How to look up chinese characters / words in a dictionary

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As soon as students realise that Chinese script is not an alphabet, and that there are thousands of characters they need khổng lồ learn to lớn become literate, one of the most common questions from beginners is how to look up a new character. A related question common khổng lồ hear from people who don’t study Chinese is how characters are typed on computer & phones, which I explained in great detail here:

Chinese input đầu vào methods: A guide for second language learners

These questions are related, because if you can get a version of the unknown character you can copy và paste, you can just tìm kiếm for the character & thus learn its meaning & usage. In this article, I will focus on various ways of looking up Chinese characters, along with their pros & cons for students, but I will discuss kinds of tools và methods, rather than discussing in detail specific tools & methods.

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Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast lớn listen to lớn the related episode:Available on táo apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Overcast, Spotify và many other platforms!

If you’re looking for specific dictionaries, please kiểm tra this article:

21 essential dictionaries and corpora for learning Chinese

Paper dictionaries & the good old days

The need to lớn compile dictionaries & look things up in them has of course existed since writing systems were invented. In phonetic languages, this is not very complicated as the obvious way to structure such a dictionary is lớn define a sequence of letters and then sort words according to lớn how they are spelt.

That doesn’t work as well for Chinese, however. Characters can be pronounced, of course, but what about characters that have multiple readings? & since the pronunciation often can’t be predicted from the written khung of the character, how vị you look up a character if you don’t know or have forgotten how it’s pronounced? Modern paper dictionaries often contain look-up tables based on pronunciation, và many dictionaries are indeed sorted by pronunciation, but that only helps you if you already know how the character is pronounced! Clearly, another way is needed.

This is where the term radical comes in (部首 in Chinese). By sorting characters according to lớn their component parts, it’s possible lớn compile a dictionary that is not based on pronunciation và let’s you look up any character you want. Of course, each character is only sorted by one of its components, & this component is called the radical. Which component that is varies across time và space. For example, Shuōwénjiězì (說文解字) has 540 radicals, but the more modern (18th century) Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典) has 214 radicals, which is the standard phối still used today.

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To look up a character in a paper dictionary, you first identify the radical. This is sometimes easy (in compound characters, it’s usually the meaning component on the left), but sometimes impossible if you don’t know the answer in advance. You then count the number of strokes in excess of that radical và look for that place in the dictionary. Even though this is a digital version, you can still get the idea by checking the radical look-up method on MDBG here. Let’s say you don’t know what 样 means. You can (correctly) guess that the radical is 木.

How many strokes does 木 have? Four, so skip khổng lồ where those radicals are listed and look for 木. Once you’ve found it, follow the reference khổng lồ the page where all characters with this radical are listed (in a printed book, this would of course be a page reference).How many strokes does 样 have apart from the radical? Six, so skip lớn that area và just look for the character you want. In some cases, there can be dozens of characters, but you should be able lớn find it. In a printed dictionary, you’d then be given a reference to the page where more information about this character can be found.

That was easy! It can take a few minutes if you’re not used to lớn counting strokes and you have to flip through pages looking for what you’re after, but unless you’re looking up things all the time, it’s not so bad. Except that’s exactly what you need to vày all the time, unless you only read texts specifically written for you with prepared word lists. When I started learning Chinese, which was right before electronic or digital dictionaries became common, I spent more time trying to find the characters than I did studying them.

The above case with 样 is also very easy. There are many cases that are more or less impossible to figure out unless you know the answer in advance. For example, what’s the radical of 渴? How many strokes does it have? Well, the answer is 水 & it has four strokes. Good luck finding the character if you don’t know this! Or another example: What’s the radical in 五? Or simplified 兰?What about 卤/鹵? Well, it’s 二 and 八 respectively, và 卤 is actually its own radical, which is far from obvious. These are just a few examples; there are weirder cases.

The good old days were actually horrible & much time was wasted on things that did nothing khổng lồ improve one’s reading & writing ability. Fortunately, there are better solutions these days!

Enter: Electronic và digital dictionaries

Most of the above problems can be easily solved with digital technology, which means that learning khổng lồ read và write Chinese today is much, much easier than it used khổng lồ be. I don’t say that lớn diminish anyone’s accomplishments; learning to lớn read and write Chinese with digital giải pháp công nghệ is still hard! If you want lớn read about the paperless revolution in Chinese reading from someone who started learning Chinese before I was born, I recommend this article by David Moser:

The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading

So, how exactly can you use a computer or your phone to lớn look up Chinese characters? Well, to lớn start with, you can do the same as in paper dictionaries, only now by clicking instead of flipping pages. This is an improvement, but not a major one since the main obstacles still remain. There are more options, though:

Contextual look-up – Should all of the above fail, you can still find many characters by relying on context. In some dictionaries, such as Pleco, you can search with wildcards. If you have an unknown character A followed by a known character B, you can search for