The best pop-up dictionaries for learning Chinese

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If you are learning Chinese and use either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox to surf the web, this browser extension will make your life a little easier.

Chrome and Mozilla browser extensions to translate and learn Chinese

For Chrome browsers follow this link. This is what the description says about the Zhongwen pop-up dictionary:

  • Look up more than 100,000 words an expressions while reading
  • Chinese web sites just by pointing at the words with your mouse
  • Includes links to grammar and usage notes for more than 400 keywords
  • Skritter users can add new words to their study list with a simple keystroke
  • Save words to a built-in word list
  • Create Anki flashcards by importing the text file exported from the built-in word list

The Zhongwen Chinese-English Dictionary is also available for Mozilla Firefox.

The definition will show up automatically (Zhongwen pop-up dictionary)

Save your word list

You can actually save words you translated by pressing “r” when you hoover over the character(s) and the dictionary screen appears. It allows you to save your world list and import it into Anki and other apps to learn the new vocabulary.

It’s an useful extension, though Pleco‘s clipboard reader allows you to do the same on your mobile phone which is and will continue to be the most popular way to surf the internet. Just copy the text, read and look up words as you go along.

Other opinions

This what other people think about the pop-up dictionary:

I use this add on with my language studies to help quite a lot. It’s really helpful. Thanks a bunch for it!

Firefox-user

This add-on is quite handy for language learners trying to navigate the Internet in Chinese. I appreciate that there are options for both traditional and simplified characters, as well as different ways of rendering Mandarin pinyin. And it just got handier; I’m excited to see that support for Cantonese has been added in version 2.1!

Firefox-user

If you want to test the extension for yourself on some of the most visited Chinese websites, have a look at this top 50 of popular Chinese websites. It can make booking a Chinese train ticket or online shopping on Taobao a lot easier.

Three character traits you need to improve your Chinese skills

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Someone asked me which “character traits” you need to be successful at learning Chinese. “Character traits”? I had to think about that. Finally, I came up with three things which I think are important to have or develop.

But let’s go back a little bit. For the sake of clarity, I’ll just take the basic meaning of the word “character”. It generally refers to the particular combination of qualities in a person or place that makes them different from others. The “character traits” are those qualities that make us “different from others”.  

The five-factor model (FFM) has become very popular. It describes human character (or personality) by focusing on these 5 factors:

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)

It’s a scaled approach which can be really helpful to understand how you are wired up. You can also ask yourself who you want to be.

Anyway. Looking back on my experiences as a language student and teacher, here’s what I came up with:

  1. Openness and curiosity
  2. Creativity and self-awareness
  3. Discipline

You can of course argue if these three are really character traits in the traditional sense.

Openness and curiosity

In the five-factor model “openness” is described as follows:

Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to beauty and willing to try new things. They tend to be, when compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings.

Now we can’t be open for everything all the time, but we can cultivate an open mindset or growth mindset when it comes to learning.

As a language teacher I know how many people only see their limitations and the obstacles down the road. “It’s just too hard for me! I’ll never be able to speak fluently!”. I heard that kind of phrase a lot. I would ask them very bluntly: “Look, if you don’t believe in your own potential, how can you learn anything?” You need to start shouting back at that negative voice inside you. Start shouting back right now if you have to!

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. (Edmund Hillary)

You need to be keen on learning new things.

The thing with people who score high on openness is that they don’t look before they leap. They just do it. They’ll just start learning some obscure instrument you never heard of or book a course in programming although they never wrote one line of code in their whole life. This is a mentality thing.

As a teacher (and a student) I’d also see many people who just cared about the language certificate they’d receive at the end of the course. They just cared about that, not about actually learning anything beyond the course requirements. The positive thing was that they were very focused on their goal. In the long run though, they are limited by that purely practical mindset. Their learning curve stagnates in an early stage, because they are not interested in the thing itself.

To cultivate that growth mindset, you must believe in your own potential to learn.

Creativity and self-awareness

This next point is not about being a creative genius who invents new apps every other day or writes music or poems and what have you. If you do though, that’s great too.

What I had in mind though, is the ability to discover new ways to learn outside the curriculum you’re in. Typically, you’ll have Chinese class with prescribed books and homework you are expected to finish. You’ll trust your teacher knows what’s best for you. But guess what? Your teacher doesn’t! Your teacher has other stuff to worry about!

The kind of creativity I’m referring to here involves knowing what you need. Just trusting your teacher won’t unleash your full potential. Your teacher probably won’t tell you to paste vocabulary stickers all around your house, although it can be quite useful. I still didn’t remove the 微波炉-sticker from my microwave, and I used to have many other stickers like 门,电脑,雨伞,花盆 and so on pasted around the apartment. It was just an idea and it worked for me.

You have to know what works for YOU. You must get creative in some way.

And this can mean many things. It can mean finding a Chinese tandem partner to chat with or team up with other students to practice. It can even mean inviting your Chinese teacher to dinner or using wechat to fire random questions at people you just learned: 你是哪国人?你今天想做什么?你饿了吗?Again, you have to get active and find out what’s best for you.

Discipline

I use the word “discipline” for lack of a better word. I like to think about “discipline” as the art of developing (and maintaining) good habits. It’s not about making a schedule and sticking to it no matter what (though it does involve effective time management). It’s not about creating a cage around you. It’s more about cultivating positive learning habits and integrating them into your daily routine. This relates to the “conscientiousness” from the five-factor model:

Conscientiousness is a tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. High conscientiousness is often perceived as being stubborn and focused. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.

Toegel G, Barsoux JL (2012). “How to become a better leader”. MIT Sloan Management Review. 53 (3): 51–60.

Indeed, if you can combine a high degree of openness and curiosity with a form of self-discipline, you are holding the key ingredients for successful learning in your hand.

“20 to 30 minutes every day”

I don’t want to mystify anything here. The kind of “discipline” you need for language learning is really not that special, but you have to be serious about it. It’s like practicing violin. It’s better to play 20 minutes every day instead of two hours every Saturday. By playing every day you’ll develop a feeling for the instrument, your hands will get accustomed to new movements and finger arrangements, you learn new melodies and sound better. Without being aware of it you’re slowly climbing a mountain. Every hour you play is another step on your way up. It’s the same with learning Chinese. To make progress you need daily practice.

Now I know that can be challenging. Time is a valuable resource. Maybe you are looking at your schedule right now and saying that’s not going to work for me. If you don’t have 30 minutes, then take 10 minutes of your day and try that for one week. Check your progress: What did you learn? Were you focused enough? In some cases, you will find out that you need to make more time.

They may not admit it, but every “successful person” I know of practice some way of self-discipline, knows how to set goals, track progress and structure their time in an effective manner.

To wrap it up here, these three character traits I think are very useful:

  1. Openness and curiosity
  2. Creativity and self-awareness
  3. Discipline or the art of cultivating good habits

From my own experience, I don’t see character or personality as static and unchangeable. I also spoke of “mindset” and “mentality” to underline that view. If you possess or cultivate these three traits you will climb higher than most.

Chinese dictionary: Why Pleco is irreplaceable

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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.

I finally could stop ordering stir-fried noodles

a satisfied PLECO user

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.

Pleco customer satisfaction
Pleco’s popularity in the app store

Discover your learning style

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Starting out learning a new language? If you are new to language learning or want to rethink the process, bear with me for some self-discovery. Knowing your personal learning style will make studying easier and more fun. Non of the four styles match you? I have some advice for you too.

Natural listeners

Do you prefer lectures over reading books and articles? You do a good job at following verbal directions? You don’t really need the visual backup to support your learning?

If you are a so-called auditory learner, you learn particularly well by listening. In essence, auditory learners retain information best when it is presented through sound and speech. If you identify with this type, consider listening to dialogues, vocabulary and music. Build your own playlist and put tracks on repeat. Speak or sing along and try to repeat the phrases. Stop when you feel the urge to destroy your playing device. For Chinese in particular, repetition really will help you to get the tones and the melody right.

“I see what you mean”

Sorry, what did you just say? Can you write that down please?

If you are more of a visual type of learner, you typically process new information by reading, writing and using other visual stimuli. I personally like to write summaries and vocabulary lists, because the visual backup not only helps me to memorize words and sentences I’d otherwise forget in the long run, but also supports my neurotic self to create order out of chaos. The drawing of symbols and pictures is essential in this as well.

Learn characters with pictures

Tactile and kinesthetic

Are you more the kind of hands-on learner who benefit from actively doing something? Then you might feel more comfortable with working with flashcards, tangible objects, and other creative means. As a kinesthetic learner you already know that standing up will improve your comprehension and retention. When you stand up, your body is more engaged and connected to the learning process. Investing in a book stand or standing desk may help you concentrate for longer periods of time and remember more of what you read. You may also consider to do some burpees or jumping jacks in between chapters. Combining activity keeps you energized and cements the language you’re studying in your brain.

The intellectual

Last but not least, there is the intellectual learner. As the name suggests as an intellectual learn you learn best the abstract way. You want to first understand the rules and are not afraid to read rather dreary grammar explanations like this:

Chinese, like English, is classified as an SVO (subject–verb–object) language. Transitive verbs precede their objects in typical simple clauses, while the subject precedes the verb. For example: 他 喝 酒。Literal: He drink alcohol. Translated: He drinks alcohol.

Not my style?

If you got the feeling that non of the above styles or types matches your particular profile? That’s completely fine, since they are only abstract distinctions to help you orientate. Have you ever met a person who learned language purely by listening to spoken dialogues and other recordings? Would be unnatural, wouldn’t it? Speaking of natural and unnatural: Don’t forget that when we try to learn a foreign language as adults, we are actually kind of helplessly imitating the natural process of language learning that we all went through as children as we mastered our first language. How did that work out so well? Natural language acquisition involves all the senses and is meaningful. It’s both active and passive. All four areas of language skills, that is speaking, listening, reading and writing, develop overtime, but not necessarily in a guided manner.

So taking that into account, you should really try to create your personal mixture of the four learning styles. Know your strengths and keep it balanced: If you like to read, don’t forget to communicate with people. If you are the opposite and prefer learning by conversation and listening, try making notes. It will help you remember fresh vocabulary and keep track of your progress. Challenge yourself by trying new things!

PS. Get some inspiration from a polyglot expert

According to language learning expert Steve Kaufmann, most important of all is knowing what motivates you, what interests you. Note his opinion on different types of learners:

I have never believed that there are “auditory learners”, “visual learners” or other types of learners. I do believe that learners are motivated by different things. It is these different kinds of motivations that need to be researched and better understood.

Steve Kaufmann (lingosteve)
Language learning legend Steve Kaufmann discussing the question if there really are different types of language learners