If you have an iPhone (or an Android phone) and are looking for a way to memorize Chinese words you can use the free Google Translate app to create your own custom-made flashcards. Google Translate doesn’t come with the bells and whistles that paid apps might have, but it perfectly serves the purpose if your objective is to simply memorize new words.
You can create flashcards in any language supported by the app, but I’ve found it to be particularly useful with Mandarin Chinese. One of the reasons why you’d want to use flashcards with Chinese is that it’s a tone-based language, meaning that there are five different ways a syllable can be pronounced, e.g. qīng, qíng, qǐng, qìng, and qing. In order to be understood by other people you have to get the tones right. And flashcards happen to be a brilliant way to to practice them.
For this purpose Google Translate is very convenient because the app displays the pinyin tones automatically. As long as you can recognize the word or phrase written out in Chinese characters, the app does the rest for you.
Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Set the Languages
Set the app to translate from English to Chinese. This is important because if you set it to translate from Chinese to English, it won’t display the pinyin; you’d only see the Chinese characters and the English translation (and I strongly suggest you use a different app for translation) as you can see in the second snapshot.
Step 2: Adding a Word
To add a word, simply type it in the box and tap 前往 (go).
Step 3: Saving the Word
Google Translate keeps a record of all the recent words and phrases you’ve looked up, so in order to keep things organized you should star the entries that you want to focus on. To do that, just tap the star icon.
Step 4: Browsing Your Flashcards
When you’ve saved your first flashcard, it will appear in the Starred tab. This is where you’ll be looking at your flashcards and testing yourself if you remember how the words are pronounced.
Step 5: Checking the Answer
Tapping on an entry will reveal the pinyin romanization and tones. Additionally, you can tap the voice icon to hear the pronunciation.
If you tilt the phone horizontally you can see the characters printed in a larger font, which is great for distinguishing individual strokes.
Recognize Google’s Mistakes!
There are some cases where Google makes mistakes, particularly with compound words that include 不 and 一 since they follow a particular pronunciation rule. You should be careful not to learn them incorrectly.
For example, if you write 不用, Google transcribes it as “bù yòng” even though the correct pronunciation would be “bú yòng” (with an initial rising tone). Also, 一个人 is shown as “yī gè rén” (incorrect) instead of “yí gè rén” (correct).