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One of the first problems you might encounter when studying Chinese is how to look up the meaning of characters you’ve never seen before. Since Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet, trying to look for a character on a paper dictionary can be a lengthy and tricky process, especially when you don’t know the pinyin of the character.
This is where an online Chinese dictionary comes in to help foreign people gain information on a specific word.
Electronic and digital dictionaries can tell you all you need to know about a character in just a few seconds, meaning you’ll be able to quickly understand what a word means just by copy and pasting it into the e-dictionary to get its translation and pinyin. In addition, many devices have a character drawing feature that allows you to reproduce a character you’re reading in a book on a computer or mobile phone.
However, there are plenty of options out there to choose from, to make it easier for you, we’ve prepared a guide on how to pick the best online Chinese dictionary.
I Don’t Know How to Pronounce a Word
Not knowing how to pronounce a word happens all the time, especially when you’re just starting to learn Chinese. Basically, the best solution when you don’t know the pronunciation of a word is to use a handwriting function that lets you use your mouse or your fingers to draw the character on the screen so that the e-dictionary can then recognize it and give you its pronunciation and meaning. Let’s begin with offering a couple of solutions if you plan on using a computer or mobile device to look up the pronunciation of a certain Chinese word.
Using a PC
Wenlin: Whether you’re a beginner, a student, or a nearly native Chinese speaker, Wenlin is one of the best Chinese dictionaries for foreigners out there. The Free edition of Wenlin can be downloaded on a computer so you can use it offline and it’s suited for looking up the pronunciation and meaning of close to any Chinese character. Since it features a handwriting function, Wenlin can help you out whenever you don’t know how to pronounce a word, giving you the answer in just a few seconds.
On the downside, the Wenlin software can only be used on a computer. The download and install process will take sometimes on the first time. It is professional for its more than 30 years’ history, but it lacks flexibility.
MDBG: This online Chinese dictionary is helpful when you need to look up a word you don’t know how to pronounce. You can either do it by copy and pasting a Character from a document on your computer, or by using the MDBG handwriting option.
Another useful feature this Chinese dictionary for foreigners offers is that it lets you test your knowledge of Chinese characters through quizzes or flashcards. Additionally, MDBG can help you improve your vocabulary by subscribing to their web feed and having the chance to learn up to 10 new words per day.
Using a Mobile Device
Pleco: This is probably the most popular Chinese e-dictionary for smartphones and tablets you can find on the market. The basic version of Pleco can be downloaded for free and, thanks to its simple format, it’s extremely easy to use. More specifically, when you don’t know how to pronounce a word, you’ll simply need to open the Pleco app and draw a character with a finger. The dictionary will then give you its meaning as well as its pinyin and pronunciation. Moreover, Pleco offers a ‘read aloud’ option that lets you listen to the sound of a word exactly how a Chinese speaker would say it.
Lastly, if you happen to know the meaning of the word but not its pronunciation, you can simply type it in English and Pleco will give you its Chinese translation.
This mobile app is available for iPhone and iPad, as well as for Android devices and, if the basic features aren’t enough for you, Pleco offers an interesting range of paid functions. For example, there’s an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) option that allows the user to take a photo of the text or characters they don’t know so that the software can then recognize the Chinese words and offer their pinyin and translations.
I Forgot How to Write a Chinese Character
Forgetting how to properly write a Chinese word is a common problem for those who are trying to learn the language. When this happens, the first thing one should do is to look the character up in a Chinese e-dictionary using either its pinyin pronunciation or its meaning. Of course, if you know how to pronounce it, it’ll be quite easy to find the word you need. Further on, you’ll find some of the best dictionaries for mobile and computer you can use when you don’t know how to write a character.
Using a PC
LINE Dictionary: This online Chinese dictionary is one of the best out there and, other than being detailed and quite easy to load on any computer, LINE can help you find the character you need by typing its pinyin into the search bar. Moreover, this tool includes scientific or technical terms that may not be offered by other dictionaries, as well as an extensive collection of example sentences.
Additionally, if you happen to remember only a part of the character you need, LINE allows you to search by radical exactly how you would using a paper dictionary.
YellowBridge Chinese: Through the YellowBridge website, the user will be able to find the Chinese character they need as long as they know its meaning or, better yet, its pronunciation. YellowBridge comes with a lot of the feature Wenlin and LINE offer, besides, it provides Cantonese pronunciation if you are looking up a single character. You may also like the rich matching result because the Chinese sometimes have different names for the same thing.
Using a Mobile Device
Pleco: As we’ve mentioned earlier, Pleco is considered one of the best Chinese e-dictionary apps for smartphones and tablets. This means that other than being useful when you don’t know how to pronounce a Chinese word, Pleco also comes in handy when you don’t know how to write a character. All you’ll need to do is open the app and type the pinyin or the English translation of the character you need and Pleco will do the rest, giving you a list of words to choose from.
Hanping: Another useful tool to have is the Hanping app. This dictionary will be able to help you out whenever you don’t know how to write a word and, if needed, it includes a free handwriting function you can take advantage of whenever you don’t know how to pronounce a word. On the downside, the Hanping app is only available on Android devices.
Chinese Text Translation
When you need to translate a whole text or sentence, there are some valuable options out there you might want to consider. Of course, using online translators can be misleading, but it can also help you get the general idea of what a text means. Here are a couple of solutions you can use to translate Chinese text.
Using a PC
Google Translate: Google Translate can help you translate an entire website page, or simply offer you a quick sentence translation whenever you need it. This tool works both ways, meaning you can either translate Chinese to English, or English to Chinese, however, we need to say that using online translators isn’t always as accurate as we would like, especially when translating long texts. Other than offering a translation, Google Translate will also tell you the pinyin and pronunciation of all the words included in the text, making it a good resource to use whenever you’re not sure how to pronounce a character.
Fanyi.baidu.com: This Chinese website allows you to translate entire paragraphs with no size limit. Its features are very similar to the ones we saw for Google Translate, meaning fanyi.baidu.com is a good option to use when in need of a full-text translation. Oftentimes, it can be quite useful to use more than one online translator at once so that you’ll be able to compare the translations and pick the one that seems more accurate.
Wenlin: Once again, we must mention Wenlin in our guide as one of the best software to use to translate Chinese text. More specifically, you can copy and paste the text you need into Wenlin and the software will translate it all. As you go through the text on Wenlin, the translation will appear above each sentence as well as the breakdown for each character and their respective pinyin.
Using a Mobile Device
Microsoft Translator: Although most translation websites (such as Google Translate) can be reached through a mobile device, there are also translation apps that can be downloaded on smartphones and tablets. One of the best we could find is the Microsoft Translator app available for either Android and iOS devices. This tool is able to provide a clear, and for the most part correct, translation of sentences or paragraphs, however, you need to be aware that, like most online translators, not all translations will be 100% accurate.