Old Fashioned Bound Dictionaries - fpr the nostalgic and everyone who is a serious Chinese student
For all of you old enough to remember thumbing through a dictionary to find a word, here are some recommendations. As an adult learning Chinese (or if you have a teen or college student) you should have two dictionaries in your home library. One comprehensive Traditional Chinese and one Simplified Chinese dictionary.
The BEST Traditional dictionary I have used is the Far East 遠東 published by the Far East Book Company of Taiwan. My current favorite is the English-Chinese/Chinese-English version 2 in 1 dictionary. I like having a comprehensive Traditional Character dictionary I can use to look up a Chinese or English dictionary at my fingertips in one book. This dictionary has never failed. If you can't find a character in this dictionary, it is likely a very very old word. In the newer Far East Dictionary versions you can look up a Chinese character 2-4 ways - by stroke number and radical, by radical and stroke number and by pronunciation (zhuyinfuhao aka bopomofo, or by pinyin). No matter where you live or what you study, there will be a day when you need to look up a traditional character. Buy one fabulous traditional dictionary and use it forever. I am still using my first Far East dictionary I purchased 25+ years ago in Taiwan.
For Simplified dictionaries, the obvious choice is the Xinhua Dictionary. I currently have a 2000 edition with English translation. It enables lookup by pinyin and radical/stroke count. It is organized alphabetically by pinyin allowing for browsing based on pronunciation. I like that this version includes traditional variants and zhuyinfuhao pronunciation systems along with pinyin. There is something for everyone here.
I own but no longer use the Oxford Concise dictionary. Although my 2nd edition contains fairly up to date vocabulary, I haven't opened it in years. It simply is neither convenient nor comprehensive. When I really need to find a word, I turn to an electronic dictionary and when I can't find it there, I pull out the Far East Dictionary.
Electronic Dictionaries - the Good and the Great!
Android Users - I LOVE Hanping Pro. It is a very very GOOD electronic dictionary. This was my first dictionary on my Android phone and I've found the paid Pro version to be worth every penny. You can get it for free and it is still wonderful, but it is better in the paid version. Now, before you download this dictionary, read about Pleco below. Hanping Pro lets you set your preferences to Traditional or Simplified, Pinyin or Zhuyinfuhao, keeps a list of your most recent words looked up, has audio if you want, includes Idioms 成語, lets you input English, pinyin, handwriting or speech without the need to have additional keyboard input languages installed on your device. If you are new to Android, you must download and install additional input languages - they don't come pre-loaded as on an Apple device. I tested the speech input and found it to be weak when speaking Chinese, but fine for English.
Best Electronic Dictionary - the Great
Pleco is absolutely fabulous. It runs on Android and Mac devices (Ipad/Iphone/Ipod). Pleco is a free dictionary with many many paid extension to choose from. I have been teaching my students to use Pleco and highly recommend the paid handwriting input extension. It tracks your handwriting stroke by stroke updating selections as you write the character. I have not experimented sufficiently with it yet, but initial testing with two 10 year old intermediate students has been highly satisfactory.
I have the benefit of having both Android and Ipad/Ipod devices in the house and like to switch between both platforms and programs - Hanping and Pleco. I'll be focusing on Pleco more intensely over the summer as the kids I work with are primarily Iphone/Ipad/Ipod device users.
For Cantonese & Mandarin speakers/students using Ipad/Ipod/Iphone devices - a student of mine strongly recommends Qingwen. This dictionary allows the user to hear and input Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciation.
Recommendation - download both free versions if you are an Android user - give them a good trial then choose which one you want to add and pay for extensions with.
I have not seen any electronic children's Chinese dictionaries so I will ONLY comment on the bound book versions I personally own.
Favorite 2: Usborne's First Thousand Words in Chinese and Times 500 Chinese Words for Children. Truth be told, these aren't really dictionaries. They are thematic picture books with illustrations, simplified Chinese and pinyin. When you want to cover one particular topic such as the kitchen, they provide one stop shopping. There is some but not 100% overlap between these two volumes so I recommend both.
Good Supplemental Book: Another volume to consider if you can find it is the Mandarin Picture Word Book by Ling Li and Barbara Steadman. This is more coloring book than illustrated picture dictionary. It makes a nice supplement to the two children's dictionaries listed above. I don't like the very busy black and white line drawings. I don't find them to be appealing to kids in any way. I do find them to be incredibly useful to parents who want to get a quick list of relevant vocabulary they can use with characters and pinyin. Again, this version only includes simplified characters.
I'll feature a list of Radical Books in an upcoming post. Radicals are what you really need to focus on when starting Chinese, no matter what your age.