See also MDBG Online Dictionary – Tutorial
Having looked at most of the major online Chinese-English dictionaries, there is absolutely no contest as to which is the best for laowai trying to learn Chinese.
There are two ways to get to the MDBG Chinese-English dictionary:
While it might be confusing to get past the first screen, the actual user interface is by far the simplest out there. Other dictionaries are so cluttered I sometimes don’t know where to type my query.
- Simple, easy-to-use interface
- You can input English, pinyin, or hanzi characters in the same box (even at the same time) without switching modes
- Accepts wildcards (*) when searching for a word (e.g. “chin*” gives you results including “China” and “Chinese”)
- Shows all entries containing your search or you can group (with “quotation marks”) and or limit your search to exact matches
- Pronounces pinyin syllables in an audio file (no need to download an extra plug-in)
- Shows Cantonese pronunciation (Yale and Jyutping) for every hanzi character
- Scissors tool that let’s you see literal translation for every hanzi character in an entry
- You can then select one hanzi character and see every entry that uses that character
- Hanzi “sentence mode” that will translate every word in a big string of characters
- Shows and recognizes traditional and simplified hanzi characters for every entry
- Shows radicals needed to write each hanzi character
- Shows stroke order and direction for each hanzi character (very useful if you want to write a new character)
- Anyone can submit new entries or corrections to the dictionary. And my experience has been that they are actually reviewed and incorporated.
- There are also a few other tools I never use including: hanzi character quiz, text annotation, and character encoding and converting for web pages
Weaknesses (a very weak list)
- Redundancy and messiness. Because users can submit entries there are some redundancies and messy entries . For example searching for “potato” shoes two different entries for “shǔ” is it 薯 or is it 藷? Either one’s a mistake, or one is the traditional character, or there really are two different characters for the exact same thing. I wish I knew.
- Limited vocabulary. It’s, of course, a weakness of every dictionary. But just a warning that this dictionary doesn’t have some English words (e.g. “obsequious”) and doesn’t recognize some Chinese compound words (wūhēi 乌黑= dark, but it just told me the separate entries “crow” and “dark” without knowing it’s a compound word)
- Which word should I choose? Again, this is a common problem to most dictionaries. There are so many synonyms, it’s impossible to know, for example, which or the words for “stubborn” is the one people really use (it seems to be gùzhí 固执 by the way).
- Added! Total results count. And it’s even at the top of the page so I can cancel the search if I see “A billion results found.”
- Added! “Remember me” checkbox so I don’t have to type my email address every time I submit an entry or correction.
- Added! Login for “Editor Account”. It would be cool if those of us who are doing a lot of correcting and adding to the dictionary could have some sort of login that remembered our email address and even let us view pending corrections in case we have to correct the corrections.
- Added! “Did you mean…” link if I misspell something (like what Google does). I know, I’m lazy. But it would be nice.
- Isolated pinyin, hanzi, and English output. When I throw a bunch of hanzi into the dictionary the results are displayed in 3 columns (hanzi, pinyin, English). If I just want to copy the pinyin results to another place I have to do it word by word. I would love to have the pinyin all in one place to copy away. You can get the English all in one place using the translation tool, but the pinyin is still kind of inaccessible for mass copying.
- Proverb dictionary. Chinese people use a whole host of common little proverbs and idioms, often four words long. While this dictionary has some (e.g. “mǎ mǎ hū hū 马马虎虎”), it would be nice if it could incorporate a comprehensive proverb dictionary to include phrases like:
- shèng lì zài wàng 胜利在望= victory is in sight
- xìng zāi lè huò 幸灾乐祸= laughing at other people’s disaster (German “schadenfreude”)
- Scientific/medical dictionary. It would be nice if the dictionary contained all kinds of medical terms such as “cortisone” or “hydrogen peroxide.” Those can be very difficult to track down elsewhere.
- Common use rating for Chinese words. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English shows “S1000” or “W3000” to mean “one of the top 1000 spoken words” and “one of the top 3000 written words,” respectively. It would be a real coup if this dictionary had the same capability. Then we would know which word to choose from the dozens of synonyms.
- Categories. In lieu of common use ratings, if the users had the ability to add usage categories to each word (e.g. “Medical,” “City name,” “Measure word,” etc.) it would help differentiate the myriad synonyms. Also, it would clean up the formatting of the entries which, presently, may or may not include that information.
- Sorting for results. For example when I display all the words that contain “han” I want to be able to sort by hanzi, pinyin, or English. Right now it’s all wily-nilly.