If you’re learning Chinese, this is by far the best dictionary I’ve found: www.nciku.com. Here’s a brief overview of why and how you can use NCIKU as a great reference tool and resource in helping you to learn Chinese.
Why It’s the Best
- English-to-Chinese translation. If you type in the word, “restaurant,” for example, NCIKU will give you just what you need to know in a clear and easy to read fashion: the characters of the word in Chinese, how to pronounce the characters, and the context of how the word is used in sentences. (NCIKU is also an excellent Chinese-English dictionary. However, for this article, I’m going to focus on NCIKU for people who are learning Chinese.
- Most popular word in everyday usage is listed first. Sometimes, there may be more than one translation of a word. NCIKU gives you a brief definition of each translation to make it easier for you to pick the right one. Better yet, NCIKU takes it one step further and generally lists the most popularly used term first. So, in general, you’re pretty safe with clicking on the first translation. If that doesn’t seem like the right one, go back and look at another translation of the word.
- Easy to use (all-in-one) translation bar. At the top of the site, there’s a toolbar. Just type in the word you want to translate. You can use the same bar to:
- type an English word to translate into Chinese;
- copy and paste Chinese characters (or type in the Chinese characters if you know how to do this with your keyboard) to translate words into English; or
- type in pinyin (a bit more on this later).
- The “Listen” icon. This icon is superific. Next to each word, you’ll see the “Listen” icon. When you hit the icon, you’ll hear how each Chinese character is pronounced. (The pronunciation is in Mandarin, which is the official national spoken language in China and the internationally recognized spoken Chinese language). The quality of the sound is good and clear. You can also hit the “repeat” button to hear the word repeated several times (in both female and male voices). The “Listen” icon appears everywhere in NCIKU, for both English and Chinese words and sentences.
- Examples of the word used in sentences. I love how NCIKU gives many examples of how a word can be used in context. Usually, you’ll get at least 5 or more Chinese sentences, using the word you looked up, with the sentences translated into English underneath, along withe “Listen” icon (although I usually find the quality of sound less clear in sentences). This gives you a great idea of how a word is practically used. Using the “Listen” icon is also a great way to train your ear to listen to the different intonations in Mandarin. If you hover your mouse over a Chinese sentence, NCIKU gives you the pronunciation in pinyin, which I have found to be extremely helpful.
- Learn how to write a Chinese character. Have you ever wondered what stroke
to draw first or second when you sit down to write a Chinese character? There is a rule of thumb as to how you write a Chinese character. Within a square space, you go, in stroke order, from the top left of the character progressively to the bottom left and then from top to bottom of the right side of the character. It may be harder to explain, though, than perhaps to simply see it in action, which you can do here: http://blog.nciku.com/blog/en/nciku-random-character-generator/. As you watch the characters being drawn on the screen, follow the strokes and draw the character in the air with your finger. You’ll eventually get the “hidden” logic behind writing a Chinese character. After writing 20 characters or so, you will have a good sense of how to write a Chinese character in the right stroke order.
- The coolest writing tool. This handwriting feature absolutely makes NCIKU different and special from any other Chinese dictionary I’ve used. If you see a Chinese character somewhere and want to know what it means, you can use your mouse to write the character into the grid. (If you don’t see a square grid, click on the “Handwrite characters” button next to the toolbar). As you write, NCIKU begins automatically populating characters to the right that you can choose from. This means that, most of the time, you don’t need to write out the entire character but draw just enough strokes for NCIKU to recognize what that character might be. Once you see the character you’re looking for appear on the right, click on it. It will automatically be populated into the translation bar. Click search (or return). Tada! You’ve found the meaning of a Chinese character that you couldn’t even recognize (or, can I say in jest, looked like Greek). Note: This feature is not free if you want to download it onto your smartphone.
More Reasons to Use NCIKU
- Simplified and traditional Chinese characters. The People’s Republic of China has simplified many Chinese characters so that many characters require less strokes to write. Taiwan and Hong Kong still uses traditional Chinese characters in its writing, and traditional Chinese is still used in many contexts (such as in many Chinese names). Most schools in the United States now teach reading and writing in simplified Chinese characters. NCIKU will display the word in both simplified characters and the traditional Chinese characters (in parentheses to the right). This is very useful for people who may know simplified Chinese characters but would like to know what the traditional Chinese characters are or vice versa.
- Pinyin. If you know pinyin or are learning pinyin (the most popular system of transliterating pronunciation of Mandarin, using the Western alphabet), NCIKU displays in brackets how each word is pronounced in pinyin next to the Chinese character(s). In the case of “restaurant,” for example, you will see “[cānguǎn]” next to the Chinese characters. You can also type pinyin into the toolbar (no need to enter intonation symbols). This is very useful for those who may know how to pronounce a word in Mandarin but don’t know the Chinese character(s) for the word.
- Vocab lists allow you to review Chinese words easily. You need to register with NCIKU for this feature, but there’s no catch to registering, no unwelcome advertisements, and it’s free. You can easily create your own vocab lists under the “My Vocab Lists” tab. You can either 1) have NCIKU automatically save every word you look up (the default option), or 2) choose to create your own lists manually. If you want to create your own lists, uncheck the “Autosave Words Viewed” box. Each time you look up a word, you can click on the “Add to my vocab list” button to save it to a list you’ve created. NCIKU also allows you to “grab” words from vocab lists that other people have compiled. Some are very popular and labeled “Top for Beginners” or “Basic,” et al. The most popular lists are displayed in order by how many “grabs” they have had. In addition, NCIKU offers memorization tests based on your own lists to help build and strengthen your vocabulary. There are 4 tests, and I definitely like some of them more than others. It’s hard to go wrong with the first test (“Learning Definitons”). It gives you the Chinese characters for a word, and you choose the right answer in multiple choice format. The next 2 tests aren’t really a good fit for beginners and requires that you have either a knowledge of pinyin or how to use a Chinese keyboard, and they have some drawbacks, such as needing to be totally precise with NCIKU’s translation. Try out each of the tests and see which ones you like or are or aren’t a good fit for you.
- “Print” icon = easy flashcards. If you prefer the old true-and-tried method of using flashcards for learning Chinese, you can click on the print icon next to each word that you look up (tip: use the largest size setting). It’s relatively easy to make your own flashcards with the print feature, either by physically cutting and pasting the printed words onto a card or by downloading a flashcard program onto your smartphone or computer.
- Google Chrome extension. You can also download the NCIKU extension onto your Chrome browser so that you don’t have to leave the web page you’re on to look up a Chinese word or character and to use the character writing tool. At this time, this extension is only available for Google Chrome and not for other web browsers. (Not to be confused with NCIKU apps which can be downloaded onto your smartphone.) Click on the “Tools” tab and then click on “Toolbar” to download this function.
What It’s Not
- A translation platform. Besides the most basic phrases, NCIKU presently does not translate entire phrases (outside of idioms) and sentences for you. It is primarily a dictionary that translates a single word that you look up and gives you examples and contexts of how that word may be used. It is not a translation platform like Google Translate (which I presently give 2.5 out of 5 stars for accuracy).
- For profit. For those of you who really know or have learned to appreciate the value of what NCIKU offers, please note that NCIKU depends solely on donations to continue to offer and expand its services.
NCIKU has some other cool features. You can search for Chinese idioms (or chengyu), for example, which are commonly used Chinese idioms. The site continues to develop and evolve, and there have been features added in the past year such as games, some community goings-on and other. (Some of these additional features of the site seem better left out to me for now, but it’s still interesting to look at and to investigate. Who knows? There might be something of interest to you.)
Finally, for those who still like the good old touch, feel and smell of books and aren’t huge fans of online dictionaries (or if you’re somewhere without power), I would strongly recommend the Oxford Chinese Dictionary as the best dictionary to put in your backback or keep on your bookshelf. Like NCIKU, it’s both an English-Chinese and Chinese-English dictionary. You need to know pinyin to use the Chinese-English half of the dictionary or to understand how to pronounce Chinese words. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_14?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=oxford+chinese+english+dictionary&sprefix=Oxford+Chinese%2Caps%2C236. (The pocket sized one costs quite a bit less than either the most recent hardback or the previous desk hardback edition, which is ok if you’re willing to SQUINT A LOT.)
Whether you’re just beginning to learn Chinese or an advanced Chinese learner, I think you’ll learn to love NCIKU as much as I do.
This article was not endorsed or sponsored by either nciku or Oxford University Press or any related entity.