I adore old school paper dictionaries. They’re especially great for learners of Chinese because they force us to connect with radicals and stroke order. (Plus, hunting for that 16-stroke character with the obscure radical always gets the adrenaline going, no?) But, I know that the stop-and-go reading that can come with dictionary use is demotivating. And sometimes you just have to decipher a tattoo or a menu when you’re out-and-about sans dictionary. Luckily, there are a few good Chinese dictionary apps for smartphones. The key when using these apps is to make sure that they’re supporting your learning and not replacing it. Here are some tips for staying sharp in our appy world:
- Force yourself to look words up by radical first. This is how you’d do it in a paper dictionary (except it’s about ten times faster), and it reinforces your knowledge of a character’s building blocks.
- If your app lets you write characters directly onto the screen, use it as an opportunity to practice stroke order. As far as I know, most character input tools don’t work well if you mess up the stroke order anyway, and that’s a good thing. If you’re looking up a character with unfamiliar radicals, mentally review the stroke order rules and see if you can get it right. Let’s be honest: many of us aren’t writing characters on a regular basis, so taking the time to do it—even on a touch screen—can have an impact on your character recognition.
- Use optical character recognition (OCR) as a last resort. I get it, it’s fun to point your phone at some text and get an instant translation—it makes me feel like a superhero—but it’s a passive strategy that doesn’t engage you as a learner.
If you have a few extra seconds, take the time to be a careful user of your dictionary app, and make sure that your smartphone is actually making you smarter!