Yan Xia (left) with his team members Jonathan Tien and Drank Soong (right)

Chinese is a highly sought after language, and there are tons of resources to help determined linguists. However, learning a few phrases doesn’t ensure you’ll be understandable to a native speaker, and that’s where Microsoft’s new app comes in.

 “You think you know Chinese, but if you meet a Chinese person and you want to speak Chinese, there is no way you can do it if you have not practiced,” explained Yan Xia, senior develop lead at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing. “Our application addresses this issue by leveraging our speech and natural language processing technology.”

Microsoft is likening the app to a teacher’s assistant, stressing that it’s no replacement for a human teacher, but has the advantage of being available 24/7. Unlike a real teacher, it can devote infinite amounts of time to one student and help them progress.

It does so by giving users feedback on whatever they say. Deep neural networks predict what the user is trying to say and checks it for pronunciation. It will also suggest alternate words for more natural sounding conversation.

For Multiple Skill Levels

The app sounds especially good for intermediate speakers trying to hone their language, but there are also lessons in there for beginners. It teaches users short words and sentences, then has practice sessions to ensure they’re on the right track.

It could be especially useful for those planning to move to China, featuring practical scenarios like house rental and ordering food.

According to Microsoft, the project comes out of its research lab in Beijing. It utilizes the company’s recent breakthroughs in speech recognition and natural language understanding to provide an accurate experience.

However, Microsoft Learn Chinese also works in both directions. By building an English-Chinese framework, the team has also ensured it works from Chinese-English. Despite this, the applications have some cultural differences. English-speaking countries learn differently to Chinese speaking ones, and Microsoft has adjusted for this.

In all, it looks like a step forward for language, and it would be great to see different languages available in the future. For now, you can download Microsoft Learn Chinese on iOS. Android users, unfortunately, will have to wait.