A few weeks ago, I was in Beijing having dinner with a group of people that included journalist Christina Larson. The table’s conversation turned to our unanimous love of Pleco, which is an incredibly powerful Chinese dictionary app. Christina called me a few days later to interview me about my own use of Pleco, and her article about it and other digital language tools recently went up on the Bloomberg Businessweek site.
Talking with Christina led me to think back over the different dictionaries and other resources I’ve used during the decade I’ve been studying Chinese. Although I am now a Pleco enthusiast, I actually resisted purchasing it for a ridiculously long time—I remember hearing about it first in 2006, as a student at CET Hangzhou, but didn’t make the move away from paper dictionaries until early 2011, during my third year at UC Irvine. Now, I can’t imagine living in China without it, and I really can’t imagine working on my dissertation sans Pleco. (Obviously, thousands of China scholars before me made it through the PhD without it, so I suppose my generation is just soft.)
I use the Pleco app on my iPod Touch virtually every day here, whether I’m trying to figure out an announcement posted on my apartment building’s door or decipher a newspaper article from the 1940s. If I don’t recognize a character, I can trace it on the iPod’s screen and look it up in seconds; using a paper dictionary, I would first have to identify the character’s radical (or base unit), move to the radical index and locate the character there, and then find the character’s dictionary entry. If the character had two (or three) possible pronunciations, I’d be searching each of them to determine which one was the correct usage for that situation. And if the radical weren’t obvious, I could be off on a wild-goose chase.
That’s how I looked up characters for over seven years, using a succession of increasingly battered Chinese dictionaries (as well as the MDBG web dictionary, though it has limitations), and I got pretty fast at it. There are 214 radicals, but some of them are used far more than others, so I got to know where the most common ones were in the radical index. Whenever someone asked me why I hadn’t yet made the switch from my trusty old Oxford Chinese dictionary to Pleco or something like it, I brushed them off, saying that it wasn’t that much of a hassle to use a paper dictionary (carrying the damn thing around everywhere I went was another story). In truth, I think I saw something virtuous about continuing to use a paper dictionary in the face of new technology; I’m far from a Luddite, but Pleco seemed so fast, so easy … and everyone knows that Chinese is supposed to be hard.
I’m over being virtuous. I find Pleco especially valuable now because almost all of the archival documents I use in my research are written in traditional characters, not the simplified ones that the PRC adopted in the 1950s and that I’ve learned in my language programs. I do have a fair degree of literacy in traditional characters, but I frequently have to stop and look things up when I’m reading dissertation materials. Pleco makes that much easier—I can input a traditional character and get back both the English definition and simplified version. This often leads to me smacking my head and saying, “Oh yeah, of course” … such as the time I looked up 麗, only to realize that it’s 丽, one of the characters in my name.
Pleco isn’t perfect, of course. Its ease and availability can also make it something of a crutch: sometimes I’ll see a character and feel pretty certain that I know what it means and/or how to pronounce it, but I’ll search for in Pleco just to make sure. More often than not, I’m right—but I didn’t trust my instincts and spent time, of which I never have enough, looking up something I already knew. I would also advise students who have just started learning Chinese not to use Pleco, at least for a few months: there is value in learning how to locate characters in a paper dictionary, and how to break them down and identify the radical, which often contains clues to the character’s meaning.
I didn’t bring any of my paper Chinese dictionaries with me to China when I moved here last October. They’re all in a storage unit in New Jersey, and it’s entirely possible that their glory days are behind them. Even the smallest pocket dictionary is several times larger than my iPod, and it doesn’t have nearly the depth of content that Pleco does. But I know myself, and I know that I’m probably never going to throw out any of those dictionaries—not necessarily because they contain memories, but because using them is a skill that I’ve learned and honed and remain proud of. I’m glad I spent so many years poring over radical indexes and flipping through dictionary pages. But I’m equally glad that those days are behind me.