There are around 150,000 iPhone applications now and one of the big categories is languages – there are all sorts of dictionaries and learning tools available for just about any language you can think of. I’ve downloaded and tried out just a small percentage of the ones that are there to help learn Cantonese and Mandarin. I don’t think there are any that you can use to actually learn a language but they’re useful to have as a reference tool that’s always with you.
The most annoying one by far is Lonely Planet’s Cantonese Audio Phrasebook. It’s okay; a little expensive at $9.99 as these things go. It has the most annoying “feature” – you can’t turn off the audio. Yes, I realize it has the word “Audio” in its name but still, one would reasonably expect that if you’ve hit the mute switch and then look up a word, it would remain muted, no? No. Even with mute on, the app insists on speaking the word to you. I’m sitting in a taxi, I want to look up a word, I don’t want the taxi driver to know I’m doing this, and then it comes blasting out of the iPhone speaker. Argh.
As it happens, one of the people following me on Twitter (and whom I follow there as well) is an iPhone developer going by the name of @drilbu. When he mentioned one of his new iPhone apps, called Hanzi Lookup, I tried it out. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, I passed a suggestion to him and then, lo and behold, my suggestion wound up in the next update.
Here’s what it does. You see a Chinese character somewhere, on a sign or in a newspaper or whatever. You enter that character into the app, using the international keyboard or drawing on screen. And you get back how to pronounce that character in Cantonese and Mandarin and the English language definition of the character. Wow!
There is, as far as I know, no other Chinese language app that does this.
I don’t know how to enter Chinese characters using the keyboard so I’m reduced to attempting to draw them on screen. That’s fine for the simpler characters, the ones that are just a few strokes. But drawing with your finger in a 1″ by 1″ area isn’t the best way to try to write more complicated characters, ones like this:
(that’s a character that you should all be quite familiar with, of course) and so I don’t even try. That one complaint aside, I find this very useful and at just US$0.99, it’s a terrific buy.
Drilbu released another app this week, a Chinese/English dictionary called Eng Hanzi. It’s also just US$0.99 – though in this case he furnished me with a promo code so I got it for free. He’s squeezed the CC-CEDICT dictionary down into 14.7 meg – so you need that much space on your iPhone for this app but the upside is you have the entire dictionary there, no internet connection needed.
So you type the word in English that you want to look up and the result is the Chinese character (you can choose either simplified or traditional) and the pinyin for both the Mandarin and Cantonese as well as a bit more of the English translation.
Type in “friend” and there are 62 results, starting from the very simple you3/jau5 to more complex phrases like faan1 lim5 mou4 cing4 (to turn one’s face against sb and show no mercy; to turn against a friend). There’s also a “copy” button which selects the displayed Chinese characters and allows you to paste them into something else – an SMS or an email, for example. Quite useful.
My only problem with this application is that huge result set. You start off at result #1 and have to look at full screens for each of the 62 results. When I looked up the word “right,” I was thinking in terms of direction. There were 100 results for “right” and I had to go to the 15th screen to get to you4/jau6, the one I wanted. Perhaps he should consider adding a summary results screen to future versions, making it easier to scroll through those 100 results and get to the one I want quicker.
On the other hand, you can also enter some common phrases. Entering “right turn” got me “mei you – oops, we don’t have that!” but entering “turn right” got me just two results and the first was the one I wanted.
There is no audio option on this app. It won’t speak the word or phrase for you. On the other hand, this app is lightning fast; there’s no noticeable delay from the time I hit “search” until the result appears on screen.
If you go to the iTunes store and search for “English Chinese dictionary,” you get 112 results (I’m on the US iTunes store) ranging in price from free to $50. I’d previously downloaded one of the free ones, Pleco. That one’s also quite good (and free) but Mandarin only. I haven’t tried any of the others.
On the other hand, if you search for “English Cantonese dictionary,” there are only 5 results. Two of them are the apps by Drilbu mentioned above, the other three come from a company called Red 8 Ventures and cost more than these (and the screen shots seem to indicate the results are in Mandarin, not Cantonese). Searching for “Learn Cantonese” has 12 results.
I’m quite happy with Eng Hanzi and it will remain on my iPhone. I’d like to suggest a summary results screen in the next version, that’s the only improvement I can think of at the moment.