When I was considering retiring my Palm TX in exchange for an iPod touch (no AT&T service in the rural area where I live, so no iPhone), one of my essential applications was a good Chinese dictionary. I speak Chinese fairly fluently but I’m not very literate; although I know how to use a dead-tree dictionary, it’s so much easier being able to simply write the character. And when I’m trying to teach my kids Chinese, occasionally we run into words I don’t recognize, or English phrases that I don’t know the right Chinese words for. (Side note: How would you organize a dictionary in a language with no alphabet? How do you look up a word in such a dictionary? It’s actually quite an interesting system, but perhaps the subject of a later post.)
I was given the chance to try out HippoDict, a Chinese Dictionary for the iPhone or iPod touch. HippoDict runs on the public domain CC-CEDICT dictionary, which has over 80,000 entries and can display in either Simplified or Traditional characters. More than the 20,000+ entries of many “starter” dictionaries but far fewer than the 240,000 claimed by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (my paper dictionary of choice), the CC-CEDICT is a bit like Wikipedia: fine for everyday use but possibly a little less rigorous if you’re doing some serious research. I found that it serves me pretty well and I haven’t come across words I wanted to look up which weren’t in the dictionary.
You can search using English, pinyin, zhuyin, or writing the characters: this is actually integrated with the iPhone’s own OS language abilities, which are much better than the Palm’s. If you have an iPhone, you can simply turn on the Chinese language settings from the settings menu to enable handwriting recognition for characters or pinyin and zhuyin input. Once you look up a word, it shows the Chinese character, English definition, and pronunciations in both pinyin and zhuyin. It also gives you the option of finding other words and phrases which contain the entry. In the case of phrases, it gives you a short definition of each word in the phrase. There are also built-in links to various other dictionary sites (Dict.cn, Google Dictionary, MDBG, Nciku, and YellowBridge) although I rarely ventured further than the basic page.
One other option available is flashcards, which allows you to store entries in your choice of decks, and then train yourself with a SuperMemo-type program. You go through the cards, and mark which ones you recognize; the next time through, it quizzes you more often on ones you missed. For myself, one handy use was creating a flashcard deck of family relationship titles. (Did you know there are different words for “father’s older brother” and “father’s younger brother”?) It comes in handy when I’m writing letters to my various aunts and uncles in Chinese and need to make sure I’m writing everything correctly.
It’s a pretty speedy dictionary, although I admit I don’t have much to compare it to other than my Palm which is admittedly totally outclassed by the iPod touch. It starts up quickly (even compared to some of my other iPod apps) and searching feels instantaneous without long wait times. HippoDict is available for $9.99 on the iTunes store, which puts it in the higher price range for iPhone apps but is still a few bucks less than most paper dictionaries.
The one thing I wish HippoDict had was a large view of the character. It’s something my Palm’s dictionary had, so you could get a better view of the character. HippoDict’s display is far from tiny, but it would nice to be able to zoom in a bit for the more complicated characters.
I will mention the one other Chinese dictionary I’ve tried for the iPhone is the DianHua Dictionary: it’s a free app with a paid add-on module which will pronounce words for you. DianHua also runs on the CC-CEDICT database so its contents are much the same, but the interface is generally clunkier. However, it does have an “inspect character” feature which puts the character in full-screen. I’ve generally been using the HippoDict for most of my searches; if they put in a full-screen feature in a future update I would probably drop DianHua.
Wired: Quick startup and searching, handwriting character recognition, and flashcards to train yourself.
Tired: Not as comprehensive as the Oxford C-E Dictionary, but sufficient for most everyday use. A magnify option would be nice.