Pleco Review: Read Chinese from Day One

Reading the language independently is an important part of my Chinese project. However, my focus is on speaking. So until I can read a larger amount by myself, I needed a boost to allow me to use the language immediately in everyday situations like making purchases, reading signs, and understanding menus and ingredients on products.

Without being able to read, it would be tempting to retreat away from such situations until I was “ready”, and this is absolutely unacceptable if I’m to get into the flow of speaking. But there is a solution! Even a language like Chinese with a complex writing system, can be worked with if you don’t mind using a little technology!

To do that I’ve been using the Pleco app that I describe in detail, in this video:

[Sorry that it’s 20 minutes long. If you are pressed for time, the coolest part (the OCR feature) starts at the 5:30 point in the video. If you are reading this from a country that blocks Youtube, check out the video on Youku instead].

For much more details about Pleco and its features, please see their website, or download the free version of the app from the iTunes or Android app store.

As I said in the video, the coolest features of the app, like the OCR option are paid. I mention some of the prices in the video (based on Android version, iPhone prices are a little different) and you can decide if it would be worth it, depending on if you’d really need the features, which you may not if you are learning the language without access to printed Chinese, or if most Chinese you read is on your computer (in that case plugins like this one are a big help).

If you are in the country however, then I do recommend you give it a try. (Note that I don’t earn any commission from Pleco, this is just an honest recommendation).

Of course, using this app could be viewed as “cheating”, but as I said in the video it has been helping me to speak more, and it’s been helping me to learn faster, since I can hear the correct pronunciation and read the pinyin (and do some other things like save tough words to review later in a flashcard module), as I see characters that I need to understand and pronounce in the real world.

Use of the app does not count towards the objective of getting the gist of menus and newspapers that I mentioned at the start of the mission, since obviously I need to be doing that myself. In the next post I’ll explain what I’m doing that’s essential in that regard. But I will continue to use this app throughout the mission to make sure that I don’t avoid any situation that presents me with written Chinese I may not be “ready” for yet.

[Keep in mind that one strategy I’m implementing this week is to force myself to speak quicker and not think so much about saying things fully correctly, so I’m well aware that my tones are quite off in many of the brief segments of Chinese I spoke. Please save all thoughts, positive or negative, on my current level for when I upload a video entirely in Mandarin again next week!! ;) ]

I’m happier to share this app with you because I can see that the developer who works on it has been focused on helping people learn Chinese via such apps for quite some time and is quick to accept feedback from those learning the language. It’s presented as a means to help you learn Chinese, and not a replacement for needing to read. Some app devs have been terribly misleading in presenting the usefulness of their gimmicky apps, but luckily that’s not the case here!

Would you use this app to help you read Chinese? Let me know in the comments!



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  • Ken Abel

    When will you do another video in Mandarin?

    • Benny Lewis

      PLEASE read the blog post!

  • Karol Moroz

    Hi Benny,
    I am quite new to reading your language blog. I found it a few weeks ago when I typed into Google – just for fun – the phrase “how to become a polyglot”. It’s quite funny, you know, as I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a year and a half now. Wasn’t it destiny that led me to your website?As for Pleco, I first heard of it during my visit in Beijing in August. The app is really, really great! I do think it is the best reason to buy an Android phone at all. It helps a lot when I’m bored at school and want to look up some weird word in the dictionary. I also downloaded the free HanDeDict dictionary and I’m using the funny way of checking German words :)
    Good luck,

  • Daniel Hershcovich

    Thanks for this very detailed review! I downloaded the Pleco app about two weeks ago, but I haven’t used it a lot because I am not in Taiwan or China and I am not exposed to a lot of Chinese material.

    I used to write a lot of Japanese kanji for practice, so I have a good intuition about the stroke order and particles. I think it’s fun and also a good way to get to know the characters.

    I can’t wait to see your second Mandarin video – I’ve tried out a lot of languages using Pimsleur, and so far Mandarin is pretty much my favorite. It is so logical yet interesting, and there are so many cool people I can relate to using it :)

    About this video – again, I think it’s a great review, but you started repeating yourself near the end. You could probably cut some of it out.

    Oh, and I hope you’re enjoying your Galaxy S2 :)
    I was thinking of getting one, because it seems like a seriously good phone, but so far I’m fine with my Nexus S.

  • Aje

    Mba’eichapa pyhare! Reñe’êpa avañe’ê?
    As a fellow language nut I have been wrestling with Guaraní (Paraguayan) for the past year. Does anyone else share this lunacy? There is a very good web-site called “Guarnime” run by a former  Peace Corps volunteer named Paulette Perhach.

  • Benny Lewis

    It DOES work on an iPod touch! The new ones come with a camera and their website confirms that it works on iPod touches – only apps that use cellphone features ever really require an iPhone over an iPod touch. You’re not forced to do anything – OCR will never work without a camera, period :)

  • Anonymous

    Congrats on the write-up!

    • Aje

      Do I take it that you are also interested in this obscure but fascinating language? There must be some Guarani speakers in Ireand. Most Paraguayans are bilingual although there seem to be very few of them here. I decided to learn a smattering to pepper my correspondence with my many Paraguayan friends with the occasional word or phrase.

    • Benny Lewis

      Thanks! See the next post, since I talked about it!

  • Benny Lewis

    I stand corrected! Good thing I didn’t say iPod touch in the video then…
    Was aware of the price differences; it’s why I said to go to their site for up to date (and system relevant) prices.

    Hopefully next video coming next week. Want it to be an interesting one rather than just me speaking to the camera!

  • Brad Patterson

    Pleco is awesome.  I’ve been using it the past 2 years.   Highly recommend.

    Your tones sounded pretty good in the start of the video, Benny.  Looking forward to seeing how well you can do in 3 months.  Lived in China for 3 years and thought I did great compared to other foreigners in learning… still wouldn’t consider myself fluent… definitely fluid, though!  Tough, but wonderful language.

    新年快乐, Brad

  • Gweipo Ster

    i’ve been using Pleco for years with my chinese – (in the good old pre-OCR days even!) I’ve found the best feature when you’re learning the reading and writing is the flash card feature with the spaced repetition – that really rocks to drill you only on what you need to study as it phases out what you know.  Also you can test your tones, your stroke order, your reading or writing.

  • Benny Lewis

    Yes, that is funny!

  • Anonymous

    Great review!

    Personally, I found OCR to be more or less useless after the novelty wore off.  Definitely a cool feature for showing off but rather gimmicky.  Nowhere near worth $15 in my opinion.As someone who has lived in China for the last few years, I find it much more fun and beneficial to ask the waitresses or other customers to explain the menu. It gives you a great excuse to engage others in conversation. Many shy people can take advantage of this “excuse”.If you are living in a Chinese-speaking country there are always people out there to ask and you can do so even with pretty basic Mandarin. When they speak back to you, you can practise interpreting their sounds as pinyin and then use pinyin to look words up. Maybe not as quick as OCR, but much better for language-learning.Most importantly, this approach helps you to engage with real people rather than having your face stuck to your screen (which has the added effect of making you less approachable).In summary, I would say OCR is useful when you are at home reading a book or maybe you are a tourist and have no interest in progressing in the language.  Otherwise, a gimmick.I’ve been following you for a while now (stalker, haha!) and from your methodologies I would expect you agree with me!?  In fact, I’m surprised you would recommend a $15 OCR package at all…Benny – maybe you could do a post about how to approach real-life situations without OCR?

  • David_LloydJones


    A pleasure to see your good site. I just dropped in to see if you could help me with my Putonghua, and indeed you could: thanks for the pointer to Pleco, which I have now installed.

    A small note on Japanese (not that you need my advice, because your attitudes are sensible and sound, imho, to a degree that is very rare among people learning languages: Highest congratulations!). I lived in Japan from 1972 to 1984, and built the first four hundred coin laundries, or more like all of the first ten, most of the first hundred, and four hundred of the first few hundred… so I speak the language well enough to do business, to read a real estate contract upside down on the other guy’s desk, and to get myself elected to my daughters’ school board. On the other hand, despite using the language almost full time for eight years, my accent will never be anything but strange.

    Anyway, the one and only thing I have to tell you, and you must engrave this on your liver: always respect the long vowels and the doubled consonants. If you will keep to that simple rule you will at avoid most, not all, but most of the errors that make foreigners sound like barbarians as they mangle Japanese.

    Finally, a light note for you. Back in the sixties I had a part-time job reading gas meters while I was in college. Toronto being a highly multi-cultural city, I memorized a script, sort of “Hi, I’m from the gas company, and I’d like to read…” in 28 languages. At one point I was greeted at the door by an eight or ten year old girl and I gambled on Urdu.

    “خوش. میں نے گیس کمپنی سے ہوں، اور …” I started out, and it turned out I’d bet correctly. She went screaming to the kitchen, “Grandma, grandma! He speaks our language!”

    “Of course he does, dear,” she said, calming the child down. “He’s from the gas company.”

    Not impressed at all. I was totally taken for granted!



  • wutato

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard of OCR!!! I wish I had heard of this kind of application a long time ago…

    • Joe Davis

      If you’re using Android, you should definitely give Hanping Chinese Camera a try. Much better user interface and superior character recognition too.

      • wutato

        Unfortunately, I have an iPhone. Thanks for the recommendation, though. :)

        • Joe Davis

          You should consider switching to Android – many of Pleco’s add-ons are cheaper and those you’ve already bought can be transferred over. Also Android has a free Anki app (AnkiDroid). And, of course, Hanping.

  • ideamost

    One of the most wonderful parts about learning Chinese by using this
    app is completely knowing the Chinese common expression and finding out what
    they mean. Before I discovered TalkingLearn
    — Learn Chinese, this rarely happened because it’s really difficult to
    find a way for a starter to speak
    a fluent and accurate Chinese in a shorter time.

    Now that I have TalkingLearn
    — Learn Chinese, following the native speaker’s pronunciation and accent
    in short dialogues. The most important thing is that this app has six levels – Chinese
    learning for Beginner, Learner, and Superior. In most cases, it
    has considered different learners including both novices and experts.
    That’s very considerate.

    The character recognition puts this app over the top. After 4 years
    in China, I can finally survive with my oral Chinese by using this app. In the
    beginning, some warm-hearted Chinese friends tried to teach me Chinese, but we
    usually meet the scheduling conflicts. This app fills that gap perfectly. I can
    use it at anytime and anywhere. It’s really my essential companion. I love it
    very much.

    In total, it’s a must have app for the people who want to study
    Chinese urgently.

    Web links:

  • Daniel Hershcovich

    Eu acho que não é necessario ser um engenheiro eletrônico para aprender como utilizar esse applicação. Me sembra bastante façil, não é? :)
    (Espero que o meu Português não tém de mais palavras italianas. Na proxima véz vou utilizar um diccionario.)