Interest in learning Chinese continues to increase around the world, but picking up the language can still be quite a challenge for non-native speakers unfamiliar with the written characters. Unlike with alphabetic languages, which are structured using letters, looking up a Chinese word in the dictionary can be a daunting task for beginners who don’t yet have a good grasp of stroke counts and pronunciation.
However, a new app has been launched to help students overcome such difficulties.
The Education University of Hong Kong’s CKC Centre for the Development of Information Technology in Chinese Language Teaching recently developed a groundbreaking smartphone application. It incorporated optical character recognition (OCR) technology into its online Chinese dictionary and, by doing so, facilitates language acquisition and faster learning.
“With OCR, the task of digging up the right word is passed to the electronic device,” said Dr Tse Ka-ho, Deputy Director of the CKC Centre. “A user simply has to upload a picture of an unfamiliar character, and the application will recognise it and provide the meaning and correct pronunciation. Incredibly, the application can reliably identify images of typed, handwritten or printed texts of both traditional and simplified Chinese characters, with over 99 per cent accuracy.”
For ethnic minority students in Hong Kong, lack of proficiency in Chinese can pose problems in the long run when it comes to securing a job or integrating into mainstream society.
“To cater to students from such backgrounds, the dictionary also provides explanations in Hindi and Urdu for frequently used words,” Tse says. “In addition, there are audio files in both Cantonese and Mandarin.”
The comprehensive database contains more than 24,000 words, including rarely used characters such as “龘” and “驫” (meaning “the appearance of dragon flying” and “horses galloping in a herd”, respectively). This ensures that learners, regardless of their initial level of proficiency, can progress quickly and keep learning.
The free mobile app is available on iOS and Android, and the CKC Centre team is currently looking to enhance the app so that it can also identify compound words and, eventually, provide the meaning and pronunciation of full sentences. A version for Vietnamese speakers is also in the pipeline through a partnership with the University of Languages and International Studies in Vietnam.
Tse expects it will be possible to further adapt the search engine to support more languages, including Russian, that are spoken in throughout Belt and Road countries.
“We are targeting anyone who is interested in learning Chinese,” he says. “We want to make learning this language, which is considered difficult, easy and fun.”
The app can be downloaded from the following links:
Edited by John Cremer