John at Sinosplice has a review of a (gasp!) new update of Wenlin, the software dictionary that first introduced many a lost laowai to the wonderful world of Chinese characters. I was certainly one of them. I remember a few years back complaining to another foreigner in Kunming about my inability to learn characters well. She asked me if I had Wenlin, and when I said I did not, she produced a USB stick, handed it to me, and said, ‘this will change your life.’ I almost laughed at her exaggerated sense of purpose, but she turned out to be right.
Wenlin was what helped me understand that characters had their own internal logic and weren’t simply randomly-scratched ideograms bearing no relation to one another. I have since had the honor of giving Wenlin to more than one newbie laowai and felt the same paternalistic glow as a father handing his 16-year old son the keys to the family Mazda.
The purpose of this post is to discuss which dictionaries to use when studying Chinese, and when. As John points out in the post, Wenlin is hardly the only tool in the laowai’s arsenal. There’s also Pleco for mobile devices, website based dictionaries like www.nciku.com, and Google Translate. Let’s also not forget those venerable paper dictionaries that your ancestral laowais were forced to rely on. They have a role to play, too. Here are some situations and the dictionary you might want to use while tackling them. This is merely my own set of rules, by the way, and I hope people will pipe in with their own amendments.
Your Chinese friend just sent you an article she’d like you to read, in Chinese, and you want to make sure you really understand it before you get back to her about it. Wenlin. Google Translate simply doesn’t have the accuracy yet to provide deeper understanding, and through Wenlin you’d be able to parse phrases and get to a deeper understanding of how the text works.
You’re slurping a bowl of noodles in a roadside cafe and don’t recognize the sign of the shop in the building across the street. Pleco. Being able to whip out your PDA or phone and get to the bottom of new characters on the spot is what makes Pleco such a handy tool for learners.
You’re a businessman who has been asked to translate a Chinese document for sale in the English-language market. Hire a professional Chinese-English translator. There are lots of good ones, both laowai and Chinese.
You’re curious how idiomatic English expressions can be rendered into Chinese. Nciku. The site’s English to Chinese dictionary is still superior to all others I have seen.
You have 10 minutes to get the gist of a 1,000 character essay written in Chinese that someone has asked you to interpret. Google translate. I hesitate to recommend it as a studying device, but in a pinch it can be helpful.
You really want to get to the bottom of how the whole stroke order and radical systems work. Paper dictionaries. They confound the hell out of most foreigners at first, and if you spend a lot of time trying to read them you begin to feel eternally grateful that the other, electronic dictionaries exist. Paper dictionaries though do contain the guts of the Chinese language and it’d be hard to call yourself an expert in the language without knowing how to decipher them.
Clearly these are just my preferences, and I’m sure other laowai would have their own set of guidelines. The point is though is that if you’re serious about learning Chinese- and if you want to stay in China awhile you ought to take it seriously- knowing what tools are at your disposal is key. Chinese is hard but doesn’t have to be a painful slog. The next time you run into that cute 美女 or 帅哥 you’ll have a better chance at communicating with them.