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Chinese Flashcards iPhone/iPod Review


Chinese Flashcards is an iPhone/iPod application created by the developers at The interface is extremely straightforward and simple, allowing students of Chinese to review some 2700 most frequently used Chinese characters in either their simplified or traditional form going from the character to its English approximate meaning and pinyin with tone marks. The application provides a graded slideshow broken into fairly compact rounds of study called “sessions” which are components of the whole study environment called a “test.”

Performance in each session is fed into a form of interval study that prompts the user at a later point to review words mistaken. Users can begin any given session again or erase all interval study data and start the “test” again from scratch.

Application Name: Chinese Flashcards
iTunes Application Link: Chinese Flashcards
Version Reviewed: 1.00
Software License: Commercial (about $5)
Review Date: 2009.02.15
OS Tested: iPod Touch 2.2

Note: This review is from the perspective of language learners, and especially those who will be engaged in high-volume and long-term study of vocabulary. See the Terms page for an explanation of the technical terms used in these reviews. See the Basics page for a list of basic features found in flashcard applications useful to language learners.

The website for the application has a very nicely written, complete with images, description of the features of the application which I recommend looking at. Beginning students of Chinese may also want to see the newest application they are offering which focuses on vocabulary rather than individual characters.

The application has one extremely frustrating aspect that I hope will be rectified in future releases: it has extremely slow transitions between cards and card sides. The time taken to produce animation for removing the visual tab covering up the answer and flipping the card is much longer than it takes for users to recognize and offer feedback on already known characters. Some visitors to this site have said they disagree with my complaints about this frequent problem in Mac and iPhone/iPod applications but I think it is a very serious problem for high-volume students and the feature should at least be optional. In my estimates with this application, the time taken to animate the removal of the tab and flip the Chinese character card triples the total study time for 25 already confidently known cards. Given 10-20 minutes of study per day, over a month or several months, this translates into very severe waste of study time lost to viewing animations. This is worse than the lost time I have seen in any other flashcard application on the iPhone/iPod so far. Given most students of language engaging in flashcard study will want to maximize the efficiency of their daily review, this UI problem is crippling and needs to be addressed before it can be recommended for serious students of Chinese.

On the good side, this is one of few applications which recognizes the needs of many students who wish to learn the traditional forms of characters who are studying in Taiwan, or who, for other reasons, wish to master the traditional forms. It also allows students to skip characters and leave them out completely from the loop (but it would be nice to offer the ability to selectively reintroduce them if necessary without restarting the “test” completely).

Although this language targeted flashcard application is priced reasonably for one that includes both content and a form of interval study, it can benefit from some improvements in future versions, in addition to resolving the above critical UI problem:

-Users are left completely in the dark about their interval study performance or about how interval study is carried out on the application, let alone giving them some control over the process. They have no way to tell how far any given card has progressed in the interval study process, or an overview of their study except for a basic summary of a session. This application really could benefit from adopting at least some of my recommendations related to statistics in interval study applications. If you are a user of this application, consider requesting some of these features from the developers.

-While this application has interval study to a certain degree, it suffers from a classic case of The Cookie Monster Flaw. It considers all characters that have been correctly reviewed 4 times as “memorized.” Hopefully this will be addressed in future updates and a more thorough interval study spaced interval system will be implemented that keeps in mind that nothing lives in memory forever.

-The 2700 most frequent characters said to make up about 95% of the characters used in newspapers. But 95% is not as good as it sounds. We think of this as an “A” or even an “A+” but it translates into, by my estimate (confirmed by my own experience over the years), around 10-20 Chinese characters per average page of a Chinese book that are not recognized. Perhaps half of these can probably be inferred from context, that still often results in more than half a dozen characters that need to be looked up, or simply ignored. I would recommend serious students of Chinese to use applications that provide a set of 3500 (or more) Chinese characters.

-Since the application already nicely provides smaller sessions of cards, it would be best if a form of cycle elimination was provided before sending these cards into the distant interval study future. This can dramatically help student performance in the future and prevents them from having to manually start a session over.

If the slow visuals are made optional, the cookie monster flaw is resolved, cycle elimination introduced, and some useful statistics for users are included, this could be a major contender in the flashcard market for students of Chinese wanting to master 2700 characters.