How to Read Chinese Characters Without Learning Them: Pleco OCR

Everyone who’s become proficient in reading and writing Chinese will tell you that it doesn’t come quick.

It takes years of practice, dedication and exposure to characters. Despite the learning curve, I’ve found it an enjoyable and rewarding journey. But not everyone is willing to spend long hours studying and practicing to gain proficiency in writing Chinese. For those people, the new OCR feature built into Pleco on iPhone is a blessing.

What is Pleco?

Pleco for iPhone
Tones are color-coded in Pleco for iPhone

Pleco is a Chinese English dictionary full-featured Mandarin learning application available in the App Store for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It’s a free download which includes a basic dictionary but has a selection of paid upgrades available which include:

  • content from eight different dictionaries (ranging from free to $40)
  • search by pinyin, English or character
  • full-screen handwriting input ($15)
  • audio & stroke order diagrams ($8 and $10)
  • a document reader ($10)
  • highly customizable flash cards ($15)

Despite having known about Pleco for years (and mentioning it specifically in this post about Learning Chinese with an iPhone) I hesitated to pay for upgrades because of the price. Why pay $20+ for flashcards (or $35+ for a bundle) when other apps do the same thing for much less?

The Killer “OCR” Feature

OCR, that’s why.

It stands for Optical Character Recognition and simply put, you point your phone at Chinese characters and it displays the pinyin and English definition live. It doesn’t work all all characters (it won’t work on handwriting or embellished fonts) but it’s amazingly accurate and fast.

In addition to the lookup mode, there’s a flashcard mode as well. Once this is enabled and you’ve selected a flashcard category (mine is “Street vocabulary”) you point and hold the phone on a character or phrase and it adds it to your flashcards with no delay.

Usage Examples

  • Pleco OCR for iPhone
    Scanning a book with OCR. Characters go in the green box.

    You want to translate what’s on the menu in front of you (like we did when we published A Sichuan Menu Translated) and save the dishes you don’t know as flashcards so you’ll know them next time.

  • You have a rental agreement from your landlord that you can’t read but want to learn the details of.
  • You’d like to read a newspaper article, novel or short story but looking up words in a dictionary every 2 minutes is too time consuming.
  • And so on.

Example Youtube Clip

In order to demonstrate what this is really like, I filmed a brief clip of me using the OCR feature on an iPhone 4. The video is below but because it’s on Youtube, you won’t be able to see it unless you’re using a VPN. If you’re in China and you aren’t using one, you should! (and then subscribe to our Youtube channel for future videos).

What’s Required to Use This

  • An iPhone 4 or iPhone 3GS. Pleco works on all iPhones, iPad and iPod Touches but OCR only works on newer iPhones. This is because only these newer devices have fast processors and auto-focus capability on the lens. The latest (fourth generation) iPod Touch includes a camera but won’t work because it lacks auto-focus.
  • Pleco, the $15 OCR add-on, and a way to purchase apps on iTunes. This could be a nuisance for some in Mainland China who don’t have an active credit card, but an alternative is to buy iTunes credit on Taobao or elsewhere.
  • A bit of patience. Pleco is pretty much the last rung on the ladder of Chinese study aids on the iPhone for me. And while it is without a doubt the most powerful and extensive application of its kind, it comes with a learning curve. The sheer amount of custom options available in the settings is daunting, and with this many features odd-looking buttons are numerous. It’ll take some time for you to learn to operate quickly but it’s worth it.

Here’s more information on Pleco for iOS on their website.

What tools have you been using to learn Chinese?

33 thoughts on “How to Read Chinese Characters Without Learning Them: Pleco OCR”

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  2. This thing is super cool. Whenever Charlie hangs out with me and my friends I make him whip out the old Pleco and show everbody- hoping that some of the cool will rub off on me by association.

    When you see it in action, it is a little bladerunner-ish.

  3. Is it normal for me to feel stupid for having looked everything up over the years? I wonder what kind of affect this near-instantaneous feature will have on learners. If you can look up words in 2 seconds instead of 45, by how much will your absorption rate increase?

    And then, conversely, you have people who maybe aren’t interested in learning, but just want to read characters. This tool is really powerful for them!

    • No, not at all. Over the last week I’ve been using Pleco OCR to add a few new flash cards per day, but I still use an ordinary notebook to write down new words and phrases. Nothing I’ve found can come close to the action of writing with a good pen on paper.

  4. Man, i just labored over (and signed) a two-page Chinese -character lease with my landlord: “OK, what’s this?” I’d say. “How about this?”. I coulda pulled out this Pleco thingy and shown that sucker! (Actually, he’s a pretty cool and patient guy. Two page lease!)

    • Good to hear – I suspect the number of Pleco users on iPod Touch far outnumbers iPhone users. I saw people talking about different lens attachments available for iPod Touch that increase the clarity and near-field focus capability, too.

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    • OCR on Chinese characters is no joke. I work with engineers who develop OCR applications on iPhone but personally I have a very basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes to make this possible. What Pleco has done is very technically impressive, though. There’s nothing else like this on any platform but I hear that language-learning apps which use OCR technology are just beginning to emerge.

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  7. I couldn’t currently have asked for an even better post. You’re there to provide excellent suggestions, going directly to the point for simple understanding of your readers. Thanks a ton for currently being there individuals like me.

    • This is still a tool that I use on a regular basis. I can’t figure out if it’s helping or hurting my character recognition though. On one hand I can look up anything at anytime, but that kind of instant gratification makes it more difficult to put in real time studying characters. It is really nice to have, though.

    • Hi Tom,

      Yes, it works on iPhone 3G! It’s totally worth getting if you have an iPhone. It won’t work on an iPod Touch though because the camera isn’t auto-focus. No problem on iPhone.

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