While some might be opposed to the idea of chatting with random people, chat websites are a great way to improve your writing skills. Language exchange websites usually have a significant number of native Chinese speakers and you will always be able to find someone willing to help improve your writing ability.
HiNative is a “language learning Q and A app” where users can ask and answer questions about Chinese language and culture with native speakers. The community is a very useful resource for correcting word choice and grammar in a composition.
Sharedtalk is a language exchange website created by Rosetta Stone where you can chat with native speakers of Chinese through the built-in messaging or voice system. You can enter the chat room Chinese learners or just sort online members by language and start speaking with a Chinese native speaker. You can improve your typing speed and accuracy while at the same time learn many useful tips on grammar and usage from native speakers of Chinese. This is also a very useful resource if you are stumped by a grammar pattern or usage of a particular word as you can simply go online and ask any native Chinese speaker instead of waiting for a response on a Chinese forum.
Lang-8 is another great language exchange platform and may be more useful than italki depending on what you are looking for. Lang-8 is less chat oriented and more focused on composition. You can post journal entries or essays and native speakers will edit your drafts. Another great way to improve your writing skills is to translate English texts into Chinese. Choose a topic that you are interested in and find a relevant English article. After translating it into Chinese, you can use Lang-8 to receive feedback and corrections. Lang-8 is a great tool to help improve your formal writing skills and is very useful for anyone interested in writing in Chinese.
With over 1 million users, Italki is one of the best language exchange websites. It is a combination of Lang-8 and Sharedtalk. You can write journal entries and receive corrections and there is also a well developed built-in messenger for chat functionality. An additional benefit is that you can search for informal tutors, or professional tutors to give you formal lessons. If you are willing to pay extra for tutoring, you can easily find a professional tutor to give you classes for under 10 dollars an hour.
Nciku (now LINE Dictionary) is probably the best dictionary available online despite its very slow loading times. Nciku primarily uses the Collins Chinese-English dictionary which has much more technical vocabulary and proper nouns than other dictionaries online. There are also example sentences and phrases for nearly every word which is very useful for learning the proper usage of new words.
MDBG-While MDBG may not have as many words as nciku, its simplicity and speed make it a much better tool for day to day use. MDBG uses dictionary entries from CC-CEDICT dictionary to provide a variety of tools. MDBG has a particularly useful flashcard tool where you can paste in a list of characters and the page will generate flashcards using the MDBG dictionary.
Yellowbridge is pretty similar to most dictionaries, but it provides a couple of tools that are definitely worth checking out, such as an etymology function, memory games, flashcards for major textbooks/word lists, and radical lists.
iCIBA is a dictionary that provides English definitions of classical Chinese words. For example, the character “简” normally means simple, but a search of the character in iCIBA will show you that it can also mean to choose, a letter, or bamboo slips. This is very useful for finding quick definitions of characters in classical Chinese texts.
The Classical Chinese Dictionary (文言文字典）is another useful dictionary with definitions of classical Chinese words. Although it does not have English translations like iCIBA, it provides sample sentences from actual texts for specific usages. For example, a search of 简 will show you that this character can also mean 拣，and this specific usage can be seen in the following sentence from 《核周记》”盖简桃核狭者为之。“
Dict.cn (海词）– This website is intended for Chinese students of English which gives it a significant advantage over other dictionaries in that there is a wider selection of field-specific vocabulary. If you want to find the Chinese word for a term in law, economics, medicine, or any other specialized field, you will most likely be able to find the definition here.
CNKI– The CNKI dictionary is a fantastic resource for improving your field-specific terminology and your ability to discuss complex topics. It searches through a database of scholarly articles and gives you side-by-side Chinese and English passages containing the search term. You can then read through these translations to learn the proper usage of the search term and other related vocabulary.
Youdao is similar to CNKI in functionality but has a few differences. Instead of searching through scholarly articles, Youdao searches through a database of websites to find Chinese-English translations of sample sentences. Because of their different sources, Youku seems to be more user-friendly while still providing you with useful sample sentences.
Lingoes is an alternative to online dictionaries and can be very useful depending on how you use Chinese dictionaries.
Hanping– Hanping is a great free dictionary that gives you the basic functions you need for a mobile app. The $6.95 Pro version, however, is what makes the dictionary one of the most recommended mobile dictionaries and is very useful as a study tool (Reviews can be found here). With the pro version you gain many new tools including a “starred” list, in which you can save words from the dictionary for later study, handwriting recognition for character lookup, radical lookup, audio, in-app professional ABC Chinese & English dictionaries, and home screen widgets (very useful for practicing vocabulary). You can also purchase the character recognizing tool (OCR) seen below for $9.95.
Pleco– Along with Hanping, Pleco is one of the best mobile dictionaries available. Pleco is very similar to Hanping, so it really just depends on which dictionary you prefer more. Pleco is a bit more flashy and has more features available for (paid) upgrade and is probably the most comprehensive dictionary available due to the add-ons you can purchase. Pleco offers upgrades for character recognizer, or OCR ($14.95), flashcard system ($14.95), stroke order diagrams ($4.95), and multiple dictionary plug-ins for more word entries. The fully upgraged Pleco dictionary is much better than Hanping Pro, but is naturally much more expensive.
Dict.cn (海词)– As mentioned before, the 海词 dictionary from dict.cn is useful because it has many more terms than Chinese dictionaries for English speaking students. Hanping and Pleco provide you with more tools and add-ons, but 海词 has the most entries out of all of them. You may only get a simple definition, but it is very useful for looking up specific terminology. Given that it is free, it is much better than the other two dictionaries if you are just looking for a simple and effective dictionary rather than a study tool.
An input method editor, or IME, is the software which allows you to type in Chinese on your computer or mobile device. Choosing the right IME is essential to improve your typing accuracy and increase your typing speed. Below is a list of IME recommendations for each operating system and information on Sogou, the most popular IME in China.
Google IME is by far the best IME available for windows-based platforms. Google IME is very accurate at choosing the correct characters for long strings of words and there many more useful features than the Windows stock version including “fuzzy pinyin,” where the computer will include character combinations with slightly different pinyin just in case you mistyped a word.
If you have the most updated version of OS X, Mountain Lion, then you most likely will be fine without a third party IME. The built-in IME has improved greatly from previous versions and is good enough for simple character input. For Mac users with older operating systems, it is best if you download a new IME. Sougou (see below), FIT, and IMKQIM are all good alternatives for Mac users.
Google IME is also available on Android devices and is the best option for Android as well. The most convenient feature is that the English keyboard is very easy to use and can act as your full time English keyboard. This saves you the hassle of having to switch your keyboard options whenever you want to type in English. Google IME also has a great built-in character writing input for touch screen phones.
The built-in IME is pretty good for iPhones if you download both the pinyin and writing keyboards. Just go to Settings–>General—>Keyboard–>International and scroll down to Chinese Simplified. From there you can choose which keyboards you want to download for your iPhone. See below for alternative IMEs for all platforms.
The IMEs mentioned above are the best for simple character input. However, some IMEs have additional functionality that some may find more useful.
Sogou is the most downloaded IME in China and is one of the best third-party IMEs available for PCs, Macs, and mobile devices. Sogou has much more functionality than the IMEs above, which can be seen as both a strength and a weakness. The smiley face options, customizable themes/fonts, and similar functions are not very useful and make the IME kind of bloated. However, there are some useful features in the toolbox (工具箱), such as the writing input (seen below), and a direct link to search the word online. Sogou also allows you to switch easily between traditional and simplified by clicking on the “简” character on the language bar.
For most students of Chinese, the recommended IMEs above are good enough and get the job done. However, the additional tools may make the switch to Sogou worth it despite the bloated functionality.
Anki is a free, specialized flashcard software that minimizes the time you spend studying vocabulary by only testing you on words you are about to forget. It uses an algorithm to “remember” which words you consistently guess incorrectly, and allows them to appear more frequently during study sessions.
Even if you only use Anki for a few minutes every other day, you will retain significantly more vocabulary than you would have by passively looking up words in the dictionary. Anytime you learn a new word or phrase while reading an article, enter it into your flashcard set. The Anki mobile software will sync with your computer so you can review vocabulary wherever you are. For more information on setting up flashcard sets or adding words, check out the Anki User Manual.