It may be surprising, but many giant education companies in China started by teaching English. For instance, the New Oriental Education & Technology Group began to teach English in 1993. Reports show that the English language training market in China is expected to reach a value of $80+ billion in 2021–2025.
Technology has made it easier for people to access English learning materials. Today, there are many online English learning products in the market, targeting various customer groups including young children, K–12 students, university students, and adults. But due to the “Double Reduction Policy”, English tutoring companies have suffered a harsh crackdown.
In this report, I explore the most-popular English-learning apps in China, summarizing the unique features of each one to help you pick the right one for you. Click on an app in the table below to skip to the corresponding section.
If you’d like to explore the full list, I’ve broken it down the list into four broad categories to make it easy to navigate. Click on a category to skip to the corresponding section:
General Purpose English Learning Apps
Duolingo: You may have heard of Duolingo or perhaps you’re even a long-term user. The company entered the Chinese Market in 2019 reaching 10 million Chinese users. In July 2021, Duolingo went public with a valuation of more than $6 billion.
You can learn many languages on Duolingo, including English, through a highly visual and gamified approach that makes the app a lot of fun. While learning, users may receive many kinds of tips from Duolingo’s mascot Duo, a plump green owl.
Users are free to access all the learning materials inside the app but with some ads, or you can pay to become the ad-free premium user, which is a key revenue source for the company.
Keke English: A mobile app that provides comprehensive English learning materials, from English books to TED talks. With the app, students can practice speaking, listening, reading and writing English. The app also offers online courses and other resources for many popular English proficiency tests like TOEFL and IELTS.
Lanren English: An app that offers a wide range of English learning materials such as news podcasts, English movies and songs, TED talks and books, and also vocabulary for different English tests. You can even practice English speaking and get a report from the app.
English Learning Apps for Vocabulary
Baicizhan: An English vocabulary mobile app to help you prepare for multiple types of English exams in China including high school English, CET, IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, and SAT. It gamifies vocabulary learning with interesting visualizations. Baicizhan has over 100 million mobile users.
Shanbei Vocabulary: An app that consists of an English vocabulary database for primary and secondary schools, university, workplace, and for studying abroad. It introduces the concept of forgetting curve and addresses the problem via spaced repetition to help you efficiently learn vocabulary and retain it long-term.
MOMO Vocabulary: A mobile application for English vocabulary with different kinds of learning statistics. Multiple vocabulary resources are available, suitable for learners from primary school to the workplace setting.
Zhimi Vocabulary: A mobile app that helps users learn English vocabulary with multiple learning methods such as pictures, associations, word roots, and prefixes and suffixes. Students can see an overview of their learning history data to design a custom learning plan. Some online courses are offered inside the app.
English Learning Apps for Speaking
Open Language is an English learning mobile application derived from a very popular English speaking podcast, which has over 54 million listeners on the biggest Chinese podcast platform. Now, this free podcast has been integrated into the mobile application.
Open Language focuses on helping adult users improve their English in daily life. It includes over 2000 courses at different levels, on different topics, and of different types. For example, you can subscribe to their audio courses for ¥998 ($156) a year. Each course includes a conversation and follow-up exercises to help you learn English vocabulary and grammar.
In 2017, Open Language had only 10 team members but 20,000 paid users, generating over $10 million in revenue. The company was acquired by Bytedance in March 2018, under its educational brand, Dali Education.
Liulishuo is an English speaking learning application with over 200 million registered users. Liulishuo IPO’d on the Nasdaq in September 2018, emitting $71.9 million in shares.
Like Open Language, Liulishuo’s core method for learning to speak English is to listen to conversations. Through speech recognition technology, Liulishuo can evaluate your pronunciation and then provide you with a score report. Therefore, Liulishuo markets itself as an AI-based English learning app.
Liulishuo’s flagship product is Dongni English. It first evaluates your English level through a test. The system then recommends learning materials based on your current level. Dongli English charges ¥99 ($15) per month.
Shanbei Speaking: An app that helps you improve your English speaking through role playing, with the app scoring your voice recordings.
Mofun English: A mobile app for learning English through video dubbing. You can receive timely feedback from the system about your pronunciation.
HelloTalk: A language learning community where you chat with people from different countries. You can find partners through the mobile app that are interested in learning your language while you learn theirs. You can also practice vocabulary, listening, and speaking via the app.
Yidian English: A mobile application that helps users practice English speaking with short videos from TV series, movies, speeches, music videos, etc. You can learn new words, and practice listening and speaking all from within the app.
iTalki: A mobile app that connects students and teachers for 1-on-1 online lessons to learn over 100 languages.
Qupeiyin: A mobile application for learning English speaking through movie dubbing. You can receive timely feedback and guidance from the system about your pronunciation.
English Learning Apps for Reading & Listening
Shanbei Reading: An app offering abundant English reading materials like scientific articles, business reports, magazines, and books. Users can learn vocabulary and phrases through these materials.
Baicizhan Reading: An app to practice reading in English that lets you join reading groups to turn reading practice into a collaborative activity.
Liulishuo Reading: An English learning app developed by Liulishuo. It offers English articles and digital books with explanations for paid users.
Mint Reading is a mobile app for English reading developed by Baicizhan. It has abundant English reading resources like newspapers, including The Economist, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and popular movies like Frozen, Zootopia and Spider Man.
Cheese Pai: An English learning mobile app launched by Baicizhan that focuses on speaking and listening. The mobile app transforms English videos from movies and talks into learning materials and provides exercises and explanations tailored to them.
Shanbei Listening: An app with English resources such as talks, songs, movies, documentaries, open courses, audio books, and many more. You can practice English listening and speaking with these materials.
Everyday English Listening
Everyday English Listening: An app that provides massive English materials for listening, including podcasts, radios, talks, lectures, audio books, movies, and songs.
Qingting English: An app with massive numbers of English reading and listening materials including books, vocabulary, magazines, and new reports. The app also allows users to practice speaking English.
English Learning Apps for Exams: IELTS/TOEFL/GRE/GMAT
Kaomanfen, which literally means “getting full marks in exams”, is an English learning website from the TAL Education Group. It covers test preparation materials for TOEFL, IELTS, GRE and GMAT, mainly for Chinese students. They also launched mobile apps for each test, such as Kaomanfen TOEFL and Kaomanfen IELTS.
You can practice each section of the tests, including vocabulary, reading, listening, speaking, and writing. One of the biggest advantages is that the website provides test simulations that aim to replicate the actual test-taking experience. You can also learn from other students’ answers to the writing and speaking exercises on the platform, a form of peer learning.
The website generates revenue from their paid courses for test preparation and paid consulting services for studying abroad. For example, a two-week small group course (12 students) for preparing for the GRE costs ¥6288 ($987).
IELTS Bro is an English learning mobile app that focuses on IELTS preparation. Students can practice IELTS vocabulary, take “IELTS Practice Tests”, and share their test results within the app. It offers free and paid online courses to help students master the skills required to tackle each section of the IELTS. The app also supports collaborative learning through a community of learners: you can also find actual test questions shared by test takers across China.