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Instant Mandarin: 5 Chinese Character Recognition Apps

Have you ever had to order from a Chinese menu with no pictures?

In China, you’ll find that a lot of local places have their list of food items on the wall, with no English translations and no images to accompany them.

Even though I studied Mandarin for most of my childhood and know a variety of restaurant phrases, I still have trouble identifying some food items here and there.

Chinese character recognition apps have been game changers.

Below are a few good ones to get you started!

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Upon researching the various translation apps out there, it’s surprising that not every one of them has optical character recognition, which lets you snap a photo of characters or upload a screenshot.

Optical character recognition, or OCR, is something all Chinese learners can benefit from, whether we’re ordering at a local restaurant, navigating the street or simply wondering what all the Chinese text surrounding us is about.

There are several app types that have OCR capabilities. Some have full dictionary features, while others are solely OCR translation apps. Some are equipped with extras, such as flashcards that enable you to use the app as a study tool or audio-to-text translation.

Pleco Chinese Dictionary

iOS | Android

Price: Free with in-app purchases

Translations: OCR, handwriting, text

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One of the most popular translation apps out there, Pleco Chinese Dictionary takes the cake in terms of a well-rounded language translation app. A leader among language dictionary apps, capabilities include a document reader, flashcard study tool and stroke order diagrams.

Another thing that puts it above the rest? There are no ads. Yes, you read that correctly. No ads!

Although this isn’t really a disadvantage, one might be overwhelmed with the amount of information supplied when looking up a certain word or scanning text via the camera. Some people just want an app that provides the translation, nothing more. On the other hand, some students will love all the contextual info that comes with their searches.

Scanner & Translator

iOS

Price: Free with in-app purchases

Translations: OCR

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Looking for a well-received app that supplies fast, reliable translations? Scanner & Translator is a strong contender.

The app boasts faster response time than similar products and features cheaper rates for premium services. You’ll also have the ability to save previous translations and share them through social media, SMS and email.

As for the disadvantages, you’re only allowed five picture translations per day if you’re subscribed for the free service, and similar to other apps, an internet connection is required. Not to mention, it literally does what the app name says, and nothing more. Then again, if you’re not really that tech savvy, this might be just the app for you!

Translator – Translate Box

iOS | Android

Price: Free with in-app purchases

Translations: OCR, text, voice

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You might be wondering why the big translator apps, such Google Translate, aren’t included in this list. The reason: There’s an app out there called Translator – Translate Box that’s something of a translation aggregator, if you will.

With side-by-side translations from the heavyweights Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Yandex Translator and Baidu Translator (a cult favorite for accuracy), you can easily compare translations to help you determine which one makes the most sense.

And now for the downsides. Compared with some of the others on this list, the interface looks a little messy with all of the translations listed one after the other. For tablets or phones with bigger screens, it might not be as bad, but it looks pretty cluttered on the average-sized phone screen.

You might also be irritated by the number of times the app asks if you’d rather “continue with ads” or “upgrade to premium.” At the rate at which ads keep popping up, it actually might be worth it to upgrade to the premium service! But if you’re on a budget, you’ll probably think that having the most accurate translation is worth the sacrifice of seeing ads.

WeChat

iOS | Android

Price: Free with in-app translations

Translations: OCR

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WeChat seems to be the odd one out of the bunch, given that it’s primarily used as a communication tool. However, Wechat is much more than just a messaging app, with features such as WeChat wallet and mini-programs that allow you to book train tickets, order taxis, rent bikes, order food… you name it!

One of the recent additions to this already all-encompassing app is something called “Scan to translate.” On the main screen of the app, there’s a plus sign on the upper right hand corner, which is a menu of shortcuts that includes scanning QR codes.

But it’s not just QR codes that you can scan now. WeChat has updated the camera feature to include an OCR translation option, a major step up since the only translation capabilities it used to have were texts within chats and the “Moments” page. “Scan to translate” eliminates the need open up or download another app to scan Chinese road signs or restaurant menus.

WeChat’s translation update is pretty convenient for those who use the app on a daily basis, and I’ve found that it’s been more reliable than Microsoft Translator. I can’t recall how many times I’ve uploaded a screenshot or taken a photo of Chinese characters, only for Microsoft Translator to show me the message, “Hmm. I can’t seem to translate that.”

Then again, you’ll need to be online to scan, and this only offers OCR translations (unless you’re translating in-app text). But that’s still better than needing to exit WeChat anytime you need to translate something!

Waygo

iOS | Android

Price: Free to download with 10 translations per day, then $6.99 for unlimited Chinese translations

Translations: OCR

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At first glance, it doesn’t seem like Waygo offers much that gives it an edge over the others. But there’s one huge difference: It’s an offline translation app.

Reviewed across media outlets such as The New York Times, TechCrunch and plenty of others, this app is definitely worth giving a shot. Plus, translations of Chinese dishes are accompanied by pictures, so you also know what they look like.

Of course, being that it’s an offline app, Waygo may be limited in terms of translations stored in the database. It also might be a disadvantage to some that it only offers OCR translations and not the typical text translations.

Even though you’ll have to pay for unlimited translations, an offline OCR app is just what you need when you’re out of network coverage and have no access to Wi-Fi.

 

Which of these Chinese character recognition apps is your perfect fit? A beginner will be much more comfortable with an app like Pleco, which does more than just your average translations. A fluent speaker might simply need a little help once in a while by using WeChat’s “scan to translate” feature.

 

And if you want to start learning to read Chinese characters on your own, there are lots of great apps and other resources to help you.

To learn the meanings of Chinese characters, it’s best to become proficient in the language itself if you aren’t already. If you don’t know anything about Chinese grammar rules, knowing the meaning of individual characters won’t necessarily tell you what a sentence means. And a lot depends on context!

Language learning apps and websites can help teach you these grammar rules and, ideally, show you how Chinese words and sentences function in context.

FluentU, for example, is a language learning platform that teaches you Chinese using authentic videos like interviews, commercials and music videos. FluentU’s videos can display captions in any combination of pinyin, Chinese characters and English, letting you learn words and their characters while you watch. And every word in the captions can be clicked for translations, example sentences and pronunciation.

The great value of captioned videos in Chinese is that the context helps you connect words and characters to their meanings and pronunciations. You’ll have an easier time remembering Chinese characters when you see them used in action by native speakers.

 

But in the meantime, character recognition apps are a great tool to get you through everyday Chinese reading challenges.

Soon, you’ll be able to order off Chinese menus and even translate signs and instructions with ease.

The apps listed above can get you out of a lot of tight spots — and inspire you to keep learning

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