Combatting “Expat Illiteracy” With Apps

Due to a lack of English spoken among the average residents in Chengdu, learning Chinese is virtually a necessity in this city. Without knowledge of spoken Chinese, many of the doors to the best experiences you can have in China will remain tragically closed.

The same can be said for reading and writing Chinese – once you learn, a deeper level of understanding China becomes available to you. Maybe you’re learning a traditional Chinese instrument, becoming a tea expert, or learning about the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. It’ll be difficult to do any of those things without some knowledge of written Chinese.

An Australian app developer named Aaron contacted me recently about an iPad app called “nommoc” which he developed that, in its own words, aims to help you save trees, write Chinese, stop “expat illiteracy”. I was fascinated by the term expat illiteracy and conducted a short interview.

Interview with Aaron of Nommoc App

Aaron of Nommoc
Aaron of nommoc

Who are you and what’s your history with China?

My name is Aaron, I started learning Chinese in 2006. I lived and studied in Beijing and surrounding areas for two and a half years before returning home to Australia, and have been to Beijing, Qingdao, Kunming, Tianjin and Harbin in China.

Can you describe your app?

The app is called nommoc, and it’s a universal app that works for iPhone and iPad. The idea for the app came from observing how native Chinese people in China learn to write Chinese. They do the following: while looking at an example character they use a pen and paper to write the character and pinyin. Nommoc allows you to utilize this proven learning method on your Apple device using your finger or stylus.

nommoc app

We also really wanted to have Chinese character stroke animation that was a play-back of a real Chinese person’s hand writing. It took a lot of work, and no small amount of time for our Chinese friend to write the 2,500 most common Chinese characters, but we finally got them done and the real animations are all in there (hooray!)

Lastly, when you write in nommoc it preserves your actual handwriting instead of replacing it with a pre-built stoke animation. I hope this makes the writing experience more natural. Our nommoc slogan is: save trees, write Chinese, stop “expat illiteracy”.

What drove you to develop an app to serve this purpose?

Three reasons drove me to develop it:

  1. I needed it personally. I too wanted to learn how to write Chinese!
  2. I felt other apps were too complex, too expensive or simply lacked the features I needed
  3. When living in China I realized many expats learn to speak Chinese, yet few ever learn to write. Expat illiteracy is a real issue.

What is the Chinese language learning community missing most in your opinion?

Two things, one being a greater emphasis on reading and writing. A Chinese teacher once said: “Speaking and listening is one leg, reading and writing is like the second leg. It takes two legs to walk.” The second is greater emphasis on long term study, there are three good examples of this, they are: Mark Rowswell (??), John Pasden (of Sinosplice), Olle Linge (???).

Can you describe the trend of “expat illiteracy” in China?

Sure. I feel like it can be divided into three stages:

  • Stage one comes as you arrive in China or start to learn Chinese and realize, “wow, learning to write Chinese is going to be really hard!”. In fact in the beginning I think it pretty much seems “impossible”.
  • Stage two arrives when you find out many local Chinese don’t expect you to be “literate”. They will try to speak some English with you, or give you a “picture” menu to order from, or even just resort to pointing and other gestures to get the message across. This effectively lessens the urgency of the whole “need” to learn to read or write Chinese thing.
  • The third and final stage occurs when you’ve lived in China for a while, and find out that being an “illiterate expat” is totally possible! (yikes!) Some expats around me had lived in China for years and still could not read or write Chinese. So, in the end you think, why do I even need to learn to read/write? Maybe it’s just not that important after all? Having arrived at stage three, there is little to no motivation left to battle “expat illiteracy”. (Sigh)

What’s been your personal method of learning Chinese?

It has included self-study as well as attending structured Chinese classes in China. I’ve also spent a lot of time on the streets of China meeting and talking with a lot of local Chinese.

Every now and again I also listen to ChinesePod and other similar pod-casts. I use Pleco to look up words and finally, most recently wrote the nommoc app to help me learn to write the 2,500 most common Chinese characters.

nommoc app

What are your three biggest tips for anyone learning Chinese?

I actually have four:

  1. I believe it is important to commit long term to learning. Learning Chinese won’t happen overnight, it takes time. The fun comes as you get better with the language.
  2. I really like to use technology as part of the learning process. As writing software is my secular job, I’m always looking for ways to improve the learning process and help make learning Chinese more efficient. I think students should be on the look out for where technology can help them learn.
  3. When you get burned out (and you will!) take a rest or back off on the “learning pressure”. Taking classes everyday in China was great, but can quickly become overwhelming. So you can vary your learning methods as you get overwhelmed with one in particular.
  4. Remember why you started learning in the first place. Likely there was a reason you started learning Chinese, chances are that reason still exists and if you focus on that, you won’t give up learning no matter how long or frustrating it is. ; )

How would you compare learning Chinese in somewhere like Chengdu versus Beijing or Shanghai?

Beijing and Shanghai have many more expats, so naturally the opportunity to speak English socially is higher. If your goal is to go to China to learn Chinese, this might be something you want to take into consideration. Perhaps other cities like Chengdu or similar ones where expats are present, but not as many, will ensure you have a good opportunity to learn Chinese. Not to mention the cost of living, since Beijing and Shanghai are both really expensive.

Aside from your smartphone, what have been your most valuable tools for learning Chinese?

Making friends with local Chinese. Learning “real Chinese” from the locals along with the culture behind the language.

What do you think the future of learning Chinese looks like? Apps, or something else?

It should be interesting, I hope to see a continued focus on blending technology and traditional learning methods

Not to mention, I think great things happen when local Chinese and expats work together to develop Chinese related learning techniques and technology, as that is how we developed nommoc.

Many thanks to Charlie and Chengdu Living for the opportunity to talk about Chinese learning. I really hope we can join together and help stop “expat illiteracy”! ?????

Links to Check Out

You can download nommoc for $0.99 for any iOS device here: nommoc on iTunes, or visit the official nommoc homepage with more information. If you haven’t already, check out the Learning Chinese post series on Chengdu Living, too.

28 thoughts on “Combatting “Expat Illiteracy” With Apps”

  1. I’ve been learning Chinese at the university for 1.5 years now and I agree at the start it seemed impossible to read and write.

    However if you put time in it, the reading is actually not all that hard. Lots of characters are connected and radicals or parts of the character help you with the meaning or pronunciation. Living in China you also see characters daily; outside, on a menu, using Weibo and Wechat, which all help your learning process.

    But the writing is something totally different. Without a quick look at a character or without the first 1-2 strokes to start with I can’t write all that much. Nowadays with the use of computers and phones who writes anyway?!? It’s mainly pinyin that you use to type.

    • I can relate. I’ll never forget shortly after I arrived in Chengdu when I saw an expat responding to text messages in Chinese: I was amazed. Seeing that was an early turning point in learning to read and write Chinese for me – I knew it was possible, and shortly after I committed myself to it.

      I’m exactly as you describe with reading and writing – reading is no issue for me but freehand writing is very difficult. I think that’s because I rarely write freehand and I often don’t mentally associate characters with the radicals that are within them. The key to writing freehand that I’ve learned is that you just remember which radicals are in each character, and then reproducing them becomes easier.

      A few weeks ago at our house party I saw Larry of the Natooke Bike Shop writing a menu on a black board. Writing things like beer and water in Chinese is easy, but writing french fries (薯条) is really impressive. I think I’ve met a handful of expats in Chengdu that have reached that level of proficiency at writing Chinese without referencing anything.

  2. This article has just reminded me that I’ve exerted a disappointingly small of amount of effort to learn Chinese when that was one of my goals of coming to Chengdu a year ago. Laziness is one reason, but paired with the daunting difficulty of the Chinese language it’s really quite a challenge.

    It’s especially embarrassing for me, as an American Chinese, to not have a handle on the language. Daily conversation and writing in pinyin, which are very related, is one thing that I’m OK at which is purely due to the fact that I’ve been hearing Chinese all my life. However recognizing characters and writing them, I simply cannot do. It’s awkward when I’m at restaurants with other foreigners and the waitstaff naturally look to me to order, but I’m the only one at the table that can’t read the menu.

    It’s really tough. Even the native children have to drill and drill to learn how to write the characters. We would have to show an even higher level of dedication to learn Chinese.

    I have much admiration for those that have accomplished the feat that is the Chinese language.

    • I know what you mean, Chris. When I find apps like these or read articles like this, it reminds me how little effort I consciously exert on continuing to improve my Chinese. For me, I self studied pretty hard for the first few years, and then spent less and less time studying and practicing as I spent more time speaking and interacting in Chinese. You reach a plateau after a few years though, where you can more or less communicate everything you want to say, so the gains on further study are lessened. I’ve met few expats that push through that ceiling of general competency and get to really elite fluency because it takes so much time and dedication.

      Stick with it.

  3. I actually find the characters to be the easiest part of the language. Listening is by far harder. I can’t say how many times I hear something like “jing” and I stop myself trying to figure which character the speaker is referring to as there are 40 different ones (regardless of tone, but I’m still getting a feel for the tones when someone is talking at native speed). Whenever I learn a new character or combination, whether I learn it through listening or reading, I write it down. Only this way have I been able to memorize them quite well (except when I overload myself with new characters and combinations).

    I’m personally trying to connect speaking and writing in that if I can say something but not write it by hand, then I really don’t know it. Dictation, where you listen to someone say something and you transcribe what they say, helps a lot connecting the

    As for memorizing them, perhaps I find it easy because my mind is deeply spacial, after paying attention to the stroke order for the first 1,000 characters, I can just look at any character, even traditional characters, and be able to write them with ease. While learning the first 1,000, I looked closely at each one and broke them down into their components, and memorized them by the location of their components. That way after you have encountered most of the components, you can look at most characters, recognize the components, and know almost immediately how to write them. I feel that before the days of Pinyin it was easier to remember the characters because all of the dictionaries were organized by the radical and stroke order. I’m slowly teaching myself traditional characters and it isn’t that hard.

    Lastly, the grammar of Chinese is inconsistently similar to English at times. It makes it harder since I’m all the more tempted to think in English.

    • Oh yeah, walk around with a pen and notebook in your pocket. And if someone says something you don’t know, hand them to them and have them write it, saying “汉字和拼音”。

      • That’s a strategy that works! I have 5-6 Moleskine notebooks that I traveled across China with from 2005-2008, filled with Chinese written by me as I learned vocabulary, and the occasional stranger who would demonstrate the right way to write something. It’s a lot of fun to have the notebook to look back on also so see how far you’ve come.

    • I know what you mean by the writing language being easier – everything is very clear and straight forward, especially compared to spoken Chinese which has so much variation across the country. I’ve always been particularly interested in the written language, even though my recall is mediocre when it comes to freehand writing. As you say, I believe the key is knowing all the radicals inside and out, and remembering their positions within characters. Thinking of the position of the radicals in each character and their position is the best approach. I’ve explained the system of radicals to non-Chinese speakers and they’re usually blown away by how Chinese is broken into smaller, logical parts in that way.

      Your goal is write everything that you can say is very admirable. I would estimate that I can write 10% of the Chinese that I speak by hand. On an electronic device, I would say it’s around 90%.

      Paul, have you written with the Wubi method before? I tried switching to that and couldn’t stay with it at all. Your stroke order and knowledge of characters in general has to be really good, but if you can get the hang of it that would really reinforce your character knowledge in a major way. Very high learning curve though.

      • I’ll give Wubi a try. But I don’t know how much I’ll stick with it since I will eventually switch over to traditional characters. That means I’ll also have to learn the Zhuyin method.

        • There’s absolutely no reason to learn Zhuyin. It has even been deprecated in Taiwan (the only place it’s ever been used), where Hanyu Pinyin is now the official teaching method (though it may take a while for reality to catch up with this policy).

          • Zhuyin is still the standard way to type in traditional characters in Taiwan where I plan to move to after a few years here.

  4. Yeah, I’m not so sure how important it is these days to be able to write characters by hand. Given a finite amount of study time, I prefer to spend it on conversation and reading.

    • Writing by hand is something you’ll very rarely use but I think the skills you need to write freehand might be useful in other areas of Chinese like character recognition and retention. I feel that it’s not something many of us outside formal Chinese study spend a lot of time on.

  5. Charlie, your personal method has really worked for me, I’ve been learning Chinese for a while and always feel uncomfortable to learn Chinese. I love to live in China and that’s why I wanna learn. Hope one day I’ll be able read Chinese that’s more difficult 🙂 thank you Charlie.

    • Thats good to hear Sarah – when I started learning Chinese, I used zero technology. Methods have changed a lot, it seems like physical dictionaries are even rare now.

  6. Why Americans ,Europeans and Aussies like to call themselves “expats” but they are only mere immigrants like any African or other third world nation.

    • Africans and other folks from third world nations are also, expats. People cannot, by law, actually immigrate to China.

      • Well, I correct that. You can, but how many people have you heard of that have been granted Chinese citizenship (that wasn’t of Chinese descent) or have been given a permanent green card?

    • Melina,

      So glad to hear you like it!

      As to the latest news, we have decided if all of us are actually going to stick with writing and learning, we need a bit of mutual encouragement.

      So we are now on twitter @nommoc_app and tweeting daily the characters we write using #commonchinesecharacters.

      If you are up for it, join in! Hopefully we can keep each other motivated and not give up!

      It may sound crazy… but we have also set the goal of finding 100,000 people to learn to write Chinese together… thank you for being one of them! While 100,000 might seem a bit high, we like a good challenge! 🙂

      PSS: We totally concur the other part of your comment “Thank you Charlie!”. He did such a great job on this interview… and we wish him and ChengDu Living all the best!

      Now on with finding the “100,000” learners and stopping expat illiteracy! ; )

  7. Nommoc, I really like the app. I hope there will be specific lists in the future, such as HSK or the ability to make your own lists. It is kind of daunting to start a list of 2500 words.

    • Ben,

      Glad to hear you like nommoc! Welcome aboard!If you are ready to join the daily writing action, tweet with us @nommoc_app and #commonchinesecharacters as we are all in this together!

      Also, how did you get access to our special top-secret future app development plans??? ; ) haha.

      Keep you eye’s out for an update to nommoc, as our future release will include exactly what you mentioned! That is a breakdown of the 2500 most common Chinese character list into nice, easily to follow “weekly lessons”… hopefully you will find learning to write Chinese even easier with the future nommoc update… ; )

      Now, as to user customized lists… we’ve been thinking about how to accomplish that for some time, it’s a little tricky to implement though, but we will keep working on it!

      Thanks for the great feedback! All the best with becoming a “literate expat”! 一起加油!



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