Youdao - An excellent free online Chinese dictionary

How and why to use Youdao to learn Chinese

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As a learner of Mandarin Chinese, it's sometimes frustrating that there seems to be no good dictionaries around. When compared with other major languages (especially English), dictionaries in Chinese are often very hard to read and often lack information we expect to be there, such as indications of how a word is used and example sentences.

In this article, I'm going to talk about my favourite dictionary for looking up what words mean and how they are used in Chinese, as well as for translating from English to Chinese.

If you want to see a more complete list of dictionaries with different features, check 21 essential dictionaries and corpora for learning Chinese.

My favourite dictionary: 有道 (Youdao.com)

This is my favourite online dictionary. I like it because it is comprehensive and seldom (close to never) comes up blank, has good English definitions and, most importantly, has lots of bilingual example sentences.

I can't stress enough how important it is to have these to refer to once you get beyond textbook learning, because even though a word might look like the one you're after, you can never know unless you have seen it used in context. Example sentences help you with this.

Basic explanations and definitions

To use this dictionary, go to the main page and click the drop-down menu in the leftmost part of the search field where it says 网页 (wǎngyè) "websites" and select 词典 (cídiǎn) "dictionary" instead. You can also go directly to the dictionary via dict.youdao.com.

Once there, just search for words in English or Chinese. If you input only Pinyin, it will still try to guess the word in Chinese..

Once you have found the word you're looking for, you have three options (tabs) to choose from:

  1. 网络释义 (wǎnglù shìyì) "internet explanation" - Here you can choose between many suggested translations and see how they are defined elsewhere on the internet. The explanations are mostly in Chinese, so if you feel that this is too hard, just look for English words.

  1. 专业释义 (zhuānyè shìyì) "professional explanation" - This doesn't mean that the definitions are professional, but that they refer to specialised language for a certain area of study or expertise. For instance, you can show answers related to engineering, medicine, psychology, linguistics and so on. Great for translation work!

  2. 汉语词典 (hànyǔ cídiǎn) "Chinese dictionary" - Sometimes, English explanations just aren't enough and you need to go to a Chinese-Chinese dictionary. As explained earlier, this can be very daunting for students and you might be better of asking someone for help. The fact that this option is here makes the dictionary much more useful for advanced students, though.

Below the explanations, you will find definitions of the word, often from 21世纪大英汉词典 (21shìjì dà yīnghàn cídiǎn) "The 21st Century Unabridged English-Chinese Dictionary". There are also translations of phrases in which the keyword appears, another feature that many dictionaries lack.

Next, you can either display 词组短语 (cízǔ duànyǔ) "compounds and phrases" or 同近义词 (tóngjìnyìcí) "synonyms and near-synonyms".

Bilingual example sentences

Last but certainly not least, there is a section called 双语例句 (shuāngyǔ lìjù) "bilingual example sentences".

As the name implies, you can find numerous sentences in both Chinese and English, which is by far the best way to quickly figure out how a word is used in Chinese (going on basic definitions often won't work). Note that it only displays the first three sentences by default, click 更多双语例句 (gèngduō shuāngyǔ lìjù) "more bilingual example sentences" to see the rest.

Conclusion

The reason I use Youdao.com more than any other dictionary is that it combines all the above features in one place. I don't need to search in one dictionary for the English definition, in another for the Chinese definition and in a third for example sentences, it's just there, all completely free of charge!