If you search the iOS App Store, you’ll find a mountain of Chinese dictionary apps. Which one will do everything you need? The options are far more limited than they appear. Find the right one with only three quick questions.

1. How Many Dictionaries Does it Support?

Chinese dictionary apps are actually Chinese dictionary platforms: You can access a number of different dictionaries at once. How many different dictionaries does the app you’re looking at offer? As a beginner you probably need just one or two, but as you progress you’ll soon outgrow them. Here are some dictionaries to look for:

  • ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (for lots of entries)
  • Tuttle Learner’s Chinese-English Dictionary (for lots of examples)
  • Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (or equally good Chinese-to-Chinese dictionary)
  • Outlier Dictionary (to learn how characters are built)

That last one, the Outlier Dictionary, is one of the most irreplaceable. You definitely want that one, especially as a beginner. One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t have a tool like that when I started.

2. Does it Integrate a Powerful Flash Card Feature into All Parts of the Dictionary?

The beauty of a well-designed dictionary platform is how it integrates many different features, such as the ability to add words anywhere on the screen into a flashcard list of your choice.

Of course, that feature is useless if the flashcard system isn’t robust enough to meet all your flashcard needs. Does it support unlimited (or nearly unlimited) groups and subgroups of flashcards? Does it offer both fully automated spaced repetition, along with manually-controllable methods?

A good flashcard system may look overly complex at first, but those features might become highly useful later on. There should also be easy default settings, too.

3. Does it Integrate a Text Reader into Both the Dictionary and Flash Card Features?

What makes a dictionary truly useful is the ability to open text or other Chinese-language files, read them in a visually comfortable layout, and look words up and add them to flashcard lists as you read. These three functions, when combined together, make for a powerful reading and learning experience.

A platform that supports some kind of “Lyrics Reader” function gets big bonus points. You can download you ChinesePod lessons to your device, open those audio files inside the dictionary, and simultaneously listen and read the embedded text, with the ability of looking up words and adding them to flashcard lists.

This was one of the main things I did with my iOS device in language school, and I would typically run my device’s battery down twice daily. It’s helpful beyond words!

Avoid Freebies

A dictionary platform that doesn’t charge money for higher-end features or dictionaries is a dead-end. When you outgrow it, you’ll need to toss it aside and learn a new system. You’re better off starting with a good one at the beginning, and learning your way around really well.

Photo: 真得秀 (1178-1235), a neo-Confucian scholar from Xianyang 仙阳 in northeastern Fujian. © 2018 Elijah Wilcott