One gloomy afternoon in Beijing, thirty years ago. Chinese language student Lily gets out her dictionary to look up four mysterious characters. Half an hour later her noodles have gone cold and the battle-scarred book still hasn’t provided any answers. In a desperate state, Lily smashes the book against the window. Glass shatters everywhere. One Chinese student gets hurt. Lily has to cover his medical costs, but she can’t and is forced to give up her studies and leave China forever.
This story of tragic failure clearly occurred in the dark era before the invention of Pleco.
The reason my Chinese dictionary became filling material for my bookcase
The Pleco Chinese dictionary dates back to the year 2000. Founder Michael Love, who was studying Chinese in China back then, revolutionized the use of dictionaries to look up characters. Because of Michael Love’s app, nowadays, hardly any Chinese learner uses old-fashioned paper dictionaries. In fact, the old-school way of looking up a character by their radical is becoming a less and less relevant skill.
Good to know: Pleco is pronounced like “pleeco” with a long “e”. The name refers to a type of aquarium catfish (scientific name Hypostomus plecostomus) which can also be seen in the company’s logo. Actually, it seems to be the founder’s personal way of pronouncing the word, but since Pleco is his baby he must know best.
Why ride a donkey if you have a car…
The Pleco dictionary has been installed over a million times and some of its users have been working with Pleco for almost twenty years now. The main reason can be found in the continuous improvement of the app. Pleco has become much more than an online dictionary. Additional features include different Chinese fonts, handwriting input, flashcards, audio and multiple dictionaries.
In 2010 Pleco was the first to launch an OCR system for Chinese characters which caused another revolution in Chinese learning. Say you were sitting in a Chinese restaurant: all you had to do is scan the characters from the menu with Pleco and the definitions would appear automatically on your screen. For the first time, you could read the whole menu, instead of randomly picking Caterpillar Fungus Duck or ordering the same dish over and over again.
Pleco and my personal ongoing battle with Chinese characters
Pleco has played a major part in my learning and continues to do so. Especially in China, I spent hours with Pleco opened on my tablet or smartphone – in class, at home reading texts or even watching TV. What I personally like the most about Pleco are actually mostly basic features:
- You can use handwriting and Pinyin to find almost any character you come across.
- Pleco shows you the stroke order of the 500 most common characters. Great when you are just starting out. And more can be added.
- Pleco provides useful example sentences and word combinations which makes it easier to remember a new character.
- Speaking of memorizing: one of the best features is the search history. Pleco automatically stores all your entries, showing the exact date and time when you looked up a particular word. Making notes can hardly be more very convenient.
- You can use your bookmarks to make flashcards (it’s an add-on) and practice new and old vocabulary.
- It’s very up-to-date and comprehensive. The lexicon covers a large area from internet slang and international movie stars all the way back to Chinese dynasties, classic texts and historical figures.
- Pleco contains not just simplified characters but also the traditional ones, so it’s Taiwan- and Mainland-friendly.
- You can copy Chinese texts to the document reader and then simply tap on unknown characters to see their meaning. Useful when you’re trying to get into the details of an news article or almost any other text.
Are there any major things to dislike? In my opinion: No. Of course you have to pay for add-ons, but depending on your use and purpose, spending some money on additional features in the long run may well be worth it. And let’s not forget that in the dark times before Pleco, Lily paid a high price for her dictionary.