“Isn't it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn't it also great when friends visit from distant places? If one remains not annoyed when he is not understood by people around him, isn't he a sage?” - Confucius

English isn’t the only language you need to know in the world of business. Other languages are making headway and you’ll need to know one or several of them to really stand out in an interview. A study conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research and Opinion highlighted three important languages: German, French, and Mandarin.

If you want to learn Mandarin London words and phrases, recognise a specific Chinese character, or familiarise yourself with the Chinese Pinyin system, you're probably going to need a dictionary.

So which dictionaries should you consider for learning Chinese?

In our last article on Chinese exams, we're going to look at reasons why you should invest in a dictionary, the different types of dictionaries available, how to effectively use dictionaries to help you learn Mandarin, and which ones are the best.

Why Use a Dictionary?

The dictionary is a valuable tool to have in your language-learning arsenal, especially if you're studying Chinese A Level, the HSK 1, or learning Chinese with a MOOC. This isn't just because it allows you to check the spelling of words, but because it can also help broaden your vocabulary, regardless of your age. When learning a foreign language, a dictionary is almost 20essential.

How do you read Chinese?
Find the dictionary that is going to help you read what you want to read. (Source: quillau)

If you start learning Chinese, you should make sure that you invest in an appropriate dictionary. Learning Mandarin Chinese is more difficult than other languages not because of the grammar or how its spoken (with a series of different tones), but rather the writing system which you'll need to learn if you want to achieve fluency in the language.

Beginners often learn basic words and terms and will soon start putting together their own sentences. However, once you can put a sentence together, you may find that you don’t know all the words you need. This process will take time.

Of course, if you travel to China, for example, it’ll probably take less time as you'll be surrounded by the language and using it every day.

However, a dictionary could certainly speed things up. Rather than being stuck because you don’t know the word to express a certain idea, you just need to look it up. Looking a word up will actually help you remember it better.

So which dictionary should you choose? Should you get a paper dictionary, an app, or check an online dictionary?

Dictionaries are no longer the large paving slabs that they used to be. Apps have been developed for our smartphones and dictionaries are freely available for those learning Chinese online. You can’t use each of these tools in the same way, either.

Apps are very useful if you like to learn Chinese in public transport on your commute to and from work, university, or school. They’ll follow you everywhere you go and some don’t even require an internet connection. Just make sure that your phone or tablet doesn't run out of battery.

Online dictionaries are very useful if you don’t want to spend any money and need to quickly find a particular term.

Paper dictionaries come in a variety of sizes from tiny travel dictionaries to the massive tomes we mentioned earlier. This type of dictionary can be very useful for those travelling to China, for example, since they don't require you to have a charged portable device or access to an internet connection.

It’s up to you to decide exactly what you need your dictionary for and how you’d prefer to use it.

Online Chinese Dictionaries

Online Chinese dictionaries are very useful if you’re studying your new language on your computer (either with an online private tutor or by downloading classes). You can access these whenever you want and learn new words and see them used in context with examples.

How long does it take to learn Chinese?
Soon you'll be able to read Chinese. (Source: quillau)


This is one of the oldest multilingual dictionaries available online. You can use Reverse to translate from Chinese to English and vice versa. When you look up a word, you’ll be presented with a list including a number of variants and contexts.

You can also use this site for French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Japanese, Romanian, and many other languages other than Mandarin Chinese.

Google Translate

With all the digital resources available online, it’s impossible to not mention Google Translate, which you can effectively use as a dictionary. In recent years, Google Translate has vastly improved. However, it still works better for single words than full sentences.

That said, it’s not purely a dictionary. It won’t give you as much information on the word, its definitions, and uses as other dictionaries.

Paper Dictionaries

Paper dictionaries are obviously much heavier than an app or a website but they can be really useful if you’re travelling or just looking to improve your language skills somewhere you can’t access the internet or modern technology.

How do you write in Chinese?
Writing out the words and characters will help you to remember them better. (Source: quillau)

DK Mandarin Chinese-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary

If you've just started your Chinese lessons and are a visual learner, you have to get this dictionary. It's much easier to learn to speak Chinese if you know the words and it's much easier to learn the words if you can also see what they represent.

Oxford Chinese Dictionary

If you prefer a traditional dictionary to accompany on your language learning adventure, then you should consider the Oxford Chinese Dictionary. While this hefty tome won't be able to accompany you to Beijing or on a backpacking adventure around mainland China, it's a resource that you'll keep using until you learn to speak Chinese fluently.

Chinese Dictionaries for Smartphones

If you want to be able to learn Chinese and look up words wherever you are, then you should consider some of these apps.

Which are the best digital Chinese dictionaries?
Don't forget that your phone can also act as a dictionary. (Source: JESHOOTScom)


Pleco is more than just a simple dictionary. This multipurpose app can help you recognise Chinese characters thanks to Pinyin, writing, photos, and voice.

Once it’s recognised the character, Pleco will provide you with the translation as well as sample sentences, different forms of the word, how it’s written, and other information that’ll be really useful when learning the Chinese language.

A free version is available but you’ll need to pay for some of the more advanced functionality.

Hanping Chinese Dictionary

This is a useful dictionary that has plenty of interesting functionality. It uses both simplified and traditional Chinese characters, includes vocabulary lists for the HSK exams, voice recognition, and the free version will do the trick. The pro version includes writing recognition, pronunciation guides, and other dictionaries, etc.


This app and translation system is very useful for learning how to write Chinese characters. The app offers definitions for each Chinese word and shows you how to write it. You just have to follow the strokes with your finger on the touchscreen of your device.

The app is also really intuitive and fun.

How to Effectively Use Chinese Dictionaries

You can hardly learn Chinese with just the dictionary. However, the dictionary is one of the best tools you can have with you when learning how to speak Chinese. It allows you to very quickly enrich your vocabulary.

You just need to know how to get the most out of it. The first thing you should know is that a dictionary works just like any other learning resources. It needs to be used alongside other resources and not in isolation. Have one to hand for when you don’t understand a particular character in a text you’re reading, for example. You can put together important vocabulary lists and look up them up.

To really get the most out of it, do this regularly, revise the vocabulary list, and test yourself on them weekly. Soon you’ll have the necessary vocabulary to start making conversation.

In addition to dictionaries, don't forget that you can also get Chinese grammar guides, flash cards for specific Chinese vocabulary, and books on aspects of Chinese writing such as stroke order, which is hugely important.

If you're still struggling with Chinese, then consider enlisting the help of a private tutor on Superprof. There are three main types of private tutorials: one-to-one tutorials, group tutorials, and online private tutorials.

One-to-one tutorials involve just the tutor and the student and are the most effective way for students to learn. Group tutorials tend to be cheaper but the students get less one-on-one time with their tutor. Finally, online tutorials are done using video conferencing software like Skype and are usually quite cheap since the tutor has no travel expenses for the lessons.

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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.