Survival kit: your phone

Learning Chinese is hard… really, really hard! Between us, we have dabbled in French, German, Swedish and Japanese, and Chinese is still more difficult than any of those. A lot of the time we are able to work about it by pointing, gesturing and showing numbers on our fingers. But sometimes this isn’t quite enough, and as a result, we have gradually been accumulating useful apps to help us work our way around the city. These aren’t in any particular order, other than the order they are in on our phones.

Language apps:

  1. Waygo: The Waygo app is specifically designed for translating menus and signs. This is a particularly useful translation app because it allows you to translate vertical text as well as horizontal. The free trial allows you to scan and translate 10 lines of Chinese per day, and it is only R72 to unlock unlimited scans. You can also take a photo of the text and run a translation from there, which makes it very useful if you get camera shake or if you don’t have time to stand and translate everything there and then. The translations are sometimes a bit iffy, and it seems to struggle to focus on the characters at times, but for the most part, it is a very useful tool!
  2. Written Chinese Dictionary: This app also offers a translation function and, again the free trial gives you 10 scans per day, but it is really designed as a learning tool. The app sets a character of the day for you to learn, along with daily homework tasks which can be submitted online for grading. There are also Chinese children’s stories which can be read in both English and Chinese (characters and pinyin). You can also learn from flashcard sets about different themes, and create your own flashcards. However, to get unlimited translations will cost you R180 (Google Play Store) and you will have to pay again to unlock the full set of stories, and if you wish to build multiple sets of flashcards at the same time. If you are dedicated to learning Chinese, this app is probably great, but for the amount of money it is not really worth it, and the Waygo translator is better.
  3. Hanping Lite: The main problem with translation apps is that if the writing is in a bold font, or in any way not 100% clear, the translation  either won’t work, or will give you absolute gibberish. In these cases, we have used Hanping Lite to write the characters ourselves. We don’t have a stylus, and so it can sometimes take multiple attempts to get the character right enough for the app to work it out, but it is very forgiving and it provides a number of possible matches, one of which will probably be the one you’re looking for. Other handwriting apps  seem to be quite fussy about stroke order and length, but Hanping Lite can generally work it out even it you write the character incorrectly.You can also type in searches in English, pinyin or traditional characters and it will give you a number of possible translations, contexts and meanings, as well as common character pairings (such as the character for “soy”, being commonly used in  “tofu”, which is literally “soy meat”). Unfortunately this app s only available on Android devices.
  4. Google Pinyin Keyboard: This is definitely not essential, but  is very useful in conjunction with Hanping Lite, as you can type an English word or pinyin and the keyboard will automatically generate the appropriate Chinese character. This has come in really handy only once, when trying to buy bedding, as we were able to quickly find the character we needed to explain what we wanted. iPhones have a built in Chinese keyboard, so this is only really necessary for Android.

Everyday life apps:

  1. BusTracker: If you can get this app in English, it will be invaluable to you whenever you have to use any form or public transport! How you get it in English is a total mystery. We both have the app, but one phone (an Android) gave an option to change the language to English, and the other (an iPhone) didn’t. We don’t know if the make of phone has anything to do with it, but that’s the best we can guess. Anyway, if you can get the app in English, it will give you daily schedules for bus routes throughout Taiwan, as well as a bus tracker, so you can see exactly how long your next bus will take, and its number plate, so you can spot it easily if the display isn’t in English. It also has train timetables for all the larger Taiwanese train stations (including high speed rail), shows the location of public bike rentals (UBikes), has a GPS tracker to find the bus stop nearest to you, and can apparently help you hail a taxi (but I haven’t been able to get this to work yet). EDIT: The company who made this app have  since created a new app called Taiwan Bus. It works exactly the same way, but you can now have the app in English on an iPhone too! Hooray! 
  2. Google air quality card:  Ok, not technically an app, but still very useful. When you phone works out you are in Taiwan, it might automatically generate a card for air quality updates. This card updates every couple of hours, with an air quality rating between “good” and “you will suffocate if you leave your house today”. If the card does not automatically appear, simply visit this site on your phone, search for your city or select your area on the map, and Google will realise this is something you are interested in and create the relevant card. We haven’t experienced air quality lower than moderate, but it is always good to be aware of it, as pollution clouds can pass over Taiwan quite quickly and it can be dangerous to be outside when this happens.

Travel apps:

  1. Booking.com: This is obviously not only useful for Taiwan, but it has made it a thousand times easier to book hotels and guesthouses one our various trips, by mediating the language barrier. Having a booking number to show the receptionist immediately relieves any stress for both them and us. You can filter the list of places by price, location, available facilities, and whether or not you need a credit card to book. There is also a website, but having the app means you can make bookings on go, save your booking information on your phone and it will sync to your phone’s calendar (as well as your Google calendar if you allow it to).
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