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Candy Crush Chinese: the Gamification of Language Learning

See you later pen and paper, smartphone apps are the rising stars of Chinese language learning


With brightly colored animations flashing across the screen and a seemingly endless number of cleverly titled levels to unlock, the latest trend in language learning has unexpected sources of inspiration — Candy Crush over textbooks, gaming over memorizing.

Like so many other educational materials, Chinese language learning tools have hopped the paper and pen ship, foregoing the traditional techniques of rote memorization for the more exciting world of the smartphone app.

The language learning apps all feature interactive tools that entertain as well as teach, a trend in education known as “gamification” and pioneered by the founding father of learning apps, DuoLingo.

“In a lot of Western countries we now see ourselves as competitive with Candy Crush. We want to be a very popular game and we want people to play when they’re bored,” Gina Gotthilf, a DuoLingo spokeswoman, told AFP.


Learn a lesson, plant a flower. For Memrise users, botany and Chinese go hand in hand.

While DuoLingo does not currently offer a Chinese course, apps like Memrise, Skritter, and ChineseSkill do just that, creating highly addictive games for the linguistically inclined.

Shanghai-based Memrise has already garnered 25 million users, offering courses in Mandarin Chinese and several dialects. The app features a “Garden of Memory,” where users plant virtual seeds when they learn new words—the more the users review and practice, the more the seeds will grow and bloom. If a user forgets to review her characters, she’ll receive reminders notifying her that the carefully cultivated flowers of knowledge are now, tragically, wilting.

The garden grows as users move up in levels, committing Chinese vocabulary to memory with the help of mnemonics and animations. Each level, and its accompanying animations and vocabulary, follows an algorithm that borrows from the Candy Crush model.

“Candy Crush is effective because it adjusts the difficulty level to just the right level for you,” said Ben Whately, who worked on Memrise’s Chinese courses, told the AFP. “That is exactly what our learning algorithm does: adjusts when you are tested so that you always have to struggle a little bit, but you are generally successful.”

With tens of millions of users and counting, Memrise has clearly struck gold in the learning department, largely due to its careful balance between challenging and rewarding users.

Daniel Blurton, a director at a pediatric mental health clinic in Hong Kong, said he enjoyed how Memrise allowed him “to see immediate progress and track how much you’ve accomplished,” making the daunting task of starting Chinese seem “manageable,” the AFP reports.

In the same report, Phillip Mattheis, a German journalist currently growing his own garden of Chinese characters said, “It’s so quick, it doesn’t feel like any effort… I learnt a few hundred characters without really trying.”


ChineseSkill users unlock levels with every lesson they learn, all while a panda cheers them on.

ChineseSkill, one of Memrise’s major competitors, emphasizes a similar sort of convenient and fast-paced model of learning that has begun to attract students to the world
of smartphone classrooms. Its relatively simple website advertises the app as “a novel way to study Chinese characters,” touting its game-based education tools as “effective and efficient for learners on the go.” 

The majority of the webpage, however,  is taken up by an iphone, its screen showing a map of lesson plans—many of which featuring a cute panda animation—that users will complete. Taking a page from the gaming industry, ChineseSkill employs the technique of “unlocking levels.” Users can only move up a level/lesson if they answer enough questions, a reward-driven method that has successfully attracted droves of competitively minded Chinese learners. The fact that a cute panda punches the air in joy every time a user answers correctly doesn’t hurt the app’s popularity, either.

While ChineseSkill and Memrise focus on memorizing vocabulary and definitions, the popular app Skritter instructs users on the order and direction of strokes with bright graphics and feedback that flashes when users make a mistake. Faced with a blank screen page, users write down, or more specifically, draw with their fingers, characters that they’ve studied in the provided eBooks.


Skritter: one part Fruit Ninja, one part Classical Chinese classroom.

Swipe out a character correctly and the screen flashes green, your hand-drawn lines morphing into calligraphy-esque characters followed by a checkmark. The effect is half Fruit Ninja half Classical Chinese writing course, a surprisingly successful combination that has led to over 450 million characters correctly “written” by users.

“The only way to quickly learn lots of characters is to write them 20 to 30 times,” said Hong Kong-based businessman Brad Jester in an email to the AFP. “I started by doing this on paper, but Skritter is better because it replays them for you in a better timed sequence.”

While apps like Skritter, ChineseSkill, and Memrise collectively share a user base of millions, linguistic experts believe that the apps likely aid only in memorizing characters and vocabulary—and though memorization is key to learning a language, it is only part of a complicated process best steered by real life (read: not virtual) teachers.

 Dr. Peter Crosthwaite of the University of Hong Kong says, “there are very, very few examples of the internet being used to teach someone a language from a beginner to advanced level of proficiency,” AFP reports.

He adds, “The gamification of (language) learning is, in my opinion, a welcome approach – particularly with children – although one must be careful to focus on the learning aspect of the tasks, rather than the point-scoring.”

For those interested in learning Chinese outside of the classroom, then, it would appear that the smartphone app provides a fun, if not incomplete, alternative to the textbook. In the world of language learning, Candy Crush still can’t quite seem to beat out the good old  schoolroom approach.

 Images Courtesy of Karintha Lowe


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