Tools for learning Mandarin: Pleco

Recently a friend asked me what are the best tools for learning Mandarin and I gave him a long list of apps to download. Some free, but most of them are going to cost you a pretty penny. Some of them are justifiably expensive because the functionality and usefulness of some apps for Mandarin learning are definitely worth the cost. One such app is Pleco.


From the picture above, you probably realize it is a Chinese dictionary app. However, unlike most dictionary apps, Pleco offers so much more functionality than simply typing in the pinyin of characters into a search bar, it offers a plethora of functions that make this app a simple must purchase for anyone either studying Mandarin, or living in a region where it is the dominant language.

This might sound like one big ad for Pleco, but believe me, this app has helped me so much in the last 5 years and in many regards, it has helped me attain the high level of Mandarin I have today.

With that said, here are some functions of Pleco that are worth knowing about and how they can be useful to both language learners and the average Waiguoren who speaks as much Mandarin as Trump speaks sense.

1. Basic Typed Searches

On a basic level, Pleco is essentially a dictionary with extra bits tacked on that make is comprehensive. The dictionary can be used to search for English-Mandarin translations very easily.

(I have airplane mode on because I cannot stand getting called by random people in the evening. That is not a joke.)

So lets say you want to look up the word “close”. You type it in English in the search bar and this is what you see.


You will have so many different verbs, adjectives, nouns etc depending on the word you search. So, lets say you click on the character 関, this is what you will see next.


You will be given the Pinyin for the character, an audio button to hear how to pronounce the word.

You are also given access to the stroke order of the character if you want to learn how to write the character correctly.


You are also given words that this character forms.


And you are also given sentences to aid in understand the different uses the word can be used for because words in Chinese can mean different things in different circumstances.


Best of all, you can click on the audio button and hear the entire sentence, and below it you are given the pinyin to be able to see both the tones and the pronunciation.

2. Handwritten search function

If you are a student, this function is really useful. If you come across a word in a newspaper, subtitles in a movie or in your textbook, you can write the character out in a handwritten search. Depending on how well you write, you can find the character easily or you might have to rely on the next useful function.


3. Live OCR and Still OCR

The OCR (optical character recognizer) function allows you to use your phones camera to view characters in real time, and translate them for you. This function is useful if you can’t handwrite the characters.


Likewise, if you have a text on your phone that is in Mandarin and you want to translate it, you can use the Still OCR function and translate characters from screen shots.


Once you press capture, you can looking through all the characters and find out what each means.


4. Web Reader function

This function allows you to translate through a web browser on Pleco. You can use it to read Mandarin a lot easier and it provides you with translations when you click on characters.


This, like the OCR is a great tool to have if you are a mandarin learner or just trying to navigate a Chinese website in real time, if you don’t want to constantly take screen shots.

5. The basic, but useful flashcards function

If I had to recommend an app for flashcards, it wouldn’t be Pleco. That is not saying Pleco doesn’t have decent flashcards for learning, it has an enormous database with a lot of the chapters from books that are most commonly used to learn Mandarin with. I personally learned most of my characters in Integrated Chinese by using the flashcards function on the boss to college every morning.


It might not be as functional and useful as say Skritter, but it is still a great add-on to this already useful app.

Closing thoughts

Overall, Pleco is one of the best apps for learning Mandarin that is on iOS and Android. The basic bundle is $29.99 and includes the functions mentioned here and there is a professional bundle for $59.99. This is a once off purchase, so it isn’t going to creep up on you one year later with a subscription charge that you didn’t know about.

For the price, I think the app is a great deal. Considering how much it has helped me in terms of studying, reading and researching, as well as getting myself out of some pretty sticky situations (police, immigration and avoiding a fight), I would highly recommend this app.

My only issue with this app is how do you actually pronounce the name? I have heard people pronounce it has “Pleck-ko” and “Plee-ko”. If you know how the developers pronounce this, please comment below. It is a question I have waited five years to solve.

Nihao's It Going?

One thought on “Tools for learning Mandarin: Pleco

  1. That’s a good review, and certainly there is nothing like Pleco, but there are a few favorite parts of it that you didn’t directly mention:
    1. Text reader: you showed how this could be done from a screen shot, but better is to copy a long text (even up to the length of a novel) and then use the reader to read it, with annotations whenever you don’t know a word or just want to double check the tones. Just touch the word on the screen and viola! Best aid for real reading there has ever been. Plus, there is even a button to have it read the text to you (the voice is a bit robotic, but I find that I don’t mind),
    2. Endless add-on dictionaries. Most of these are paid, but if there is a famous dictionary out there, Pleco likely has it available as an add-on. the DeFrancis’ ABC dictionary, Kroll’s student dictionary of classical chinese, Cantonese dictionaries, HUGE Chinese-Chinese dictionaries… they are all available.


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