Review: The Pleco App

A Review of Pleco: The Chinese Dictionary

To call Pleco a “Chinese dictionary” is like calling Google “a search engine”.  It’s really so much more.  In this review of Pleco, I hope to demonstrate why this app is not only the best on the market, in my opinion, but also why it deserves a place in every serious Chinese language learners arsenal.  

The Basics: What is Pleco?

In a nutshell, Pleco is a Chinese language learning app with an incredibly large and useful set of available features.  I say “available” because, though the app itself is free, there are a large number of paid add-ons available as well.   Some of the most useful and notable features include:

  • Dictionaries:  Pleco features not just one, but a large selection of dictionaries from respected publishers like Oxford, FLTRP, and Longman.
  • OCR:  Use your phone’s camera to look up unknown words in photos or other still images.
  • Handwriting:  Draw words on the screen to look up in the dictionary.  The handwriting app is very forgiving and even allows for mistakes in stroke order.
  • Authentic Native Audio:  Hear dictionary words pronounced at slow and native speed by male and female native speakers for both Mandarin and Cantonese.
  • Document Reader:  Look up words on PDF, TXT and other file types just by tapping on the words in a document.
  • Flashcards:  Includes a built in customizable flash card system that easily imports from pre-made lists or dictionary entries.

With dozens of dictionaries and available add-on features, there is nothing else like Pleco out there.  

Best Features

The thing that sets Pleco apart from any other dictionary app is the ease of use and the amazing integration of the various dictionaries into one comprehensive database.  With Pleco, you can look up words from English, simplified characters, traditional characters, and pin yin (even if you don’t know the tone).  As mentioned above, you can also look up words by using your camera or selecting them in a document.  And the results that are returned are as complete as I’ve ever seen.  

Many language dictionaries can be frustratingly limited, returning only the most common meaning or usage of a certain word.  Pleco, on the other hand, almost has the opposite problem.  Because it’s so comprehensive and pulls from so many source dictionaries, it can overwhelm you with translations by including not only the most common meanings and usage, but also slang, outdated, and regional translations as well.  This can be a bit confusing for beginners, but is very appreciated by more intermediate and advanced learners.

Of course, every word has, in addition to multiple meanings and usage, a plethora of example sentences for all of the most common meanings and translations.  These sentences are selected to show a wide variety of uses and can be great for sentence flashcards.

My personal favorite feature is the native audio.  For every word  in the dictionary, you have the option of hearing the word pronounced by a native speaker.  There are two voices available, male and female, which is a great way to hear the subtle differences between the two.  The audio can be native speed, or slower, to help with tones and pronunciation.  I have also found the audio to be useful for building my own audio based flashcards, both in Pleco and in other flashcard apps.

Pleco has been around for over 20 years and is incredibly well supported with great customer service and an exceptionally active community of users.  The forums on their website http://www.pleco.com are very helpful and both the community and the company are very quick to respond to questions and issues with the app.  You can feel confident with every purchase that the app will continue to be supported and improved for years to come.

The Flashcard feature is also a great one.  Personally, for every language but Chinese, I am an ANKI user through and through.  For Chinese, though, the flashcards in Pleco are exactly what I need.  I can import decks from other flashcard apps, import vocabulary lists, and best of all I can add words and sentences right from the dictionary within the app itself.  This makes building flashcard decks so quick and easy, and with a built in SRS (Spaced Repetition System), reviewing your flashcards has never been easier.

Negatives

In case I haven’t been too obvious at this point, I am a big fan of Pleco.  The only negative thing I say about it is the sheer volume of translations available.  Sometimes you can look up a word and still not be fully confident of which of the dozens (or more) meanings you should be using.  This is most evident in translations from English to Chinese.  

For Example, I looked up the English word “happy” and Pleco returned well over 400 entries.  This included archaic usage, slang, regional words, synonyms, and very situational usages.  This can sometimes result in frustration because Pleco doesn’t always order the definitions by frequency or typical usage.  In cases like this, I have been forced to check a much more limited dictionary to find the most likely match for the word I’m trying to look up.

Obviously, this is not necessarily a flaw in Pleco itself, and it could very well be viewed as a positive for most learners.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes a language learning resource is so comprehensive and so overwhelmingly better than anything else on the market that learning that language without it would just not make sense.  That’s how Pleco is for Chinese.  Anytime someone tells me they want to learn Chinese, the first thing I tell them is to download Pleco.  I truly could not imagine learning Chinese without it.  Pleco is the most accurate, comprehensive, and user friendly tool on the market today.  I highly recommend Pleco if you are seriously considering taking up learning Chinese.

Pleco may be downloaded from the Google Play Store for Android, the Apple Store, or direct from http://www.pleco.com

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