How to type Chinese on a Mac (OS Mavericks)

Typing Chinese on your Mac is easy! OS Mavericks (and most versions of Mac OS) has a pinyin input tool built in already, so all you need to do is set it up and use it!


1. Open up the System Preferences menu:
Screenshot 2015-11-22 11.52.24

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Resource Review: Pleco

I cannot give enough praise to the makers of Pleco.  It is, without a doubt, the tool I have relied on the most in my self-study of Chinese.  For those who are unfamiliar with Pleco, it is a Chinese-English dictionary app, with built in flashcard system.

Pleco as a Chinese dictionary

Pleco is a very comprehensive Chinese dictionary, available on both iOS and Android.  It is free to download, but some of the premium features (such as flashcards or more advanced dictionaries) are paid.

You can enter words into Pleco by writing on your touchscreen with the handwriting input (I think this is now paid, although it was available for free when I installed it), which is great when you see words that you don’t know how to pronounce.  You can also enter words into Pleco by typing in the pinyin – e.g. guo or guo2 for 国  (tones are optional), or using the radicals (this is harder, and I’ve never used it, so I’d recommend buying the handwriting recogniser).  You can also enter English words into Pleco, and it will return all Chinese words which include that English word in their translations.  If you have a chunk of Chinese text to read on your phone, you can copy it and then go to the Pleco screen reader, where you can get the dictionary definitions simply by touching each word.  Not a feature I use often because I don’t read much Chinese on my phone, but if you do, you may find it helpful.

My Chinese friends have often been impressed by how comprehensive Pleco is – several times when I started to look up an unfamiliar word on Pleco, my friends said “That’s slang, you won’t be able to find it”.  They were proved wrong when Pleco returned results for words like 屌丝 (internet slang for “loser”) and 宅男 (Taiwanese slang for a male always on computers, games, etc indoors).  Pleco also contains many chengyu (成语), which is very impressive for a dictionary.

All of Pleco’s entries contain an audio pronunciation by a male or female speaker (you may have to install it as an add-on, but it’s free).  Sometimes it will sound stilted, as it pronounces the syllables for each word separately.  You can pay for the extended audio pronunciations, which include specific recordings for a greater number of words, and sound less stilted.  This is “nice to have”, but is not a necessary add-on.

Many of Pleco’s entries also contain example sentences, showing how that word is used in practice. The more advanced dictionaries on Pleco are nice, but not necessary as the free ones are very comprehensive already.  I have purchased a Chinese-to-Chinese dictionary, and another comprehensive dictionary.  Pleco also has dictionaries for Traditional Chinese Medicine (free and paid), medicine (paid), business (paid), classical (paid), Cantonese (free), German-Chinese (free) and Chinese French (free and paid) available, among others – and they regularly add to the list of dictionaries also.

Pleco is also designed to be used offline, and so is very fast.  The downside of this is that it is very large – it currently takes up over 500MBs on my phone, although around 400MBs of this is on my external SD card.

Pleco as a flashcard app

Pleco as a flashcard app is also excellent, although you have to pay for it to unlock the full flashcard features.  It is absolutely worth the $14.95 for iOS or $9.95 for Android, though.

When you look up a word, you can add it to your flashcard deck immediately.  You can maintain multiple flashcard decks, and you can also choose how to test yourself for each deck (e.g. you may choose to test your writing for one deck, reading for another).  Pleco has built in spaced character recognition setting, but it’s very customisable so you can tweak the algorithms as well.

There’s too much to the flashcard system to write about in one post, so I’ll write more about how I use Pleco as a flashcard app in an upcoming post, with screenshots.

Who should learn Chinese by self-study?

Now that it’s been established that you can learn Chinese by self-study, the questions is: should you? There are three factors that are relevant to whether you should learn Chinese through self-study:

1. Your proficiency level

I would strongly advise complete beginners against trying to learn Chinese without a teacher.  Because Chinese is a tonal language, the pronunciation is extremely difficult for native English speakers to get right.  If you start learning Chinese by yourself just by listening to podcasts or a program like Rocket Chinese, you may pick up bad pronunciation habits that become near-impossible to discard later on.  If you are at all serious about learning Chinese to communicate with Chinese people (as opposed to just for fun), I would highly recommend investing a little in getting a private Chinese tutor for at least a few lessons at the start, just to get the pronunciation part down (as best as possible).  It will pay off in the future.

On the other hand, once you’ve gotten the pronunciation down, there is much you can learn by self-study.  Chinese grammar is not that difficult and much of it can be learned by self-study – although it is always helpful to get someone to check your work.  Building vocabulary is an enormous task in Chinese, and much of that can be done by self-study.  It is much easier to use something like Pleco to build your vocab, than to sit in a class wasting time with a teacher holding up physical flashcards.  The higher your proficiency level, the stronger the case for doing self-study.

2.  Your personality and learning style

People who are self-motivated but impatient are great candidates for learning by self-study.  I’m a reasonably self-motivated person (though my attention span can be a bit short!) and pretty impatient, and I found myself quickly getting bored and annoyed at slow-moving classes.

Others might have trouble motivating themselves, or might enjoy the social nature of classes.  They also might only be able to remember things when they’ve hear someone explain it or they’ve practised it with another person, but can’t retain much of what they merely read.  These people are less suited to self-study – they still can, of course, but may have to participate more in language meetup groups or language partner exchanges to make good progress.

3. Time and financial constraints

This is undoubtedly a key reason why many people want to learn Chinese by self-study.  Of course one-on-one teaching would be ideal, but who can afford that?  Plus, everyone’s got such a busy schedule these days – who can find the time to go to regular classes?  Self-study is so much more flexible, and cheaper!

The good news is, there are resources out there that provide a “middle ground” between a full-blown class and going it completely alone.  A number of sites now offer one-on-one Skype/video lessons at times suitable for you and at much more affordable prices than a tutor in your own country is likely to cost (if you live in a developed Western country), so you can get Chinese lessons from the comfort of your own home.  Lang8 is another very good resource where you can get your writing checked and corrected by a native Chinese speaker (for free), in exchange for correcting some English learners’ writing samples.  And of course, there may be language exchange opportunities or meetup groups in your home city as well.

So there are three things you should consider when deciding whether to learn Chinese by self-study.  It can be a daunting prospect to try and learn such a notoriously difficult language all by yourself, but in some cases, it may well be the best and most efficient option.  And besides, even if you’re going the self-study route, you’re not all alone – we’re here!

Can I learn Chinese by self-study?

There are a number of reasons why you may wish to bypass Chinese teachers and group classes to study Chinese alone.  Perhaps you find classes too expensive.  Or perhaps you’re frustrated by the pace of classes and think you can do better on your own.  Or there might not be any classes near you that fit into your busy schedule.  Maybe you only want to dabble in Chinese, and aren’t sure if you’re serious enough to commit to real classes.  All of these reasons have applied to me at some stage of my Chinese learning journey.

I have tried beginner group classes, and found them too easy and poor value for money.  I have tried intermediate/advanced group classes and found that, even though there were only 2-4 of us in the class (people joined and left during the time I was there), we were all at different levels and had different strengths and weaknesses, making it difficult for the teacher to accommodate us all.  And I have also tried one-on-one classes with a native Chinese teacher too.  By far, these were the best classes but were also fairly expensive (well, I was in China at the time so they weren’t that expensive really, but I was also on a very tight budget as I was taking a year off).

Most of my Chinese progress has come about by self-study.  Now, “self-study” obviously doesn’t mean I learned Chinese completely by myself in a vacuum; after all, you need to practise a language with others to become any good at it.  Self-study can involve language partners, language meetups, practising with friends, and posting on forums.  I just use the term “self-study” to describe study that is done without a teacher or actual classes.

And, to answer the question posed in the title of this post: yes, you absolutely can learn Chinese by self-study.  Whether or not you should, however, is a different question.  In the next post, I’ll outline the things you should consider before embarking on a programme of self-study.  If you do decide to go it alone, I will help you on your journey by pointing out some useful resources (there are truly amazing ones out there) and give you some tips about the things I’ve learned along the way.  Good luck, and 加油!