Introducing WordSwing's New iPhone App

iPhone screen shots

We are pleased to announce our new iPhone App, available now in the Apple App Store.

Our new app packs a few major changes:

  1. Traditional character support!! This has been our most-requested feature. Simplified is still supported too, of course. You can enable traditional characters in expand-out menu under Settings.
  2. A new audio player that underlies text while you listen (see video below).
  3. An entirely new text adventure game interface.

There's one important qualification:

At it's release the app only supports the text adventure games.

We will be adding other activities as we make progress on adding support for traditional characters to those activities.

As I mentioned above, our app has a new audio player that will underline the characters as they are read. This makes it much easier to follow along with the audio if you're not super comfortable with the characters.

Here's a little movie of what that looks like:

Other important changes include a built-in dictionary that doesn't overlay what you're reading, and the ability to restore any text game (not just your most recent one). We are also laying the groundwork for richer progress tracking.

Why a new app?

We have wanted to make WordSwing a more cohesive learning experience rather than the somewhat eclectic activities present in on our website. We decided to use the iOS app as a place to experiment with doing this while at the same time solving a number of longstanding issues, such as lacking support for traditional characters and a suboptimal experience on small screens.

The iOS app is built using the same underlying web-oriented technologies as our web app and so this will make it easy to both bring over some of the other activities and features, as well as bring some of the new design over to the web app. You can expect the iOS app and web site to grow closer together going forward. This will also make it possible for us to offer an Android app in the near future.

You are free to use both the web app and the iOS app; your learn stage ratings and other data are shared between them. And whether you subscribe through the app or through the website, your subscription will be valid both places.

Want to give it a go?

If you play our text adventure games and you use iOS, we encourage you to try out the new app. You can find it in the app store by searching for "wordswing".

After you give it a go, please consider rating the app. This will help other people find it in the app store and it will help us know that our students like the app and want us to continue developing it.

Also, don't forget to tell us what you think. Many aspects of the design of this app have been informed by input from our students. Your voices matter and we listen and try and incorporate suggestions.


Getting up to speed with Chinese reading

Stepping stones in river

A student recently asked me for advice on getting up to speed quickly reading Chinese. I figured I'd share the comments here because it might be useful to those students for whom the material on WordSwing feels a bit out of reach. This advice relates primarily to reading, as that was this student's interest, and it's biased by my own preferences and experiences.

I'm a fan of graded readers. The first good (and perhaps still the best) graded reader was by DeFrancis, Beginning Chinese Reader. These are two volumes (Part I and Part II) and they introduce about 400 (traditional) characters. There is a revised edition that has been updated to be more modern and less literary. These books are just for learning characters and practicing reading. They are very well designed. He also wrote books that go along with them (i.e., use the same characters) but which introduce basic grammar, and the readers are careful to keep pace grammar-wise with the text book. I've never read the grammar books though because by the time I discovered the readers I was familiar with Chinese grammar, which is actually rather simple. A good grammar book is Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar. You might also be interested in Heisig's books on learning characters. He has a very particular method for relating the constituent parts of Chinese characters to stories as a way to memorize the large number of characters. I don't particularly recommend following his method exactly, but some vague familiarity with his ideas is very useful. John Pasden's Mandarin Companion graded readers are also very good. If you were to work your way through the two DeFrancis readers, a grammar book, and some of the Mandarin Companion books, then all of what WordSwing offers would be well within reach.


PS: Look for used copies of these books if you'd like to save money.

Incremental character learning through games

Stepping stones in river
(photo by Susanne Nilsson)

Reading text in Chinese can often seem like looking at wall of inscrutable text if too many of the characters are unfamiliar.

And while we've tried to keep the number of distinct characters low, our text games are no exception. Here's a breakdown of how many distinct characters are in each game:

GameDistinct Characters
Burning Building399
Wandering Cat574
Into the Haze649

Undoubtedly, many of these characters you already know, but if there are substantial gaps, these can interfere with your reading and make the game less fun.

Our goal here is to show you a study strategy for getting to about 95% familiarity with the text of the adventure games.

The characters that will help you play the game the most are also the characters that you see most often in the game, and so by focusing on these you can simultaneously make the experience of playing the game more fun and more useful.

And although the characters that appear only once in a game make up a substantial fraction of the distinct characters in the game, these singletons make up a tiny fraction of the actual text.

In aggregate, the characters that appear only once in a game only make up between 1% and 1.5% of the text in the game.

For these singletons, it makes sense not to worry about them and to just use the built-in dictionary feature to look up words when you encounter them. Later, when there is a context where these characters are more important, you can learn them then.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of overlap among our text adventure games. In what follows, we discuss one way to leverage this.

Stepping stones

The overlap in which characters are used in each game actually suggests an optimal progression through the games.

In total there are 965 distinct Chinese characters throughout our first five text adventure games. But only 197 of these are used in all the games. Furthermore, most of these are very common Chinese characters, and so you likely already know or are familiar with most of them.

Starting from this baseline, if you familiarize yourself with 88 additional characters, then as you play the first game in the progression, Burning Building, you will already be familiar with 93% of all the text in the game.

We're not suggesting mastering all 88 of these characters before you start playing. That would defeat the purpose of playing the game! The whole point of playing is to have fun while improving your knowledge of Chinese. Rather, we are suggesting familiarizing yourself with the ones you don't know so that when you see them in the game, you have an opportunity to recall them, which seems to be the important neural-connection-forming activity of learning.

From there, you can progress through each of the next 4 games, previewing exactly those characters that will most help you through each successive game.

Here I illustrate this progression:

Incremental character learning infographic

At each step of the way you will be familiar with upwards of 95% of all the text in the game! That might be a huge difference from if you dive in without strategically filling in the gaps in advance.

We estimate that the typical student can go from being familiar with less than 75% of text to being familiar with 95% of the text.

This is like going from 1 in 4 characters looking unfamiliar to only 1 in 20 characters looking unfamiliar!

Word lists to the rescue

If you would like to try out the above progression through our five games, we have set up six word lists on WordSwing corresponding to the above sets of characters.

These lists contain words that use the characters at each particular step pictured. Learning the characters in the context of words that are used in the game will provide you more context than learning isolated characters.

Tap the "fork" button to make a personal copy to study from:

The idea is not to learn all the words now, but rather to merely preview vocabulary that involves characters you are unfamiliar with. If you've been using WordSwing's knowledge stage ratings then you can use these to prune the list of words down to only those you haven't noticed yet.

If you tap the Adjust knowledge stages button, you can see your ratings for these words:

Incremental learning knowledge states

You can then tap the Prune list button and tap each of the three links for marking by rating, discovered, learning, and mastered. This will allow you to then delete these words from the list so you can focus on the words you don't know. After you've tapped the three links, you'll see purple X's next to the ones that will be deleted when you tap the trash button:

Prune incremental learning list

One way to preview the words is simply to select Drill down mode when viewing the word list and then tap on any of the words you want to look up. You can then see the pronunciation and meaning in the built-in dictionary.

But you can also use these word lists with any of our word list-oriented activities, including:

Pronunciation Recall - Spaced repetition where you are prompted with a character and are asked to recall it's pronunciation. This is my top choice for this task because it most resembles reading.

Pronunciation Recall screenshot

Frequency-ordered SRS - Spaced repetition where you try and recall how the character is written.

Frequency-ordered SRS screenshot

Character Memory Grid - An fast-paced character memory game where you remember how characters are pronounced.

Character memory grid animation


So if you're looking for a methodical way to use our Text Adventure Games to grow your Chinese vocabulary and character knowledge, we encourage you to try the games following the above progression, and preview the vocabulary before you play the game. This way, as you play the games and master the vocabulary, upwards of 95% of the text will at least be a bit familiar.

And keep in mind you are more than welcome to just dive in and play. This strategy is just an idea, and you're also welcome to use some hybrid approach, whereby you go back and forth between previewing word lists and playing the game.

Have fun!

Kevin & Olle

PS: If you'd just like the lists of characters in this progression, here you go:

Universal (common to every game):


Important for Burning Building:


Important for Escape:


Important for Zoo:


Important for Wandering Cat:


Important for Into the Haze:


Turn an adventure game into speaking fluency practice

Class in the forest

Our text adventure games, on the surface, are reading and listening activities. Yet, these same games can be easily transformed into speaking fluency exercises.

The games games have a default mode of practice, namely you read the game narrative, listen to the voice recordings, and look up words you don't know.

But this doesn't help you improve your speaking fluency. In fact, nothing that WordSwing currently offers directly helps you practice speaking. But that doesn't mean you can't turn the table and make your own speaking fluency practice out of our text adventure games.

Here's one such methodology:

  1. Play through a couple choices in the game, looking up any words you don't know in the built-in dictionary and listening to the audio.
  2. Stop when you have a comfortable amount of text on the screen, perhaps after 5-10 items of text have been added to the game conversation window.
  3. Go back and see if you can read through a line of text without looking up any words. If you can't, listen to the audio and try again. If you forgot what a word means, look it up again.
  4. Speak the line out loud. Pretend you are an oral storyteller. This will require you to speak it smoothly and in a compelling and engaging way. Speak it out loud at least three times. Each time, try and increase the fluency of your speech, but be sure not to sacrifice your tones too much.
  5. Continue to the next line when you're ready, and repeat this exercise for each line in the batch.

Upshots of this style of practice

Obviously there's a lot more to speech fluency than is embodied in this exercise. You need to have the vocabulary at your fingertips, be able to formulate your thoughts into sentences, and speak them out smoothly and clearly.

The value of this exercise lies in isolating just the last part: speaking smoothly and clearly. This allows you to ignore mastering a sufficiently large vocabulary to have a conversation; instead you just need to learn the words in the exercise sentences. And you don't need to know how to form error free sentences; you are provided with a good one to work with.

This leaves all of your attention at the disposal of practicing your speaking, freeing up brain power to focus on tones, and cadence, getting the sounds to flow smoothly off your lips.

Another major advantage is you can do this activity entirely privately. If you're not that comfortable having conversations with others in Chinese, you might not actually get that much speaking practice.

But why not just read aloud to oneself? Why go to all the effort to practice the same sentence many times?

The answer is simply that your progress would be too imperceptible. If you had some trouble pronouncing a certain phrase, say it had an awkward tone transition or phoneme combination, it might be a long time before you encounter that again. By then you might make the same mistake again or not improve. But by practicing the same sentence several times in a row, you can observe very clearly your improvement in speech fluency throughout the few repetitions.

You can identify problem spots and work to solve them. Very soon you will see the dividends of this deliberate practice on your unscripted speaking efforts. The gains from this entirely artificial exercise will carry over into natural speaking.

Let's give it a go

Now, I'll embarrass myself by trying to do this with the first two sentences in the game, Wandering Cat.

Here's the sentence:


nǐ zhèngzài jiā zhōng kàn shū. nǐ māma zhèngzài yībiān kàn shǒujī, yībiān hē chá. zhè shí, ménlíng xiǎng le.

And here's me embarrassing myself:

And here is the second sentence:


yīdìng shì nǐ jiùjiu lái le. wǒ wàng le gēn nǐ shuō le, tā zhīqián shuō guò yào lái.

Which I try here:

(keep in mind that yībiān is pronounced yìbiān with the appropriate tone sandhi change and yīdìng becomes yídìng)


By isolating just the task of speaking a sentence with fluency, you can make rapid gains for isolated sentences. But very quickly these fluency gains will begin overflowing into your everyday, unconstrained use of Chinese.

I'm sure you've noticed by now, that this activity is not particular to our text adventure games. All it requires is line-by-line audio. Many of our other activities like our comics and dialogs can also be repositories from which to mine practice sentences.

If you like this practice idea, you can even use WordSwing's study habits to try and make a routine of it.

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