There are peculiar difficulties in creating and using a Chinese-English dictionary. Mostly this is because of English speakers being used to an alphabetic arrangement, with a phonetic emphasis. Obviously, if the English word is known, an alphabetic order works. The trouble is that when learning a foreign language, there is frequently a need to look up vocabulary not yet known; or trying to recall how to use or write words already exposed to in the foreign language. This means a dictionary is needed that is arranged according to the qualities of the foreign language.
I have quite a few Chinese-English dictionaries, and each has a variation in presentation that can be useful. All have been used to one extent or another, but the two I have used by far the most are the Far East Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary (green covered one in sidebar) and my iPad app KTdict C-E dictionary. At this point, I probably use them both equally.
The KTdict dictionary has been the best one for looking up a word when I know the English that I am trying to translate, but its features also make it very useful for identifying and understanding Chinese characters. I use it when I am translating from a Chinese publication or want to understand the characters in a Chinese sign (i.e. while traveling). Increasingly, I am able to recognize the pronunciation of Chinese words that I don’t know and can then type the pinyin heard into KTdict to find the word(s) being spoken. This is most helpful when there are 2-4 words in a row that go together in a common phrase, as the KTdict dictionary lists potential combinations.
Another thing the KTdict dictionary does well is list possible word choices in ways that help me understand connotations. Just like in English, where the words like “old” and “elderly” have important differences in connotation, Chinese speakers have certain more acceptable ways of saying things politely. I have had the pleasure of surprising my tutor quite a few times by choosing the right word in my sentences, thanks to my iPad KTdict app.
Let me introduce you to several of the features of the KTdict that I use:
1. The search bar: Whether typing English, pinyin, or Chinese characters, it will respond. You don’t have to toggle a switch, or in any way inform the app which language or mode you want to use. It just deciphers what you have typed. (click on any photo to enlarge – in that mode the photos can be clicked through slide-show style)
2. Keyboard options: The app responds to an English keyboard for typing in the English words or pinyin. It also recognizes the input from the several of the Chinese keyboard variations I have used, including using strokes (mimicking how the characters are drawn), bopomofo phonetics (a phonetic system designed to help young Chinese children learn to read characters), and drawing the characters by finger.
3. Multiple entries: Especially for a given pinyin search, there will be many possible Chinese characters, but if you are using pinyin you probably have an idea of at least the tones you are looking for, which will narrow it down. This feature is also helpful because it increases my vocabulary understanding of a given character. More than once I have been looking up a specific Chinese word, only to find I want one of the other character combinations that are listed. Sometimes you just don’t know what you want until you see it!
4. Search history: I was so happy when I discovered that the KTdict app had a way for me to easily refer back to previous searches. It is sometimes this feature that will inspire me to look up a word on the iPad rather than the paper dictionary, because I can so quickly go back and check on it. The one thing to remember is that you have to actually click on the specific entry for it to be saved in the history. If you just look at it from what shows up in the search bar, nothing is saved.
5. Second character suggestions: Chinese characters are frequently used in pairs. It cuts down on time spent looking things up when the app suggests what the next character might be.
6. Enlarging the characters: Some of the Chinese characters are so crammed full of little strokes that my aging eyes would not be able to distinguish them without making them bigger. On this app, I just touch the character and it appears in a magnified version. If there is more than one character in the original line, it can also been seen by gently pressing on the now enlarged character box and swiping, usually to the left to see what is further along. Just like turning iPad book pages.
7. Audio: I have not used this much, but have tried it a couple of times. The reality is, nothing will replace conversations with a native speaker. The times I have listened to the app’s audio have left me dubious of its reliability. One particular audio had my tutor and I laughing. Another was reasonably helpful. I would say use it with caution.
When I lived in Taiwan 7 years ago, a friend showed me her expensive little machine that was made just for translating Chinese to English. This was just before iPods and iPads came into their own. Now, my free app does so much more than that machine. I have it on my iPhone, too, which is incredibly convenient for travel. There are ads on the app or you can upgrade for a small fee. I have not purchased the upgrade so far, but for the small fee it might be fun to have some of the extras. There is a help tab on the app, but I have never had occasion to use it! I think that means they have designed a very intuitive and useful app.