Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
4 Free Dictionary Apps for Looking Up Chinese and Japanese Characters on Android and iOS

4 Free Dictionary Apps for Looking Up Chinese and Japanese Characters on Android and iOS

If you’re studying Chinese or Japanese, you know that both have vastly different writing systems from basically anything else. Chinese Hanzi and their Japanese Kanji descendants number in the thousands – said to come from turtle shells after they were burned, these characters are much different than the Roman characters that many western languages use.

One of the most inconvenient things about these characters to a new learner is that you can’t tell how to pronounce them just by looking at them. Now, there are exceptions – many characters contain clues to how they’re pronounced, and Chinese Hanzi generally have only one pronunciation each.

Despite this, unless you’ve memorized the character, you’re probably not going to know how to pronounce it. Without enough context, you probably won’t know what it means, either.

Every time I had to read something for my Chinese homework and I didn’t know a character, I had to flip through the whole book trying to find it. This was definitely not efficient.

So, like most languages you’d be learning, the trick is to use the internet to figure things out – but how do you find a character if you don’t know how to pronounce it or what it means?

Strangely enough, I found out that touch screens can do much more than play games starring birds.

Here are 4 apps for Android and iOS that let you draw Chinese and Japanese characters to find out what they mean and how to say them.

Pleco (Chinese | iOS)

First on the list is Pleco. Out of all of these apps, Pleco probably has the prettiest interface, and it’s very appreciated.

However, by default, you can only search for words via their English meaning, Chinese pinyin, or by using radicals (little pieces of each character) to build the character you’re looking for. We’ll need to set up a new keyboard option to let you draw the Hanzi you need. You can use the radical input too, but it confuses the hell out of me and drawing is quicker.

The first thing we’ll need to do is head to Settings -> General -> International -> Keyboards -> Add New Keyboard and add the Chinese – Simplified (Handwriting) keyboard.

Adding the Chinese handwriting keyboard in iOS lets you draw the characters you need.

Adding the Chinese handwriting keyboard in iOS lets you draw the characters you need.

Once we’ve done that, we can head into the Pleco app and get searching! To change to the keyboard we just installed, hold down the globe button in the corner and select the option that says ‘简体手写’. If you haven’t been adding other keyboards, it’s the non-default one. Easy.

By the way, that’s my given Chinese name. 王老师谢谢!

By the way, that’s my given Chinese name. 王老师谢谢!

Now, a large grey area pops up where you can draw to your heart’s content! As you draw out the character you need, possible characters will show up above the drawing area, so as soon as you see the one you’re looking for you can tap it to type it in.

Bam. You now know what the character means and how to pronounce it – along with the various words, sentences, and related characters that Pleco provides.

JiShop (Japanese | iOS)

Next on the list is JiShop. Though it’s not nearly as pretty as Pleco, it certainly gets the job done. Installation is simple, and the basic interface is fairly intuitive – simply draw the character you need, and then select the correct one from the list that pops up below.

Jishop doesn't need any special keyboards - draw the characters from right inside the app!

Jishop doesn’t need any special keyboards – draw the characters from right inside the app!

Once you’ve selected the Kanji you’re looking for, Jishop will give you a list of pronunciations in both On’yomi and Kun’yomi, along with some common words featuring the character.

 JiShop shows you both On’yomi and Kun’yomi readings of Kanji, along with common words that use it.


JiShop shows you both On’yomi and Kun’yomi readings of Kanji, along with common words that use it.

Do note that the free version of JiShop is only the ‘concise’ version, with 1006 characters available. Limitations sound daunting, but in this case, 1006 characters is a fine place to start you off and will get you quite a ways into Japanese. Don’t let me catch you using the limit as an excuse to not start learning now!

If you want more, you’ll need to update to the plus or advanced versions of JiShop. Granted, if you’re going to pay for extra characters, you may as well just buy Midori, as it’s much prettier.

Hanzi Recognizer (Chinese | Android)

For you Android-using Chinese learners out there, we’ve got a simple solution called Hanzi Recognizer. It’s got some extra steps to set up, but it shouldn’t be too painful.

Once you’ve installed Hanzi Recognizer, it’ll ask you whether you want to install the simplified or traditional Chinese character support, and whether you want the compressed versions. Unless you’re very specifically learning traditional Chinese writing, you’ll probably just want the simplified version.

The compressed models have a very slight decrease in their recognition rate, so if you don’t care about space then just download the normal models. If you have an older phone or a smaller amount of memory available, the compressed models are the way to go.

Once that’s done, using the app is fairly straight-forward. Just draw the character you need, and tap the correct one from the list that pops up above. You’ll get definitions for the character, along with how it should be pronounced.

Hanzi Recognizer gives you the character’s pronunciation in Pinyin, along with several possible meanings.

Hanzi Recognizer gives you the character’s pronunciation in Pinyin, along with several possible meanings.

Pleco is also available for Android, but handwriting recognition won’t be free after the coming update. If you think cost will hold you back, Hanzi Recognizer will work just fine. If not, Pleco is a much more full-featured app.

Kanji Recognizer (Japanese | Android)

Kanji Recognizer is very, very similar to Hanzi Recognizer. In fact, it’s basically the same app, by the same author, with Japanese definitions and pronunciations substituted for Chinese.

As with Hanzi Recognizer, you’ll be asked to choose which character models you’d like to download – compressed or uncompressed. If you’re running an older phone or have limited space, go for the compressed versions. Otherwise, stick with the uncompressed for slightly better recognition rates.

After that, just draw the character you want, and tap the correct one from the list. Kanji Recognizer will show you definitions, and both the On’yomi and Kun’yomi readings. On’yomi pronunciations are based on Chinese pronunciations and will be shown in Katakana. Kun’yomi pronunciations are Japanese pronunciations and will be shown in Hiragana.

Kanji Recognizer gives you both On’yomi and Kun’yomi, but you'll need to know Hiragana and Katakana first.

Kanji Recognizer gives you both On’yomi and Kun’yomi, but you’ll need to know Hiragana and Katakana first.

This will be pretty inconvenient if you can’t read Hiragana or Katakana yet, but if reading random Kanji characters is really the most important next step for your Japanese, then you must already know them…right? We wouldn’t want to be focusing on tiny details and ignoring the basics – that’d be ridiculous!

One last bit of advice before I’m done – learning and using correct stroke order will make using all of these apps (and writing in general) much easier, and it’ll increase recognition rates so the app can tell what character you’re writing more often. This is especially true of the Android apps.

It’s also just a pretty good skill to have if you’re learning Chinese or Japanese, so you can read more about stroke order here.

Also, I mentioned On’yomi and Kun’yomi a couple of times for you Japanese learners – if you want to know more about these and how to know which pronunciation to use, you’ll want to read more about On’yomi and Kun’yomi here.

Now get out there and read some new characters!

photo source: Hanzi
  • Kelby

    I live and die by Pleco. I used the free version for years, and I’m surprised at how they just keep making it better and better. My brain melted the first time I used the free clipboard reader. The basic bundle was my birthday present from my parents this last April, and it’s worth every penny, especially with the optical character recognizer. That nifty little function also solves the problem of not knowing the pronunciation when looking things up.

    I like the focus on handwriting lookups here though. Really mashes writing practice together with reading practice, huh?

    I think I’ll try writing my lookups this week instead of the usual copypasta and see how it affects my memory 😉

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      I’m glad the folks making Pleco are so dedicated to helping out Chinese learners! I didn’t even know about the optical character recognizer, which sounds incredibly convenient. I know that remembering how to write Hanzi was always my weakest skill in class though, so I’ll take any chance I can to sneak in some writing practice!

  • http://ceritabahasa.co Cerita Bahasa

    Pleco is the best! They also add Cantonese now. So great app! :)