Chinese Dictionary Tips

When Your Dictionary Fails You...

As a student of the Chinese language, you'll often find yourself diving into dictionaries trying to find the Chinese version of what you want to say. Digital dictionaries, such as my personal favorite Pleco , are decidedly more easy to use than paper books ever were, but they can still be lacking in some ways...

Your Dictionary Gives You Multiple Options...Which One Do You Choose?

Let’s say you’re trying to find out the Chinese word for ‘desk’. Pleco will give you a number of possible translations, including 台 (tái),桌子 (zhuōzi),书桌 (shūzhuō),台子 (táizi),and 办公桌 (bàngōngzhuō). They can all mean desk, but they probably don’t all mean the exact same thing. How do you choose? One way to find out which Chinese word best represents what you’re looking for is doing a simple internet search. Enter the words on baidu.com and see if what comes up is the item you were thinking of. You can also do this on taobao.com, or on images.baidu.com.

Proper Names for the Famous and Not So Famous

Dictionaries tend to only include Chinese names for certain very famous people, like President Barack Obama (巴拉克 • 奥巴马 - Bālākè Àobāmǎ) or Bill Gates (比尔 • 盖茨 -Bǐěr Gàicí). But if you’re trying to find out the Chinese name of a not-very-famous person, or a company, or a book, then your dictionary will probably give up. The quickest work-around is Wikipedia. Look something up in English (or another language), and once you’ve found what you’re looking for, change the language to Chinese (bottom left of the page for computers, bottom of the page on mobile). You won’t be able to find everything, but you’ll find more than in your dictionary. Did you know the Chinese name of Greenville, Alabama (population: 8000), is 格林维尔 (gélínwéiěr)? Now you do.


Kevin writes columns for the GoEast Blog on studying Chinese, Chinese culture, and life as a foreign student. He has studied China and Chinese for over five years, first in his home country the Netherlands, then in Beijing, and now attends Fudan University's Chinese Society department.