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Coping with bad dictionaries


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Recently I switched from learning vocabulary from Chinese>English to Chinese>Dutch. After having spent 50 euro on the only Chinese>Dutch dictionary available, I found out that apart from missing lots of essential words, the dictionary is full of mistakes. The pinyin on almost all of the 多音字 in compound words is wrong, but what bothers me most is the bad definitions.

So, when adding vocabulary to my Anki deck, I use this Dutch dictionary, check it's definition with my ABC dictionary (both paper dictionaries, the dutch one doesn't exist in digital format), and when in doubt double check this online with a Chinese>Chinese dictionary. In case of a bad or vague definition in my Chinese > Dutch dictionary, I translate definitions from Chinese or English to Dutch myself. After looking up and adding some example sentences, I finally add the card to my deck.

Obviously, this process takes up a lot of my study time. Adding 13 words like this costs me about 1.5 hour. The obvious suggestion would be to start studying Chinese > Chinese, but because I would like to get into translating Chinese to Dutch in the future, this doesn't seem right either.

I imagine advanced students mainly studying vocabulary not listed in dictionaries run into the same problem. Any suggestions on how to speed up this process are welcome.

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I would just make the switch to Chinese->Chinese, especially if you are cabable of it - it's also something that will get easier the more you do it.

I wouldn't worry about any problems you think this will cause with Chinese->Dutch translation. Translation rarely involves translating things word for word, and you'll get much more natural translations if you're not worrying about trying to fit certain words into sentences just because that's the 'official' translation of a given Chinese word.

The cases where direct word for word translations of some term are necessary are likely to involve specific words/terms for a given field/industry, which you are unlikely to find in ordinary dictionaries anyway.

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Thanks for your reply. Although I fully agree with your view that translating isn't about word for word translations, I do have some reservations.The main reason holding me back from studying vocabulary Chinese > Chinese is that I think translating from Chinese to my native language will be much quicker when I have some possible translations ready in my mind. I've never studied English, let alone use SRS to cram vocabulary from English to Dutch. The result is that my reading comprehension is fine, but when I translate English to Dutch, I have to stop and look up Dutch definitions even for basic words quite often, as I've only ever thought these words in English.

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To my knowledge there are no good Chinese-Dutch dictionaries in existence. If China continues to rise, perhaps someone will make one in the future. My solution for translating is nciku for Chinese to English and then if necessary google translate for English to Dutch. If I'm translating a text, I also use synoniemen.net to find some other options for words to use. This is more time-consuming than a Chinese-Dutch dictionary, but really that dictionary is pretty much worthless beyond the basic level.

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Thanks for the synoniemen tip, that does make life a bit easier. Did you by any chance study Sinology in Leiden? If so, do you know if everything is taught Chinese > English? Are there any Chinese to Dutch translation classes? I'm not considering studying there, just curious.

I can't believe this dictionary is this bad. Even the binding is bad, the first pages are already falling out after 3 weeks of usage. Why bother making a dictionary like this? Occasionally I still find some good translations in it that I wouldn't have thought of myself though, so I find it hard to put it away completely.

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Yes, I studied sinology in Leiden. Language of the class depended on the teacher, if the teacher was Dutch we would be taught Chinese-Dutch, but Chinese teachers taught Chinese-English (or Chinese-Chinese for more advanced students). I graduated about 6 years ago though, I think now most of the language teachers are Chinese. The textbooks were all in English and probably still are. The only Dutch textbook I know of is for high school students.

There were several translation classes, Chinese to Dutch. I suppose such classes still exist, if you're interested you could look into following just these classes.

I suppose that dictionary was someone's pet project, and I think it still exists because it's the only one out there. It's high time for a new and better one really. With more and more high schools offering Chinese, there must be an increasing market for it.

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Am I to understand that you are manually making your own flashcards?

Please say no! This is re-inventing the wheel. ANKI and most popular flashcard applications have "libraries" where you can download decks that other students have made. This is definitely the way to go. 1.5 hours making flashcards? Much better to spend 3 minutes downloading a deck, and 1.5 hours studying!

Good luck,


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ANKI and most popular flashcard applications have "libraries" where you can download decks that other students have made. This is definitely the way to go.

Totally disagree. Making your own is an active exercise that lets you customize the material, and the process itself familiarizes you with the words or phrases you are trying to learn.

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Ludens, I had a similar problem: I am a German and I'm using skritter (www.skritter.com). In the beginning, 3 years ago, I used Chinese-English, because their German dictionary was the free HanDeDict dictionary, which unfortunately had a very low quality, more than 50% of all entries were problematic, I believe it was even more to 80 or 90% than 50%.

Although English is my daily language, I faced problems learning a foreign language via another foreign language, so I decided to go back to Chinese-German. I made a lot of corrections to the entries there, I always checked against the English definition and, when in doubt, looked up in a good Chinese-German dictionary. Now I have more than 7000 words and 3600 characters in my learning list, more than 95% of them in German and checked.

As I was doing this, the Skritter guys gave me the account free of charge. In the meantime, other users are doing the same in other languages, such as French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Swedish, etc. Dutch is not in their list of languages, but I believe, if you talk to them (nick@skritter.com or scott@skritter.com) they may happily add this. You can important also your anki lists into Skritter. As such, you only have to edit the definition part and do not need to create your own flashcards.

I am a great fan of Skritter and it helped me a lot in my reading / writing ability (other than this, I have no relationship with Skritter).

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Making your own is an active exercise that lets you customize the material, and the process itself familiarizes you with the words or phrases you are trying to learn.

I agree with this, that is to say, this is what I tell myself too every day. Even if this is not true, I don't really have a choice as there are no shared Chinese > Dutch decks. What's more, the biggest shared vocabulary decks in the Anki library are about 8000 words, in a few months my deck will pass that number, so even if I were to switch back to Chinese > English these shared decks would be of no use.

You can important also your anki lists into Skritter. As such, you only have to edit the definition part and do not need to create your own flashcards.

Adding the definition is exactly the most time-consuming part, as there is no good Chinese-Dutch dictionary in existence. This means I often have to come up with translations myself. I'm sticking to this method for now, as I do think it will help me in the future with translating Chinese to Dutch. Are you still adding Chinese-German cards yourself? How much time do you put into this?

On a side note, I've never seen the use of Skritter, I already am familiar with stroke order, and my Anki deck includes writing cards.

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Ludens, I am in a better situation than you are because there are a (very) few decent Chinese-German dictionaries available. Nevertheless, it's a time consuming excersise, in the beginning I spent almost 1 - 2 hours per day to check and correct definitions. Overtime, I got much faster, because I can now identify much easier wrong and incomplete definitions. This morning, I checked around 50 definitions, 10 - 15 were in English and to be translated, around 20 to be corrected. This took me less than 30 minutes (but I don't have to start from the scratch and translate everything).

When I don't find an item in a dictionary it takes me much more time. I usually use Pleco, which allows me to quickly scan through a number of dictionaries. In addition, I also use the MDBG and the nciku dictionaries, which I get directly from the Skritter entry. Especially the example sentences in nciku are helpful to check, whether my understanding of the English is correct. In addition, I also use an on-line English-German dictionary to check on the different meanings of an English word. It also happens quite often in HanDeDict, that somebody had translated a "False Friend" from English to German (e.g. somebody had translated 鹤 with "Kran" - which is the technical equipment - instead with "Kranich" - which is the bird, because in English both is crane).

If I would have to translate each and every item from English to German, I might only be able to do around 10 - 20 items per hour, depending on the complexity.

I am also familiar with stroke order, I don't need this any longer. What I like with Skritter is that it is a more complete environment, where I already have quite useful additional information, such as character de-composition, most useful words which contain this character, voice prompt, correct pinyin with tone, sample sentences, one-click check with MDBG or nciku and also now with Pleco (on IOS), simplified and traditional characters, etc. Furthermore, it's developing with new features on a very fast track and they do the different layouts for desktop, iPhone, iPad, so I don't worry about layouts.

As such, I only have to concentrate on the content of the definition. And for those guys, who are handling a language, Skritter is free of charge. Therefore, I like it and I feel, it makes me much faster than to add all the content into an Anki flashcard.

On the other hand, I am also using Anki for other things, especially for sentence structures, e.g. connection words, to learn measure words, etc. These are more complex structures, which do not fit into Skritter.

When coming across any unknown words or phrases, e.g. during reading, I look it up in Pleco and if I find this useful, I add it to the Pleco flashcard system. Then after some while, I export it from Pleco into Skritter.

Having said that, my main tools for learning Chinese are Skritter, Pleco and Anki - in this sequence. I don't use pods any longer, but watch TV, movies and have a teacher now via Skype (italki.com). I'm more or less a self learner and learning Chinese is my big hobby; I've never studied it or went through any formal education.

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