Improving Your Chinese, Two Dictionaries at a Time

by Chelsea on March 3, 2012

My iTouch is the single best investment I’ve made toward learning Mandarin.

I wanted to buy a touch screen electronic dictionary for learning Chinese, and it seemed that the iTouch (RMB 1798) was just a little more expensive than some devices that were only dictionaries, and didn’t also have internet, email, music, maps, and other apps. I could write a lot about my iTouch and how it has revolutionized my existence (really. is that sad? no, it's the truth.), but I won’t get sidetracked.

Of course there are many Mandarin dictionary apps, but here are two to get you started that work well in tandem:


Chinese Dictionary

Really knows the translation for anywhere...


1)   Includes a lot of the four-character expressions that are common in Mandarin

2)   Has included every location in China I’ve ever tried to look up, and translations for most every English place name I’ve tried

3)   Has a lot of proper names (i.e. Obama 奥巴马, Marx 马克思) and pop culture vocabulary (i.e. Lord Voldemort 伏地磨 and Simpson 辛普森).

4)   When you look up a character or a word, there is an option to see all entries containing that character or word. This is fantastic because maybe you caught one character, but can’t remember the other one, but heard what it sounded like…sort of. You can slide down the list and you will probably find what you are looking for


1)   Entries do not pop up as you type them in. You have to know at last one character of the word or phrase you are looking up. The app does not guess for you as you types

2)   There are no usage examples

3)   The pinyin is placed above the characters in search results, so your eyes naturally go straight for that instead of focusing on the characters

4)   You can’t turn off the pinyin

Visit their websiteto download the app and find out more.


Chinese dictionary

You can look up characters by their radical...handy


1)   Includes plenty of usage examples, providing much-needed context

2)   When you type pinyin, it will start pulling up answers, which is useful because it makes things go faster and it can help guess what you are trying to look up

3)   You can color-code the characters according to their tone. Depending on your learning style, this could help you a lot to remember how to pronounce the words

4)   You can look up characters by their radicals

5)   The pinyin is placed below the characters, so you eyes naturally fall on the characters first

6)   There are so many add-ons!

7)   You can turn off the pinyin. If you color-code your characters, then even without pinyin you can still figure out the tones


1)   Aside from the names of some countries, it doesn’t usually have proper names

2)   Does not, for characters and words, have an option to show all entries containing that character or word

Visit the Pleco website to find out more.


So what about you? What’s your favorite dictionary and why?


  • Byron Meinerth

    I run both on my iPhone, but I think Pleco’s 规范 (GuiFan) Dictionary is unbeatable for intermediate learners and above. It’s the same dictionary that you’ll find a lot of Chinese use, and it’s all Chinese to Chinese. When you look up one word, you’ll be sure to learn many others along with it.

    • Chelsea

      Good point; once you are at a comfortable intermediate level, it really pays off to push yourself to look up words Chinese to Chinese and slowly move away from pinyin and English descriptions. For readers out there, an overview of the Pleco GuiFan dictionary can be found here:

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  • Gerard Braad

    The second disadvantage of Pleco can be addressed by toggling the cidian button or wildcards. Also, Pleco allows you to download CCEDICT, the same dictionary as DianHua uses… So not sure about your first mentioned disadvantage.

    • Buck

      I got the impression that the point was just that it would be nice to have all the definitions listed together rather than cycling through. But yeah, I agree, it’s not too much trouble to cycle through. The fact that Pleco has so many downloads available really is one of its greatest strengths in my opinion. I still have words and proper nouns every now and then I can’t find, but otherwise it’s pretty good.

      My only real gripe is that I wish that there was a more robust radical/character break down to learn about the components of characters. The premium Pleco has that function but it’s pretty limited.

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