(Chinese) Words with Friends

Welcome to the fourth and final week of our Chinese starter kit series. If you’ve been following along since the beginning, we’d like to congratulate you on your perseverance. You may have given up on your resolutions to drink less and exercise more, but at least you’re making progress with your Chinese learning goals!

This week we’ll be looking at some tools and resources to help with your vocabulary acquisition.  Combined with our previous lessons on tones, pinyin, and grammar, the websites and apps below will put you well on your way towards Chinese fluency.

1. Dictionaries

Fortunately, the days of lugging heavy paper dictionaries to class are long gone. Dictionaries have gone digital in a big way, and these five put all the Chinese words you’ll ever need right at your fingertips.

chinese vocabulary

Pleco has a special place in the hearts of many students of Chinese, and for good reason. It’s easy to use, comprehensive and has a wealth of features and add-ons. If you only use one vocabulary resource, make it this one! Pleco itself is not technically a dictionary but an app that allows you to access dozens of dictionaries. These include tried and true standards like the Oxford Concise English & Chinese Dictionary to more obscure dictionaries on subjects like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Buddhism. The basic version of the app is free and comes with a solid selection of dictionaries. If you decide to upgrade you can gain lifetime access to a wealth of powerful tools like optical character recognition, handwriting search, and a stroke order guide. Pleco is available for both IOS and Android.

chinese vocabulary

If you need to look up Chinese words directly from a browser, MDBG may well be your best option. Its simple interface displays the pronunciation in pinyin along with the English definition and even the HSK level of the word in question.

Chinese vocabulary
Chinese vocabulary

While it may have the look and feel of a website that hasn’t been updated since the early 2000s, yellowbridge is still one of the best online dictionaries and has long been a favorite among English-speaking learners of Chinese. Don’t be fooled by its retro appearance: it is constantly updated with new terms and contains a number of useful search tools.

Another good option for browser-based searching, LINE uses content from the Collins English-Chinese dictionary and now also includes a free offline app for both IOS and Android. One of its best features is the “example lookup” which yields example sentences instead of definitions. This is a key tool for seeing how a word is actually used in context.

Chinese vocabulary

OK, we admit this is not exactly a dictionary so much as a translation app. However, if you need to translate larger chunks of text between Chinese and other languages, this is probably your best choice. Translation programs of the past were notorious for churning out results that made little to no sense (often translating too literally). Fortunately, since 2016 Google has been using a new system that translates sentences as a whole for more accurate results. Most exciting of all, this new system harnesses “deep learning” technology to teach itself to make more natural translations over time. But the good news doesn’t stop there: we all know Google hasn’t been accessible from within mainland China for years, but in 2017 Google quietly re-introduced its browser and app-based translation services for the Chinese market.

Despite these advances, keep in mind that the results will still be imperfect; consider them more as a guide. When translating your CV into Chinese, we still recommend getting a native Chinese speaker to help you! If you’re reading this from within China, you can access Google translate here, get the IOS app here and download the Android version direct from Google’s China server here.

2. Learning Apps

You don’t even need a computer to improve your vocab! These apps can be downloaded to your smartphone for on-the-go study.

Along with Duolingo, Memrise is one of the most popular apps for language learning. Memrise is a flashcard-based software that relies on user-generated lists of items to help you learn whatever it is you want to remember. This makes it ideal for learning and reviewing vocabulary, while the eye-catching design and addictive format will make you actually want to study. One of the best features is that it uses spaced repetition software (SRS) to periodically bring up old words for review. Simultaneously, it emphasizes words you have trouble with to make sure what you’ve learned gets locked into your long-term memory. Memrise has heaps of Chinese lists including plenty suitable for those just starting out like HSK 1 vocabulary, Mandarin Chinese 1 and even an elementary course designed by our very own teachers here at the Hutong School!

Chinese vocabulary
Chinese language

If you’re a visual learner who wants to study Chinese characters, Zizzle might be a good choice for you. Currently supporting over 850 of the most commonly used Chinese words, Zizzle uses stories to help you understand the logic behind Chinese characters. Furthermore, its stories use audio and pictures for a true multimedia experience. Sample lessons are available free of charge, and if you want to upgrade to the full version you can purchase a subscription or character packs. Zizzle is available for IOS and Android.

3. Videos

Youtube isn’t just for cat videos anymore! These channels have hundreds of hours of free content specifically aimed at those looking to increase their Mandarin vocabulary.

This site is one of the longest-running providers of online content for Mandarin learners. For this week we wanted to highlight their youtube channel which has lots of excellent vocab-related content. Take a look at their Beginner Videos playlist, in particular, their videos on classroom Chinese and using “can” in Chinese.

Another longtime producer of quality, original content with a great youtube channel. Beginners should check out the videos in their Beginner Vocab Playlist, along with their Video Vocab and Weekly Vocab series.

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4. Podcasts

Learning the definition of a word is a good start, but it isn’t enough. These podcasts use realistic dialogues to introduce new words in context while fine-tuning your listening to recognize Mandarin’s unique sounds.

Chinese language

This series is well known for its highly listenable, sometimes wacky and always entertaining podcasts. Popup Chinese is a great option for those looking to improve their listening while picking up new vocabulary in context. Start with their Absolute Beginners podcasts and work your way through their extensive back-catalog from there.

Another solid choice for Chinese learning podcasts with likable and energetic bilingual hosts. YepChinese! is especially good for improving your vocabulary as each episode includes a complete transcript of the lesson dialogue.  Each dialogue also lists keywords and extra example sentences with pinyin, characters, and English translation. Try their beginner level dialogues here!

Chinese language

Congratulations on making it to the end of our Chinese Starter Kit series! We hope it’s been a useful introduction to many of the free resources available to help you start learning the world’s most spoken language. There’s never been a better time to start learning Chinese, so why not make mastering Mandarin your resolution for this year?

If you’re interested in Chinese Characters and want to learn something about the history of Chinese calligraphy check our article “How many Chinese characters are there” .

And if you’re ready for a true immersion experience in one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting countries, consider applying for a personalized Mandarin learning experience with us in China!