Remember when you were a bright-eyed, novice Chinese learner and first looked at 拼音 (pīn yīn) — Chinese romanization?
After the initial shock and wondering “What is that?” you probably thought about giving up.
Pinyin does this to people. Learners get turned off and think it’s just too difficult to master. Then they drop learning Mandarin altogether.
Because you’re reading this, we’re guessing you didn’t give up. Congratulations!
You may already know that while pinyin is bizarre to the non-Mandarin speaker, it’s actually quite simple to get the hang of reading pinyin and speaking with tones.
However, sometimes you’ll come across a word that leaves you scratching your head.
Luckily, there are a few pinyin dictionary apps out there that can make mastering these weird pinyin words easy.
Before we kick off our list, let’s dig through a few reasons why you should bother downloading and installing a Chinese pinyin dictionary app.
Why Should I Have a Chinese Pinyin Dictionary on Hand?
- Sometimes you’ll need to look up specific pinyin on the go. You can easily look up pinyin from your computer if you have it on you, but occasionally you need to look up something immediately while you’re out and about or traveling in a Chinese-speaking area. Smartphone apps make this super easy.
- Most Chinese-English dictionaries focus on hanzi, not pinyin. Having a pinyin dictionary on hand helps you cover your bases. Maybe you’re listening to music or having a conversation, and you hear a Chinese word that flies over your head. A pinyin dictionary can help you figure out what that unfamiliar word means with ease and accuracy.
- They can be handy to have if you’re watching a Chinese film and don’t recognize a word. Don’t want to get up and type away on your laptop to figure out what word someone used during a Chinese drama binge-athon? Just use your Chinese pinyin dictionary app!
Look It up! 5 Handy Chinese Pinyin Dictionary Apps
Looking for a resource to brush up on your pinyin? Check out FluentU!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Each video features annotated subtitles with English, hanzi and pinyin translations. You can use fun, authentic videos to improve all aspects of your Chinese!
Access FluentU’s full video library on your web browser or, better yet, take it on the go when you download the app at the iTunes or Google Play store.
Pleco Chinese Dictionary
iOS | Android
The Pleco Chinese Dictionary app is definitely one of the top Chinese dictionaries out there. The most beneficial feature is the ability to type a pinyin word and see both the Chinese characters and English definition for the word.
Here are some other useful features of the Pleco Chinese Dictionary:
- Live camera character lookup
- A document and screen reader (only available for the Android version)
- A massive dictionary containing thousands of Chinese hanzi and pinyin words that you can look up in bulk
- Audio pronunciation
- Handwriting lookup
Pleco made our list of pinyin dictionary apps simply because the pinyin lookup system within the app is quick, accurate and easy to read. Even without tone numbers, you can look up multiple pinyin letters at once in the search bar and get a pretty generous result of possible words and meanings. What else could you want in a pinyin dictionary app?
Chinese Pinyin Trainer Lite
iOS | Android
If you’re looking for a pinyin dictionary app that focuses on spoken Chinese, this one is worth checking out. Chinese Pinyin Trainer Lite is also great for learners who want a pinyin dictionary with quiz and flashcard features rather than something solely for looking up unfamiliar pinyin.
Chinese Pinyin Trainer Lite is a simple pinyin dictionary at its core, but it also has a lot of additional traits, most notably an accurate Chinese-English dictionary. Here are a few others:
- DIY pinyin knowledge testing and scoring
- Commonly confused word distinction
- Tone sketching mode in which you draw pinyin words to respond to audio questions
- Several thousand clear and crisp audio recordings
- Flashcard integration so you can save bulk amounts of pinyin words to study later
- A complex guide for beginner pinyin readers
We suggest purchasing the upgrade for this app as it allows for many more features. If you’d prefer not to, the free version is still very useful as a Chinese pinyin dictionary.
Pinyin Chart by Pin Pin
iOS | Android
When you look at this app, it becomes pretty obvious that it isn’t a pinyin dictionary in the traditional sense.
However, it can be used as a pinyin dictionary, as well as a helpful supplement to any pinyin dictionary you already have. The provided “list view” of the app’s full log of pinyin can also serve as a sort of dictionary.
The Pinyin Chart app teaches you Chinese by starting out with exclusively pinyin-based lessons. Start with simple, familiar tones and move your way up to more complicated types of pinyin. The lessons are game-based, so the more you learn, the more trophies you receive within the app.
Along with these lessons, you can access the full pinyin chart to put a written word to spoken Chinese. You can also use the app’s list view to look up different sounds and listen to their correct pronunciation and definition.
If you struggle with comprehending and reproducing pinyin, either spoken or in writing, this app will be very useful to you.
Hanyu Pinyin Dictionary
Some of you may just want a simple, user-friendly Chinese pinyin dictionary app with two main features: the ability to look up Chinese characters and their definitions by typing pinyin and the ability to look up the pinyin pronunciation of Chinese characters.
If you’re looking for something dependable and free, Hanyu Pinyin Dictionary from Chun Kai Lau is perfect for you.
This dictionary has quite a few bells and whistles, including:
- The ability to search for hanzi by typing pinyin, and vice-versa
- A handwritten hanzi feature
- Thousands of dictionary words in Chinese
- Audio clips for all pinyin
- A bookmark feature for easy reference of common words
- Multiple search languages other than English
This app is super quick and easy to use, so looking up words in bulk should go quickly. Currently, Hanyu Pinyin Dictionary is only available on iOS devices, and it’s free to use. There’s also a premium version of the app available for a cost, which includes a widget feature and an ad-free experience.
Chinese/Pinyin Dictionary (拼音 词典)
Chinese/Pinyin Dictionary (拼音 词典) is another pinyin dictionary app that’s basic and easy to use, but with an added useful touch: you can look up Chinese words by their English counterparts. The ability to look up pinyin, hanzi and English all at once and interchangeably is hard to find in Chinese dictionary apps, but this one takes the cake. You can even listen to Chinese pronunciations of hanzi and pinyin within the app, as well!
There are a couple of downsides to this app, though. You don’t have the ability to copy words to your clipboard after you look them up. This app isn’t the best on this list for looking up bulk words, either. There also aren’t any additional features, which may be a turnoff to some. However, if you appreciate simplicity and want an app that won’t be a memory or data hog, this one’s for you.
Chinese/Pinyin Dictionary (拼音 词典) is currently only available for Android devices, and it’s free.
Pinyin dictionaries can be elusive, especially in app form. Thankfully, one of these five Chinese pinyin dictionaries should be able to cover all your needs.
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist who writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.