As the number of people interested in learning a certain increases, so do does the demand for tools and resources related to that language. A quick search on online offers a plethora of different websites, computer programs, apps and other services that all promise to radically improve your Chinese. However, over the years, I’ve found very few products that I actually find worthwhile enough to recommend to others.
My review policy here on Hacking Chinese is that I only write about products I like (which is why I call it recommendations instead of reviews). I usually accept offers to review products, but I always require the right to simply not write anything at all about the product if I don’t think it’s good enough. If I think it provides genuine help with learning Chinese, preferably in an area where there is little help to find elsewhere, I’m more than happy to write a recommendation
Skritter is just such an example. I started using Skritter roughly eight months ago and I have been using it regularly ever since, with only occasional periods of laziness when exams and major reports are due.
To put it very briefly, Skritter is an app (for your phone or computer) that allows you to practise writing Chinese characters by hand and offers you feedback on your writing. Skritter is a spaced repetition software, which means that it will give you the words you need with carefully calculated intervals to maximise your learning efficiency. Unlike any other software I know, Skritter is (mostly) able to tell you if you’re correct or not and will guide you through the standard stroke order and character composition if you forget how to write a character.
The main reason I recommend Skritter
I will go into slightly more detail below, but before I do that, I’d like to state briefly the main reason I’m recommending Skritter. I’m a fairly advanced student myself, but even if I’m enrolled in a master’s program taught entirely in Chinese for native speakers, I still use a computer to write Chinese 99% of the time. This is very bad if you have in-class exams that require you to write long answers by hand. I’m also a teacher of Chinese and as such, I need to remember how to write characters by hand. I also think that knowing how to write characters is an integral part of knowing Chinese, but that’s my personal opinion and not something I’m going to force either on you or my students.
The reason I want to recommend Skritter is that it’s part of the most efficient solution to build and maintain the ability to write Chinese by hand. Most foreign adult learners can’t walk the long road to written proficiency and mimic the learning process of native speakers. That requires more than twelve years of language heavy education (grades 1-12) and most of us simply can’t do that. I believe that Skritter, mnemonics and sensible character learning is the way to go.
Another important point is that Skritter is fun and not a little addictive. It’s probably bad to be addicted to StarCraft 2 (even if you play only in Chinese) if you have tons of other things you ought to do instead, but if the addictive activity helps you overcome a major problem when learning Chinese, slight addiction is a huge benefit. Learning should be fun and Skritter is definitely more fun than writing lots of characters on a blank sheet of paper. Part of the fun is that Skritter offers direct feedback and measurable progress. It’s not a game, but it feels like one at times. How many characters can you learn this week? Can you you get the number of correct answers higher than last week?
Who is Skritter for?
If you look at the official material, Skritter seems to be for everyone because that’s the way it’s marketed. That is mostly true, but I would like to add that you should have access to one of the following to make Skritter worthwhile:
- An iOS or Android smartphone
- A writing tablet for your computer
Of course, you can write character with your mouse or a trackpad or whatever, but I feel that that defeats the purpose of handwriting a bit. If you plan to use your computer, buy a writing tablet (it’s not that expensive); if you have a smartphone, use that
I would say that Skritter is equally useful for beginner, intermediate and advanced students, or at least I find it very useful now (I know around 5000 characters) and I would be very happy if I could send Skritter back in time to when I started learning Chinese.
However, if you are a complete beginner and study only traditional characters, I don’t recommend using Skritter until you know more about strokes and character composition.
The app is mostly geared towards the mainland and simplified Chinese. Of course, it has a traditional version, but there are several problems. For instance, the pronunciation is always Mainland Chinese and you can’t change that, not even manually. This will be very confusing for beginners in Taiwan, but as soon as you reach a more advanced level, you probably want to learn both anyway.
Furthermore, some stroke orders (and sometimes components of characters) don’t match the standards in Taiwan or Hong Kong. I study traditional characters myself, but I have a fairly good grasp of what I’m doing and I don’t feel that this is problem for me. If you don’t have a good understanding of characters in general, I would advice against using Skritter for learning traditional characters. The rest of you will be fine!
Minor problems and inconveniences
Naturally, no product is perfect and Skritter is no exception. Apart from the problem with traditional characters mentioned above, I have one major complaint about Skritter, except for the traditional/Taiwan issue mentioned above:
Coming from Anki (another spaced repetition software), I must say that the vocabulary browser and editing functions are very weak indeed. In Anki, you can do almost anything you want, but in Skritter you’re limited to using a fairly awkward interface.
How does Skritter work?
The goal with this article isn’t to reproduce either the programs feature list or the manual, so rather than talking about how the program works, here are a few videos that show you how it works much more effectively.
First, an official video just to show you what it looks like:
And another official one for the app:
And finally a demo of the web interface I also use a lot:
Are there any extra features worth mentioning?
Apart from the core functionality of Skritter, there are a number of useful features, including user-created vocabulary lists, mnemonics you can share with others, detailed statistics of your own studying (key for the game-like feel), example sentences and an excellent blog about learning Chinese.
How do I use Skritter?
I only use Skritter for handwriting. I think Anki is a far superior program when it comes to SRS in general and the only reason I would recommend people to use Skritter for anything but handwriting is if you want to keep everything in one place.
At the moment, I only do single character writings in Skritter; any cloze tests, recognition or other types of reviewing are still done in Anki. These don’t overlap often, so it’s not a big problem. So, in essence, I do single characters in Skritter and everything else in Anki.
How should you use Skritter?
The obvious way of using Skritter is to supplement your normal studying. You can probably find the vocabulary to your textbook online (it’s probably already available in Skritter) and that’s a logical place to start.
What you want to do next is up to you. If you want to do only single character writing like I do, fine, if you want to include listening, character recognition and so on, do that. Whatever you do, though, remember the limits of SRS and my call for more sensible character learning!
How do I get it?
You can download Skritter from the official website and use it for free for a week. You can then keep using the service for free, but if you want to add more words, you need to subscribe. In other words, you can keep reviewing what you have already learnt for free.
Skritter is a genuinely useful program. It’s part of the most efficient way of learning characters that I know of and I wish that I’d started using it earlier. It’s a valuable resource for anyone who wants to boost their character knowledge, including the full range from complete beginners up to Mandarin teachers. Skritter is a program I use daily and I think it’s likely to remain so for a very long time.