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, 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.


  1. After searching for a while for a good paper dictionary, I settled on an electronic dictionary, and found it to be awesome. Not only can I carry it with me every day, but it also does handwriting recognition (granted, you need to have *some* idea about how to write the character), shows you the stroke order and can pronounce it for you, breaks up the character into radicals and also includes many example sentences.

  2. Thanks for all the info and tips!
    On Firefox I use Perapera-kun, a very handy add-on that gives you the pinyin incl. tone as well as the translation of the Chinese character into English.

  3. Rather than using Google translate to translate whole sentences, I’ve found that the Google dictionary is actually not bad at all and powered in part by the famous Taiwanese “Dr Eye” dictionary software:
    While browsing I also constantly use PeraPeraKun, which is very useful and free too.

  4. Hi Matt,

    I love that you’ve loved Wenlin and that you take the time to evangelize it. We appreciate it. May I suggest though, that you encourage people to purchase their own copy of Wenlin. A lot of hard work and time goes into developing Wenlin and all the support, by linguists such as your self, happens through the legal purchase of Wenlin.

    If you are interested in reviewing a legitimate copy of Wenlin 4.0 I am happy to help you.

    Elisabeth Ranjhan
    Wenlin Institute

  5. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned or can translate full documents, in paragraph view with the translations conveniently located right below the characters (along with the pinyin); or in phrase view, where each phrase or word is shown in a sort of graph that has the character, pinyin, english definition, part of speech, HSK level, and extensions that allow you copy the character, search it in jukuu or other search engines… mdbg is just brilliant. best dictionary I’ve ever used for chinese.

    jukuu is unique in the amount of examples it gives for the phrase you’ve searched. I believe all searches have to be in characters, though, so it’s mainly useful for seeing how to use a phrase. Better than seeing a straight-up definition without context.

    Using mdbg and jukuu in conjunction is a great way of translating documents and learning how to use new characters (I use them together to create new flashcards. Old school)

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲