Ben Ross has a great post explaining the relevance of the chat program Tencent QQ to the Chinese Internet user base, its advantages as a Chinese learning tool, and the headaches it sometimes gives foreigners who try to install the program on their computers.
I wholeheartedly agree with Ben’s endorsement of QQ as a language-learning and networking tool, but I’d like to say a few more words about the difficulties foreigners may face using the program.
For starters, though QQ has offered an English client for around five years now, the registration process is totally Chinese, so a beginner student of Chinese would do well to get help from a Chinese friend or their Chinese teacher to start using QQ. Moreover, the new security process added to combat the wave of password-stealing trojans — note that most computer viruses in China seem to exist for one purpose, to steal QQ passwords — are complicated and difficult for someone whose Chinese is low-to-intermediate. I consider my Chinese level upper-intermediate but even I had trouble with the Chinese CAPTCHAs used by Tencent.
As for the computer clients, the English client development usually lags behind the Chinese client, so if you want to use QQ to the fullest, consider downloading the Chinese version. In fact, the English version is only English in its basic interface, and navigating many parts of the program still requires Chinese. What’s more, as Ben notes, you will need to change your (presumably Windows-driven) computer’s character set to Chinese for non-Unicode programs to get QQ working properly. You can do this by going to Start –> Control Panel –> Regional and Language Options (icon) –> Advanced (tab), and selecting Chinese (PRC) from the drop-down box labeled “Language for non-Unicode programs.” A word to the wise, however: this will mess up some of the programs and text files on your computer.
The mobile clients, which I’ve used more extensively since Mobile QQ became free*, are totally Chinese. Phone users have a choice between older, simpler clients or the bloated new Java-driven client offered by Tencent, which is sluggish even on high-end smartphones like the N95. For Symbian users, a better choice is lightweight QQ client that can be downloaded from the Nokia websites or comes preinstalled on your phone if you bought it in China.
Anyone serious about learning Chinese or networking with Chinese people should give QQ a try, but be prepared for the challenges involved.
* Note that you still pay for data costs. It’s the client that’s free now.