Can you learn Chinese without Pleco flashcards?

The Pleco Chinese dictionary is a crucial app for Chinese learners. What about the Pleco flashcards add-on though, are they worth spending 10 bucks? Are they really essential or can you learn Chinese without Pleco flashcards? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons!

The benefits of Pleco Flashcards

Pleco flashcards are a popular means to organize and train vocabulary. Say you’re in Taiwan or China and receiving tons of new input every day. How to keep track of all that new vocabulary? Are you going to write down the Pinyin and later add the character(s) and meaning? In such a scenario working with Pleco flashcards might be the superior approach:

  • Pleco combines dictionary functionality with a flashcard system. It’s very efficient to create flashcards based on your search history and to sort them by different categories. Scroll through your search history to bookmark those characters for further learning.
  • If you like reading the news or any other Chinese text: Pleco allows you to bookmark important vocabulary from any given text while using the clipboard reader.
  • The flashcards contain the link to the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Spaced repetition supports efficient memorization. More advanced users know how to tweak the settings to their personal tastes.
  • Sound is integrated.
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards.
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices.

Hidden dangers?

So, are Pleco flashcards the ultimate learning solution? Well, I personally think that the pros certainly outweigh the cons. If you have a goal of learning 100 new characters every month, Pleco flashcards allow you to realize this goal in a smart and efficient manner, helping you to keep track of your progress. There are some hidden dangers though which become more apparent the more frequent you use this feature:

  • The easier it gets to create flashcards, the harder it becomes to maintain order. Flashcards have a tendency to pile up. You can’t keep track of them all. This raises some questions like: should I really memorize every new word? Which words are truly relevant, which words can wait or even be dumped? As far as SRS is concerned all words are equally important.
  • The more cards are due every day, the more time you spend simply reviewing vocabulary. Is that the essence of language learning?
  • Is 100 percent retention a realistic goal or tyranny? How much time and energy do you want to spend on memorizing every single input? Shouldn’t it be acceptable to forget an X percentage of vocabulary?
  • Even though Pleco SRS flashcards make learning Chinese vocabulary considerably more convenient and manageable, we partly outsource the autonomy of our learning by allowing the algorithm to make daily decisions for us. It automatizes the process of vocabulary learning to some extent. We do control the algorithm of course and you can set up different test profiles, but I think there’s something to the idea that by employing such tools we become a little like these tools. The main point being that vocabulary learning shouldn’t turn into a blind automatism.
This video shows how you can change the standard dictionary settings to be able to turn example sentences into flashcards.

What kind of learner are you?

All of these “hidden dangers” don’t have to be a real problem as long as you’re aware of them. The ultimate article about pros and cons of flashcard learning by Sinosplice notes that whether you like flashcards or not really depends on what kind of learner you are:

Over the years of working with lots of different learners of Chinese through AllSet Learning, I have noticed a very clear trend: analytical, programmer-types loooove SRS. It’s the efficiency of it, having the “checklist” where nothing gets omitted. These types of learners can find SRS a Godsend which changes their studies completely, and they often evangelize for SRS quite a bit.

However, learners much more interested in talking in Chinese, or reading in Chinese, may find the preoccupation with flashcards a bit off-putting and unnecessary. If you really are speaking Chinese all day, or reading for hours and hours every week, you may not need SRS flashcards as much.

Sinosplice: SRS Flashcards: Pros and Cons

So now what?

Are Pleco flashcards as essential to learning Chinese as fuel to a flying airplane? On the one hand, this depends on your learning situation. If you’re intensively studying Chinese, whether in China or at home, you might want to consider Pleco flashcards as probably one of the fastest and most efficient ways to organize, keep track of and ultimately memorize new vocabulary. In the heat of the moment, Pleco flashcards definitely beat a notebook or any other app I know of. On the other hand, if you’re not that analytical kind of learner, you’re probably not going to find salvation using flashcards, although it may very well support your learning in a useful way.

My opinion

As far as I am concerned: I’m somewhere in between. My motivation for flashcard learning seems to be coming in waves. I appreciate how Pleco combines dictionary and flashcards, allowing me to keep track of what I’m learning, but I have a hard time keeping that motivation for daily reviews over a longer period of time. This goes against my better judgement, because daily reviewing (even 10 minutes) really does make a difference. The effects are real. In the end, it’s up to ourselves how to make the best use out of this Pleco feature. It’s not the one-size-fits-all vocabulary learning solution or the nr. 1 method to memorize vocabulary for everybody, but it most certainly is a powerful tool that has enhanced the way many people learn Chinese as a foreign language and will continue to do so until something better comes along.

What’s your opinion about Pleco flashcards? Are they a godsend or can you do without them? Feel free to leave a comment down below!

Further reading

Many long-term Pleco users have shared their favorite configurations and other tips:

  • How to Use Pleco to Really Learn Chinese: “As a Chinese-language learner living in China, Pleco is the most important app on my phone. Some days, I spend more time on it than WeChat.”
  • My Pleco flashcard setup: “The way I use the flashcard feature evolved over time. Now it is in a state that helps me learn new words faster. Therefore I will present to you the way I use Pleco’s flashcard feature in this post! You will learn about the different test profiles I have set up. Additionally, I will explain to you, how I customized Pleco’s scoring algorithm.”
  • Pleco flashcards: “If you are not familiar with Pleco’s flashcard system yet, be sure to continue reading on how to set up an ideal spaced repetition testing system.”
  • My Pleco flashcard configuration: “After going through various internet resources and using it for over a year, I’ve found a configuration that works for me. So I thought I would share it here.”
  • Is the flashcard upgrade worth 10 bucks?: “Do you guys think it’s worth it getting the flashcards upgrade on the app? Is there a limit to how many you can make in the demo?”
  • HSK 3.0 Flashcards: The Pleco flashcards for the new HSK.

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Still unbeaten: Journey to the West (1986, TV series)

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Journey to the West is one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. Over the years, countless TV-adaptations have been produced. Everything from decent to mediocre to barely watchable.

One of the oldest, the 1986 version, was so strong and convincing that it achieved classical status. It seems almost all mainland Chinese people grew up watching this CCTV-production of Journey to the West and it still can be seen on Chinese television today. (It’s one of those series Chinese national television just keeps repeating.)

From today’s perspective, the special effects are obsolete and bizarre. And the story evolves much slower and more long-winded than Netflix addicts are used to nowadays. The striking thing though: China and its film industry have developed so much since then, but they never quite managed to top the 1986-series! In terms of story line, costumes, portrayal of characters, it still is considered the most original and authentic rendition of the story. As a matter of fact, some of the newer adaptations are hardly more than imitations that fail to bring convincing interpretations to the plot and characters.

Key to understanding China

Most people who are serious about learning Chinese, watch or read Journey to the West at some point. There is just no way around it. The legendary journey of the Buddhist monk and his apprentices somehow is fundamental to Chinese culture. The adventures of the Monkey King have left their traces in the Chinese language. Journey to the West is a key to understanding China, although it leaves you with many new questions. About Chinese mythology and religions for example.

Still the best: 1986 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1986
  • Year: 1986
  • Duration: 25 episodes X 45 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese and English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

The complete 1986-adaptation you can find on YouTube with English subtitles.

Reading Journey to the West

I wrote about Pleco’s e-book Journey to the West a while back. The online dictionary offers its own graded reader series for the Chinese Classics, suitable for non-native speakers. Pleco’s Journey to the West is an abridged version for intermediate learners which stays true to the original as far as I can tell. Watching the series and reading the story with its additional notes on places, monsters and demons together can be very helpful. If you have the time, that is! The story is meant for HSK 4 or 5 learners.

Other adaptations

Countless other adaptations have been made. I can’t guarantee this list is complete. It doesn’t include cartoons for example. Unfortunately, most of them lack quality. I found only one exception.

1996 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1996
Disappointing

1999 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 1999
This is the second season of 86′ version.

2000 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2000
Disappointing

2010 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2010
Disappointing

2016 (Movie)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2016
Watchable. Famous actress Li Gong plays the “white bone demon”. The actor who plays Sun WuKong does a good job as well.

2018 (Movie)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2018
High budget, heavy on special effects, but not convincing.

2019 (TV series)

Journey to the West, Xiyouji, 2019
This seems to be a remake of the 1986 CCTV-adaptation.

Recommended: 1986 (TV series) on YouTube

This is the CCTV-version from 1986 with English subtitles.

Did I miss one of your favorite adaptations of Journey to the West or am I being too harsh? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Flashcards: Anki vs Pleco

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Both apps have been around, but which one is the best spaced repetition vocabulary trainer and why? The ongoing debate about the best flashcard system for learning Mandarin seems to point towards the dictionary app Pleco.

What both Anki and Pleco deliver

  • Organize and review vocabulary with less effort
  • Relieve your brain with spaced repetition software that helps you to remember large quantities of words, while allowing you to focus on new or hard words
  • Download or import ready to use flashcard decks
  • Review “whenever, wherever”
  • Customize decks to your needs

What makes Pleco different

  • It’s Pleco’s built-in flashcard system. If you’re already using the dictionary, it’s sort of natural to build your own flashcard lists and use Pleco as a all-in-one solution for learning vocabulary.
  • Can be combined with the Pleco reader: it allows you to directly create flashcards from any given text.
  • The flashcard contains the complete dictionary entry, including example sentences.
  • Sound is integrated.
  • Ready-made lists of HSK-flashcards.
  • Lists can be imported and exported between different users and devices.
  • The current US-price is $9.99 for Android and iOS.

What makes Anki unique

  • Is a flashcard system that’s not limited to Chinese. It can be used for different languages and subjects.
  • You can create your own flashcards. You want to make a set of Chinese grammar points with example sentences? No problem. You want to make a set of the 52 taiji moves you’re currently practicing? No problem. You can make whatever set you want.
  • You can import lists from the Anki community which has a lot to offer to Chinese learners. More than just HSK-lists by the way and translations in numerous languages. There is one “but”: they are not always free of mistakes.
  • Sound can be included (you can add or record your own sound), but not all sets have sound.
  • The desktop- and android- version of the software are free, the iOS-version costs 27,99€. Anki used to be considered a desktop-based application.

The limitations of Anki and Pleco

Both won’t solve all your life problems. They won’t be of much help learning completely new words for example or improving your listening skills. That’s not their purpose.

For what purpose they should be used

However, Anki and Pleco are powerful tools to organize your reviewing and keep track of things, especially when you’re starting to feel lost and new vocabulary just keeps adding up. Create the decks you need and both apps will support you to structure the reviewing process. “Difficult” cards will resurface again and again, while “the easy ones” won’t bother you for days.

That’s where both apps are most helpful. Reviewing with spaced repetition software is a healthy habit to cultivate, but it should never be your main focus, since there is no such thing as reviewing for the sake of reviewing. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes everyday.

Which to pick?

Both apps take some getting used to and have their pros and cons. Much depends on which devices you are using and how much money you want to spend.

Why many people prefer Pleco is because they are already using it as a dictionary. When you are looking up words for homework or when watching a Chinese TV-show, it’s only a small step (or sum) to create flashcards and review what you are learning. This learner actually used both apps and at the end clearly preferred Pleco:

I started out using Anki because I had heard of it first, and also because it was free (and I was a poor student). It was fine when I was just using one of the ready-made downloadable decks. But when I started learning words other than from decks, I found it too much of a hassle to add all those new words into Anki manually. Pleco let me add words much more easily, and I usually had to look those words up on Pleco first anyway, to get the meaning right. (Incidentally, Pleco does have a function that allows you to export your flashcards so that you can use them in Anki, but they don’t look as nice with the tones and don’t come with the pronunciation.)  So if you’re still deciding between the two and you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, my advice is – spend the US$10-15 and buy Pleco’s flashcard program. It’s easily the best money I’ve spent on learning Chinese so far.

https://discoverchinese.tumblr.com/post/63902496202/which-flashcard-program-pleco-vs-anki (October 13, 2013)

While other learners may prefer Anki for the many options it offers. Maybe you want to create your own deck of grammar points or make a set of particular phrases to prepare for your Chinese oral exam. Maybe you prefer your own examples to those Pleco offers. Maybe you want to use your personal notes. Once you’ve discovered how to make proper use of Anki, you can make any deck you want:

Other programs may have functions Anki lack (such as creating flashcards directly from dictionaries or automatically adding sentences), but no other program beats Anki when it comes to versatility. You can use it for anything you like, you can customize anything you like and if you aren’t a programming maven yourself, there will be others who might have already written the plugin providing the extra features you require.

https://www.hackingchinese.com/anki-a-friendly-intelligent-spaced-learning-system/ (January 8, 2011)

Which app is most popular?

I have noticed though that in this ongoing debate the Pleconians have gained the upper hand. The main argument is convenience. Like I said before, Pleco is the “all-in-one solution”. Many people value the fact they can update their flashcards and review characters they looked up yesterday when they are on the bus or whenever they have time to kill. The Pleco flashcard system is straightforward, whereas Anki can be a bit overwhelming for first-time users.

Anyway, let me know what you think about Pleco or Anki. Have you tried other apps that work just as well? Please comment below.

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Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
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The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
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Graded Chinese Reader 3000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories

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Pleco’s graded reader: Journey to the West

buddhist statue 10

Journey to the West is one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels. Reading the original classic about Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his three disciples by yourself is considered rather advanced stuff, after all it’s a lengthy piece of Chinese literature dating back to 16th century. You could, of course, read a translated version or watch one of the many TV-adaptations, but if you still want to have read it in Chinese, the Pleco dictionary app offers a solution. It’s an abridged and simplified version of Journey to the West which is much easier and more fun to read for Mandarin learners.

Two versions of “Journey to the West”

Pleco’s version of the story is – I’d say – suited for HSK level 4 or 5 (between 1200 and 2500 words). The vocabulary is narrowed down to those characters you’re supposed to know when you are somewhere between HSK 4 and 5. The official recommendation is HSK 5 though, so it might proof a little ambitious for HSK 4, but that level should bring you a long way.

The graded reader is divided into 37 chapters of about 1500 characters each. Every chapter is just two or three pages long, at the end of which, you’ll find a number of additional notes, giving you some background on Buddhist figures, monsters, names and places. Usually, there are some questions to check your comprehension.

The original novel, by the way, has 100 chapters and is definitely not the kind of book you can read in a week. If you want to get an impression of the difficulty level, you can check the picture slide show below. It shows an image of the first page of the first chapter from the copy I brought from China.

I can’t say Pleco’s 西游记 is very exciting to read, but then again, this is a simplified version for studying Mandarin. It allows you to read one of the great Chinese classics in Mandarin which is something not few Mandarin learners have always been dreaming about.

So be prepared to read a simplified and summarized version of a long and complex story which describes the Tangseng’s adventures in chronological order, using a limited vocabulary.

BUT, that being said, the Pleco version of Journey to the West is excellent material to speed up your reading. Repetition plays a key role in this. And you can learn quite a lot about Chinese folk religion, mythology, Confucianist, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy on the side.

The current price of 10,99€ is still rather high for an e-book or – to be precise – an add-on in Pleco. You could expect a text-only adaptation of a classic – the Pleco reader probably doesn’t support any artwork – to be cheaper maybe, so I’m hesitant to buy any of the other three Great Classics. If you want to have a taste of the extended version, but don’t feel ready for the book itself, you could combine reading the Pleco graded reader with the 1986 TV-series.

Do you have any Chinese reading material you would recommend or are disappointed about? Please leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Graded Chinese Reader 500 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Mini-stories
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
The Rise of the Monkey King: A Story in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin 600 Word Vocabulary Level
The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Dwarfs 小矮人 Xiǎo ǎi rén (HSK3+Reading): Chinese HSK Graded Reader
The Prince and the Pauper: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1,
Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series Level 1(300-Word Level): Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
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Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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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