There are dozens of apps out there that aim to serve your translation and learning needs, but many fall short in terms of capturing the intricacies and complexities of the Chinese language. Thankfully there’s Pleco, a Chinese-English dictionary app that’s user-friendly, reliable, and feature-packed. The basic Pleco app is completely free, and there’s a slew of useful paid add-ons to select from. Pleco is available on iOS and Android.

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Mandarin Chinese can be difficult to learn, especially since there are many dialects and writing systems. A good dictionary can facilitate your learning and serve your basic translation needs, but a bad one can frustrate your efforts by being buggy or by providing you with inaccurate definitions. In many aspects, Pleco truly shines. Pleco is not just a Chinese-English dictionary; it is also a Chinese-Chinese and English-Chinese dictionary, so you can find Chinese synonyms, the appropriate Chinese translations of English words, and English translations of Chinese terms. In addition, it doubles as a Chinese Wikipedia of sorts as you can look up mythical figures in ancient Chinese writing and learn about today’s celebrities and political leaders. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced learner of Mandarin Chinese, Pleco will definitely serve you well.


Evaluation Criteria

  • User-Friendliness – Learning a foreign language is complicated enough already, so the last thing you want to deal with is a complicated software interface.
  • Ways to look up words – A Chinese-English dictionary should have the following basic methods for looking up characters: Hanyu Pinyin (transliterated Chinese characters), Drawing/Handwriting, and Chinese Radicals. Also, just in case you forget a character within a Chinese expression, does the app offer other ways of facilitating your search, such as providing suggestions and support for wildcard characters?
  • Quality of Dictionary Entries – Are the definitions accurate? Are there examples of the words used in context?
  • Support for Simplified and Traditional Writing Systems – Does the app support the two widely-used writing systems (Simplified and Traditional) or only one?
  • Advanced Features to Facilitate Learning and Memory – Is there a history, favourites or bookmark function to note important words? Is there a flashcard or vocabulary game to aid memory retention?


The Clear Winner: Pleco

This category is easy to judge. There are many Chinese-English dictionaries, but few are as reliable and pleasant to use as Pleco. From its expansive and updated database to its customizable look, the basic Pleco app definitely packs a punch. The many add-ons are incredibly useful if you wish to do more than look up individual terms on your app. In short, Pleco is a trailblazer that combines the best features from the other contenders out there.


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Image 1: Looking up the meaning of a Chinese character on Pleco is easy. This image shows the drawing option. (Picture Credit: Stratechery)

Easy to Look Up a Word or Expression

Pleco supports many ways of looking up a word or expression, and best of all it supports both traditional and simplified Chinese characters. If you’re trying to find the English definition of a Chinese word, there are three ways you can do it: by drawing the character, by using its radicals, and through Pinyin.

Drawing a character is easy. Go to your phone’s keyboard settings and enable the Chinese (Simplified) or Chinese (Traditional) handwriting keyboard function, and select it when using Pleco. You can draw the character in the field provided (try to be as accurate as possible), and matches would appear. Select the character that you want by tapping on it, and you can see the entry.

To look up a word by its Chinese radical, you can select the “radical” button on your keyboard to access screen of radicals sorted by stroke number. For example, if you want to search up “珠”, its radical is “王”, which has 4 strokes. Once you select the radical, the next screen pops up asking you to look for the full character depending on how many additional strokes it has from “王”. “朱” has six strokes, so you will want to look for “珠” under the “six strokes” header. Searching by radicals can also be useful when you know roughly what the word looks like but cannot recall the full character.

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Image 2: Looking up characters through their respective Chinese radicals.


Looking up a character through its Pinyin is the quickest and most useful of the three methods. To look up “明白” (meaning: to understand or realize), you can key in “mingbai.” You will notice that the search results auto-populate and change with each letter you enter, so you only really need to type in “mingb” and you can see the expression that you are looking for. You can narrow your options by specifying the characters’ tones, which is done by inputting numbers after the pinyin for each character: 1 for flat, 2 for rising, 3 for rising-falling, 4 for falling, and 5 for neutral (each character is also colored differently depending on the tone). To narrow your results to “明白”, you can key in “ming2bai5”.


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Image 3: To look up Chinese words or terms, typing in their respective English transliterations (i.e., Pinyin) is the easiest and least time-consuming of the three options, especially for learners of Mandarin educated using the Pinyin system.


Using Pinyin is extremely useful when you forget what a character looks like but remember its pronunciation, or when you only remember several characters in an expression, idiom or proverb.

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Image 4: You can also replace individual characters with a question mark as a wildcard character, which is useful when you want to look up an idiom or proverb but have forgotten some characters.


Incredibly Organized Dictionary Entries

When you tap into an entry, you will immediately see them with the “DICT” category selected by default. If the word has a different character used in the traditional writing system, you will see it within parentheses next to the words you are searching for. You can also listen to how the words are pronounced by tapping on the audio button.

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Image 5: Pleco’s definitions are well-organized. Definitions are given, followed by sentences showing how the words are used. Clicking on the audio symbol launches a pronunciation track for the word or sentence; the track switches between male and female voices.


Most Chinese terms or characters you search up will have definitions from two different dictionaries: “PLC” and “CC.” To find the definitions of individual characters in the entry, you can just tap on it and a small bubble will pop up. You can also go to “CHARS” category to see the individual characters that make up an expression or idiom. “WORDS” is a very useful category if you want to discover other expressions, idioms or proverbs that contain the word that you are looking up. Tap on “SENTS” if you want to see examples of the word used in context.

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Image 6: Click on the “Words” option to see how the word or term being looked up is used in context. To bookmark a word, you can just tap the “+” sign on the top right. To access your bookmarks, you can go to the in-app menu and select “Organize Bookmarks.”


Clipboard Reader

Under Pleco’s main menu, there is an incredibly useful “clipboard reader” feature. When you copy words or strings of text on your mobile, you can visit the clipboard reader on Pleco and the reader will automatically capture the words from your device’s clipboard.

You can immediately tap on the words in the reader to look up their definitions on the same screen, which will make reading long and difficult sentences or paragraphs much easier. You can even highlight entire sentences or paragraphs and select the audio button, and the app will read out what you have highlighted! This feature alone, which is included in the basic version of Pleco, is sufficient enough a reason for learners of Mandarin Chinese to use the app. It is surprisingly accurate for a robotic narrator, and can be useful in training your pronunciation.


Many Handy Add-ons to Have

There are about two dozen other add-on features that you can buy to upgrade your basic Pleco app. If you need more examples, definitions and detailed explanations for the words and expressions that you look up, there are six other English-Chinese and Chinese-Chinese dictionaries that you can add to your basic Pleco dictionary entries. Among the other add-ons, of particular note are the Flashcard System, Document Reader and Optical Character Recognizer.

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Image 7: Pleco has many well-designed add-ons.


The Flashcard System costs $9.99 and is pretty advanced. Its Spaced Repetition System (SRS) helps to promote memory-building and recall by testing various aspects of previously-learned material such as Pinyin, characters, and definitions. You can also create your own dictionary and flashcard entries with this upgrade to help you remember custom sentences and expressions that you have manually keyed in.

The Optical Character Recognizer, which costs $14.99, allows you to use your device’s camera to look up Chinese characters just by pointing your camera at the word, which is handy if you are touring a Chinese city or reading a book.

The Document Reader is my personal favorite. It costs $9.99 and works like the Clipboard Reader except that you can upload full documents such as MS Word documents, PDFs and EPUBs onto Pleco and read them within the app with all of Pleco’s functions available at your convenience.



Pleco is seriously the best mobile Chinese-Chinese, Chinese-English and English-Chinese dictionary available. No other app comes close to its robustness, user-friendliness and rich features. Even if you decide to stick to the basic free app, its extensive and constantly-updated database, with the names and entries of current and popular figures in the Mandarin-speaking world, will definitely impress you. This is a great example of what every freemium app should be – polished and fully functional, without pesky advertisements or pop-ups that exhort you to purchase upgrades that you may not need.

About Author

Wee Yang is the founder of Barely Efficient, a digital content specialist and a scholar of anthropology. He is curious and passionate about new technologies and how it can drive self-improvement. Many people cannot tell if he is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, and he absolutely cannot live without bubble tea. In his spare time, he writes flash stories and lip-syncs to American and Korean pop hits, and fantasizes about better ways to get things done. View Full Profile

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