than one way to write a Chinese character. Stroke orders don’t matter too much as long as students have sufficient practice.

Another problem is that students can only write individual characters. They can’t really write a sentence or a paragraph. That diminish the effect of what writing is capable of producing, because writing words works much better for students to memorise Chinese characters. 

Mandarin pronunciations of words

When Chinese learning APPs are teaching vocabulary, they all provide pre-recorded sound bites. Students can touch the speaker icon and listen to a Chinese character, a word or a sentence. They can listen to any part of the texts as many times as they want. 

This is a good demonstration of Mandarin pronunciations and students can follow it easily. In this aspect, a Chinese teacher is not needed at all. 

Some learning APPs are also able to give feedbacks. Students record themselves and get a mark on how good their pronunciation is. 

I’ve seen some cool demonstrations on how a mispronounced word is picked out by the machine.

Chinese learning APPs & Chinese teachers

Chinese learning APPs have been developed rapidly and nicely, with cool features added on continuously. Chinese teachers are not needed to drill on pronunciations, to provide translations, to demonstrate stroke orders, and so on. 

I hope all Chinese teachers treat these developments as positive news. With the help of learning APPs, teachers can focus on things that are more important and are able to bring a deeper impact on students’ learning. 

Understanding is easy, but doing is difficult. What students really need is to transform all the knowledge from a mere “understand” to a place they can put into active use. This process can only be successful with sufficient practice.

Teachers are better equipped for this task, providing meaningful engaging and fun practices that students need. 

Another job Chinese teachers can do that learning APPs can not is to inspire. 

At NCLC 2022, I had a short presentation, talking about my experiences in organising the Chinese Writing Contest and lessons I learned. One of the important lessons is that, for teachers, to inspire is more pressing than to teach. 


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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