Nciku.com – My Review

I’ve been getting more and more requests to mention www.nciku.com, so now I finally am.

Before I even start, I have to say it’s a really, really hard website name to remember, which is a shame because there are some good things on it. This will not be a comprehensive review, but just a few of the highlights (and lowlights).

The dictionary itself is colorful, but I find it difficult to use and difficult to read. Here are my complaints about the dictionary portion:

  1. The English and Chinese are all mixed in together, which leads to a whole lot of scrolling down before you find what you’re looking for.
  2. Sometimes there is no pinyin for hanzi examples. It was only after using the site for a while that I discovered there is a mouse-over feature that displays the pinyin. Even so, it’s often long and hard to read in a bubble-tip format.
  3. Sometimes the tones don’t appear for the pinyin.
  4. Mixed pinyin and English searches are not allowed.

Overall, the dictionary has a little too much geegaw and clutter for my liking (like stars and green icons). But then again, I prefer a meat-and-potatoes dictionary display (like MDBG).

Now let’s move on to what I consider the best part of the site: the conversation bank.

Good Things:

  1. Every conversation has a transcript in English, pinyin, and hanzi.
  2. Every conversation has an automated text-to-speech bot that lets you hear the Chinese or English pronounced.
  3. The pronunciation, while automated, is pretty good with only a few problems (see below).
  4. You can browse conversations by topic or search for conversations that use a single English word or compound hanzi word.
  5. The translations are pretty good. If I had to guess, I’d say most conversations were written first in Chinese by Chinese speakers and then translated into English, but I’m not sure.
  6. You can submit your own conversations. I didn’t do this, because you have to sign up, but that’s a very cool feature.

Pronunciation Problems:

All of these occur in this conversation about feeling cold. I suppose the developers of this site are borrowing some automated text-to-speech program, so they’re not responsible for these problems. But I still want readers to be aware that these are some non-authentic elements of the pronunciation on this site.

  1. The initial “h” sounds like a “p” to me sometimes.
  2. Can’t pronounce “érhuà” 儿化, like in “bǎo bèir” 宝贝儿. It should be two syllables but it is read as three.
  3. Tone changes are not exactly correct. For example “wǒ juéde” 我觉得 sounds like “wó juéde.” Really, the 3rd tone before a 2nd tone should be really low, and not like another 2nd tone. Also the 5th tone “ba” after a 3rd tone (hǎo ba 好吧) should be higher than it is after the other three tones.

Technical Problems:

  1. The “Auto play” option for sound files seems to really be “auto repeat.” But actually, if you clear the little check box, it doesn’t play at all. Can’t quite figure out what that’s for.
  2. The “Auto play” bubble often blocks your view of the transcript. If you move your mouse so that the bubble disappears, the sound file stops playing immediately.
  3. Pinyin is not allowed in searches.
  4. Multiple English words in searches doesn’t show conversations containing all words.
  5. Putting multiple English search terms “in quotes” breaks something.

The site’s still in “beta,” which means we’re supposed to give them a break and be patient while they work out these little issues.

It is cool to have this growing bank of conversations. This sort of corpus is exactly what Chinese-English dictionaries need. Does anyone know of any other sites that have conversations or sentence examples in Chinese and English?

Comments

  1. I love Nciku.com for one reason: the hanzi lookup. If I don’t know the pinyin, I can draw the character and it will come up with a bunch of possible matching characters. The first one is usually exactly what I need. But then I go and look it up at http://www.xuezhongwen.net/ because their dictionary is so much easier to use. How do you pronounce Nciku anyway?

  2. Nicki,Yes, I think that is very cool too. But I just use the one on http://www.xuezhongwen.net. There’s a little icon of a paintbrush to the right of the search button. Click that and you can draw away (but stroke order matters). If you’ve used both, I’d be curious to know which one you like better. I did notice that the Nciku (hey, it’s almost an anagram of your name!) handwriting input loads faster than the one on http://www.xuezhongwen.net.

  3. Nice article about nciku.

    Please check out Learn Chinese Words:
    http://www.learn-chinese-words.com

    I have recently assembled “metasearch” style dictionary lookup tools for English and Chinese. No need to hunt for the best Chinese-English dictionary when you can search them all at once!

    Like nciku, my dictionary search is in “beta,” so please be kind with the criticism and lavish with suggestions.

    I’ll be adding new resources as I find them, starting with Jim’s suggestions above.

    包明光

  4. Yes, the nciku one is much faster for me. There is one on http://www.yellowbridge.com too, but that one is even slower than the xuezhongwen one. I like yellowbridge for the example sentences, as well as the other words beginning with/ending with the same character. They even give words that sound similar. http://www.chinesepod.com has example sentences in their dictionary now ,too. I often study with all those sites up and look up the word in all of them to get a fuller understanding and lots of examples.

  5. Albert, glad you’ve done this review. I think you’re a bit below the belt on the “hard-to-remember url” front, but that’s probably just because I’ve got one of those alphabet soup urls myself.

    The pronunciation problems, though, very much deserve to be pointed out. I’d never spent enough time on nciku to listen to them. Yikes. If I were the product manager, I’d retire this one immediately, even in beta, and go looking for an entirely different synthesis engine. You were too gentle. It’s even worse than nothing at all — bound to emphasize the worst aspects of Zhonglish. The erhua is not even worth discussing, but the one that hurts the most is the 3rd-2nd tone example. This is an especially tough one for foreigners, in particular for hapless Americans who are always having to say měiguó and end up with something sing-songy like méiguó. To have this reinforced on a language-learning site is really unnecessary.

    That said, nciku deserves praise for what they’re trying to do and I’ll be the first to give them credit for the handwriting recognition component. I’ve been thinking about a comprehensive review of the site as well as mdbg.net, but I’ve spent little time on either since I got my Plecodict with the ABC Dictionary.

  6. I guess I should mention that I find MGBD, no, MDGB, oops! I mean MDBG a hard name to remember as well. So maybe I’m not the best one to be talking about that. And I’ll admit, my domain name doesn’t really flow trippingly from the brain unless you know some Chinese already.

  7. Albert,
    Thanks for the review. I’m glad to see the conversations getting some love. (I edited quite a few of those.) We have some changes to the dictionary portion that will come online in one month.

    I appreciate the no-holds-barred comments about the pronunciation engine. We can make some tweaks and check out any improvement.

    Don’t feel too bad about raking our name over the coals; you aren’t the first one to do so. It’s that double consonant at the front there that trips people up.

    Thanks again for the review.

  8. Dan,

    Glad you found the review useful. I’ll look forward to the updates to the dictionary. By the way, is the pronunciation engine yours at Nciku or did you borrow it from somewhere?

  9. Your review of NCI-whatever is right on the mark. I usually use one of the simpler sites (like http://www.godict.com), and turning to NCIKU only when I can’t find the answer elsewhere.

    Also, there’s a new meta-site that will search several dictionaries automatically: alseek.com/dict.

  10. I love nciku. I actually like that it mixes the English and Chinese definitions – it’s as if you’ve looked for it in both an Eng-Chin and Chin-Eng dictionary at once. You can search in pinyin, English, or characters, and it automatically detects which you’re searching in.
    I also use it to look at stroke order and direction, and for the example sentences, which are sometimes translated and sometimes not (so you sometimes have to think about the meaning for yourself, a good thing).

    Finally, I am pretty sure that ‘ciku’ is ‘ci’ as in words, and ‘ku’ as in ‘cool,’ not sure about the ‘n’ but that makes it easier to remember.

  11. I like my NCIKU, I hope it can be debeloped in two ways:
    – sort automatically looked-up words by relevance, i.e. higher usage or relevance to a topic
    – link with a social network i.e linkedin, fecebook,
    I think dictionary could be linked with My NCIKU, for instance I am interested in english-chinese or chinese-english only, I don´t want to receive english-english and I find very difficult chinese-chinese.

  12. Hey Albert,

    Once again thanks for the review and thank you to everyone for the great feedback. We on the marketing side of nciku really value the comments and are collecting them monthly for review. We are always updating the blog for any news or changes so check it out regularly!

  13. Just for the record, the “n” in nciku refers to the Chinglish “N” as in N (“many”). So literally nciku means “many cool words.”

  14. nciku is a very useful dictionary site. “n” for Netwrok, or Next; “Ci” for Word ( ’s pinyin); “cu” for Cool or Storeroom ().

    am not sure if you people know that nciku already launched iPhone nciku. so iPhone users can download the mobile dictionary http://www.nciku.com/tool/iphone

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