In Paper versus Electric Dictionaries, Electric Wins

It was quite a while ago now I ran a little poll asking if people preferred using Paper Dictionaries, Electronic Dictionaries, or both. Well, turns out the results were pretty much unanimously in favor of Electronic Dictionaries!

With their convenience, portability, and instantly accessible information, electronic dictionaries are probably the best option for language learners these days.

So, here’s my Top 5 Electronic Chinese Dictionaries:

#5: MDBG

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 7.37.04 AM

Why it’s a great choice:

MDBG has been around for a while, it is almost the staple online dictionary for Chinese language students. Quick, easy, and with plenty of display options for search results, it’s no wonder that it’s been around for a long time.

Easily accessible online through any browser, MDBG is a quick and easy reference that I turn to when I’m translating documents. Since I am usually at my computer when I’m translating documents, it’s much easier to pop open MDBG in another tab and reference to it when I need to. In addition, it has these other great features:

  • handwriting recognition for writing characters if you don’t know the Pinyin to type it in;
  • looking up by radicals;
  • Chinese and Pinyin typing interfaces

Check it out here:

#4: LINE dict


Why it’s a great choice:

LINE is pretty much everywhere these days, perhaps only second to WeChat, and it goes without much surprise they would also put out their own dictionary apps. LINE dict is available online, as well as for both iOS and Android. The online version seemed to me a bit slow and it had issues loading a few pages, so I would overall recommend the apps themselves.

The dictionary is fairly expansive, and it includes some nice features like a sentence analyzer, handwriting support, and stroke order animations. It also has audio throughout the dictionary. Having mobile apps put this one step above MDBG, but if you’re looking on your computer at home, stick with MDBG.

iOS version here.

Android version here.

Online here.

#3: Mengdian (萌典)


Why it’s a great choice:

As far as pure Chinese language dictionaries go, this is one of the best ones out there. It has a smart new interface and pulls from a larger variety of sources. It’s a good resource to have when you come across any ambiguities in the English definitions for Chinese characters or phrases. I often like to pop into this dictionary to verify that I understand the meaning of the characters that I’m using. They source this dictionary directly from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education.

Included in the app are also dictionaries for Taiwanese and Hakka, which are fun to reference if you happen to encounter those languages quite often (as happens in Taiwan).

Another really great thing about this dictionary is that you can get it for Android, iOS, as well as download it on Windows, OSX and even Linux.

Check out the online version here: There are links to the mobile apps at the top right of the page.

And my number one electronic dictionary is….. actually a tie!

#1: Hanping Chinese Dictionary


Why it’s a great choice:

I’ve already gone over this dictionary a bit in my Chinese Learning Apps for Android post, which you can take a look at here as well as in the recent tone colors post. The developer keeps the app updated regularly, and there is a whole series of related apps, including a soundboard and a Character popup reference tool (I’ll be covering these in another post).

Hanping is an Android exclusive app, but there’s a free version and a pro version available. The Pro version is totally worth the small investment, and opens up a bunch of great features, including AnkiDroid Flashcards and multi-dictionary support.

The free version is no slouch either, and includes handwriting recognition and audio pronunciation. So if you were on a tight budget, Hangping’s free version is a great option to start with (plus, no ads!).

Check it out on Google Play here.

#1: Pleco:


Why it’s a great choice:

It’s really hard to beat Pleco in terms of overall functionality, accessibility (both on iOS and Android), and the sheer number of add-ons that you can get. The variety of dictionaries available for purchase is also a huge asset that makes Pleco invaluable to any Chinese student. However, it is a significant investment to get in all of the features you might want to use (aside from a few dictionary options, pretty much all of the other add-ons cost money. For example, the app has a handwriting recognizing but costs $10 for the enhanced version).

Find out more about Pleco here.

Either way, both of the #1 dictionaries are the best you can get for mobile devices, and I highly recommend giving them a try. Both are free to try, with add ons you can purchase later (such as more dictionaries in Pleco’s case).

What do you think? Were there any that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Performing a little surgery

So recently I had the opportunity to perform a bit of surgery on an iPhone. A relative had accidentally dropped their iPhone 4, smashing the screen into a web of glass that even Spiderman would be proud of:

Spins a web, any size

Spins a web, any size

Getting it fixed by Apple meant buy a new phone. Other repair guys were giving us estimates of $90-130, sometimes even saying it would take a few days.

Well, nuts to that I say!

So I offered to just do the repair myself–being a huge fan of iFixit, I figured, what could go wrong? (And anyway there’s that iPhone 6 thing, so if I broke it I’m actually helping them to upgrade!)

I found this company out of California called iCracked. They seemed pretty reputable and offered kits at a decent price ($10 less than iFixit, plus free shipping). I ordered their iPhone 4 kit and set to work!

Continue Reading

The Piano Guys Go to China (and teach us something about Yin and Yang)

The Piano Guys have quickly become one of my favorite YouTube sensations. And about a year ago they somehow managed to get a piano on to the Great Wall of China and make this video. It’s amazing, take a look:

This video first of all does a great job incorporating a few classical Chinese instruments into the music, but also showcases the Daoist concept of Yin and Yang (陰陽; yīnyáng)–darkness and light.



The outfits they wear play into this concept as well: one with a white shirt and black pants; the other wearing the opposite. You could even argue the piano and the cello going against and with each other is also another way of incorporating this element into their music.

The video was recorded at the 黃崖關 (“Yellow Cliff Pass“;  Huángyáguān) portion of the Great Wall. The story behind making the video is pretty interesting, too, which you can read on their website here.

Follow the Piano Guys:





You Can Read Academic Japanese

Oftentimes reading academic articles in a foreign language can be a rather intimidating task, but this may come as a surprise: reading academic articles in Japanese is actually pretty easy.

Well, okay it does have two little prerequisites: a decent familiarity with Chinese characters and a basic understanding of Japanese grammar. This is nothing a little Remember the Kanji or some time over at The Japanese Pages Fast Track Grammar can’t fix!

Now let’s take a look at what makes reading academic Japanese so easy.

Continue Reading

Korean (Hangul) Primer

Following on the tail of the previous entry (Classical Chinese [Hanmun] Primer), I wanted to share more from my adventures at the Joint Library of Humanities and Social Sciences (人文社會科學聯合圖書館) at Academia Sinica.

photo 1photo 2

These two images are from the Korean-language primer used in the colonial schools under the Japanese. What’s interesting here is the usage of Chinese (漢文, 한문, Hanmun) within the textbooks to guide the student,  noting differences between the form of the Hangul and the pronunciation.

This makes me really curious: how was Korean taught at the time? How was the writing system standardized? How and why was Chinese (漢文, 한문, Hanmun) used in the classroom and textbooks? Although I always end up with more questions then answers, that’s all part of the fun!

Classical Chinese (Hanmun) Primer

I recently took a day and traveled out to the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, heading to the Joint Library of Humanities and Social Sciences (人文社會科學聯合圖書館) in search for some primary sources related to my research area. While I was there, I happened across some Classical Chinese Primers (漢文讀本, 한문독본) that were compiled and edited by the Japanese to be used in the colonial schools in Korea. I thought I would share some snippets I took from these primers.

photo 4photo 5

I’m really curious how these texts were taught, especially seeing the way Hangul is mixed throughout the text, similar to the way Classical Chinese primers were compiled in Japan at the same time.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a proper class schedule for the schools to know when and how often these books may have been used, or under what circumstances.

Still, it’s a very interesting part of the overall history of Classical Chinese education in Korea.

Whistle While You Work

I’m someone that needs to listen to music while working, especially when writing. I can’t work in dead silence, which is probably why I never study in libraries. Music helps keep me motivated and also gives me the energy to keep going. I prefer instrumental tracks, like classical music (and dare I say) video game and movie soundtracks. However, recently, my friend introduced to Jazz music by sharing “It’s A Raggy Waltz” by Dave Brubeck, and since then I’ve been collecting more Jazz music to put on while I study. Below I’d like to share some of the collections I’ve found on YouTube. The best part? Some wonderful Japanese people have put these collections together–often lasting over an hour–which makes for great, distraction free listening as you study. Here’s a list with some comments about the content of each video! Hope you enjoy them.

JAZZ  雨降りの午後 【作業用BGM】
I particularly like the story this tells–going into a cafe on a rainy day, getting some work done/listening to soft Jazz, and leaving as the sun comes out.

【作業用BGM】 -ラウンジbarの片隅で- JAZZ
【作業用BGM】~受験に向けて頑張るあなたへ贈ります~ピアノ曲集 1時間
【作業用BGM】piano jazz~大人な時間を貴方に~【JAZZ】
These three all soft sets that aren’t distracting and keep me writing or working.

As I mentioned above, most of these sets tend to run around an hour, so you don’t have to worry about switching tracks or finding the next song you’d like to listen to.

To me, music is a very important role in setting the mood. Often, if I’m feeling particularly unmotivated to begin studying or writing, I like to start with a very uplifting track. I’ve found that video game music–especially from RPGs in particular–are very good at building this sense of momentum; a sense of setting out on adventure. This track from Star Ocean, for example, is particularly empowering. Here are two video game themed sets worth checking out:


If you happen to find this music helpful in your studies let me know. Also, if you have any music you particularly enjoy listening to while working, put it in the comments below!


1. These are often referred to as 【作業用BGM】(作業用 = さぎょうよう by the way), so give that a search on YouTube and you’ll find a large variety of music collections. Very much worth your time to check out!

Changes in Motivation

Confused Laowai recently wrote up an interesting blog post that goes a bit into motivation–and how that changes–especially after being abroad, in the country of the target language you want to learn. It’s a very interesting topic, and very much worth the read (it’ll make the following post more relevant as well). I think this is a topic that, while everyone experiences it, seems to be rarely discussed.

Let’s start with a quite from Confused Laowai to get the ball rolling!

…moving to Taipei has changed my motivation to learn Chinese. Before I came here, moving to Taipei was my goal. I wanted to improve my Chinese as much as possible so that I can function in the society. When I arrived, I realized I could function pretty well and the intense focus on the language was downgraded.

He goes on further to say:

Habits and motivation will change. This is a challenge. How do you change with it, that’s the question here? I’ve just been slow in trying to figure this out. But I promise I will!

Love the positiveness here!

My own experiences

I’ve gone through my own journey of motivations for learning Chinese. First, as a challenge in university. I had been studying Japanese and was rather annoyed at the lack of emphasis on Kanji.[1][2] My roomate at the time was learning Chinese, it looked fun, and I love Chinese characters so I took the course and enjoyed every minute of it. I was motivated by the pure passion to deciper the language and the characters, everything was a mystery and I wanted to solve it.

Later I would come to study abroad for a summer in Taiwan, deciding then I wanted to return and pursue an MA. Motivation to study Chinese, then, became to prepare myself for life in Taiwan and for pursuing a degree here as well. After arriving in 2008 that was my core focus, although life (such as jobs) did get in the way and broke my focus.

After getting into my program my motivation became to read the material I was handed and the write papers. This actually had a negative affect on me where–my reading and writing are fairly passable, but my speaking lags very far behind where it should be. And, as Confused Laowai (yes he has a real name but I love this moniker too much to stop using it) so poignantly noticed: I too realized I could function pretty well and the intense focus on the language was downgraded (that’s called plaigarizing kids, please don’t try this at home).

And getting that motivation back is difficult sometimes. However, in my case, impending pressure (doom?) for two major oral exams–literature review and thesis defense–as well as a presentation on a chapter from my paper, have slowly begun to push me to get my act together and really focus on getting my speaking where it needs to be.

That said, it is very difficult to build that motivation when you’re at a point that you feel like you can just ‘get by’.

How about you?

If you’ve abroad–what is your motivation? How has it changed? If you studied the language prior to moving abroad, has your motivates changed with reality? If you only started learning abroad, what were your motivations? How have you kept yourself motivated to keep going, and to break past any walls you’ve hit along the way? Let me know in the comments below!


1. There were students that were literally boycotting and campaigning against the teacher who, bless her poor heart, was trying her best to really pushing learning Kanji on us. It got so bad that the students wrote a petition and gave it to the dean.
2. This is also why I think Japanese is taught so poorly in schools. In order to keep students and not intimidate them, Kanjji are usually kept until the very last and introduced gradually almost a year into the course. This causes people to be even more intimidated and say, “why can’t I just use hiragana/katakana instead? It’s sooooooooo much easier!”. Yes, Nakama, I am looking at you, you awful awful book.

In Odd Praise of the Demise of Google Reader

I know it seems odd–I’m an avid RSS user and I loved that Google Reader had all of that information conveniently placed in one central area. Sure, I use The Old Reader and Feedly (fantastic alternatives by the way) but I still do miss the old Google Reader.

Or so I thought.

Once it was gone, it completely broke down my daily schedule: login to Gmail, pop open reader, see what’s no (repeat 5x every hour). It became inconvenient to check The Old Reader or Feedly–another website to go to, load, parse through the entries, etc. Eventually it dropped out of my routine entirely. Now I only check if I remember to, or if I am so insanely bored that I just have to do something.

So that got me thinking. How many parts of our lives are just in ruts that, with a slight change, we could get out of it (“shake things up” if you will) and discover how much more time and potential we have? How much can we free up to devote to something else?

In a similar vein, another thing I like to do is to take a new path to work every so often. New backstreet, random alleyway, completely opposite side of the road, etc. It really helps freshen things up, and you’ll never know what cool new things you’ll find (like Dr. Pepper and Salt and Vinegar chips in a random grocery store). It’s nice to break out of that rut–that routine–and discover all the hidden gems around you.

(I’ve also forced Facebook to be completely inaccessible on my home computer and deleted the app from my phone, which ha scut down on my Facebook usage immensely.. and I don’t miss it. Now it’s “only when I need it”)

Studying–is there no end?

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes:

學到老 活到老 還有三分學不到

It says, “Learn till old, live till old, and there is still one-third not learned.”

It means that no matter how old you are, there is still more learning or studying left to do.


That sounds harsh! But does it have to be?

No, rather, we can think of it more positively. There will always be stuff that we can study. Conversely, plenty that we can’t study either.

Instead, we should enjoy the journey. Understand there’s “1/3” not learned, and just enjoy learning what you want to learn.

Only in that way will we truly succeed, especially when it comes to languages.