Why Chinese Toolbox?

Chinese Toolbox has been developed out of the belief that in this age of computers, there has to be a better and faster way to learn Chinese, especially for those who mainly use computers to write and who don’t need to write characters by hand. This program has been the developer’s experiment into finding such a new way.

Learn by Doing—Reading

If you understand the basics of Chinese and if you have ample opportunity to practice speaking Chinese, you should be able to perfect your understanding and use of the language by reading, listening and speaking. “Learn by doing”, and the doing here is reading. Reading Chinese in the past was a big problem, but this has been solved in many programs and websites with instant dictionary lookup.

Today, one aspect of learning Chinese continues to be a problem. For a person of average intelligence, the volume of information to keep track of with Chinese is enormous. Some good flash card applications attempt to solve this through spaced-repetition review. If you want to read a newspaper, you need to learn 3000-4000 characters. For each of these characters, you need to remember what the character looks like (its structure and components), its pronunciation, its tone, and its meaning. Many characters have entirely different pronunciations and meanings in different contexts. To learn 3000 characters with a flashcard program, you need to learn or test yourself on at least 12,000 bits of information. After “learning” many characters, you may still have difficulty understanding a story or article, all characters of which your have already “learned”. By the way, 3000 is very conservative; over 27,000 characters exist in the Chinese Toolbox (Unihan) character dictionary.

If your goal is to be able to read and communicate in Chinese, then why not just do what you’re trying to do. With instant lookup of a Chinese reading assistant, getting to the meaning of characters and words in Chinese is easy, and reading Chinese is so much easier than in the past. If you will read and keep reading, your reading will be your review, and you won’t need to constantly review characters in a flashcard program.

Focus on What’s Important

Because there’s so much to learn with Chinese, one of the main goals of Chinese Toolbox was to separate that which is known from the unknown. Have you ever had difficulty finding something in a desk, room, or house just because there’s so much to look through. There needed to be a way in Chinese Toolbox to set aside what no longer needed to be learned (remove the clutter). When you mark a character or word as Known, that entry no longer automatically appears in your reading; your view won’t be cluttered with what you already know. What is not marked as Known is, obviously, Unknown, and these are the characters and words of Chinese you need to focus on.

The Known and Unknown lists can be copied and exported so you can review them as you wish in other programs or websites. You can also specify to view document-specific Unknown lists, or view combined Unknown lists for all documents.

Documents in Chinese Toolbox

The ability to import and study multiple documents simultaneously has obvious value, but there is a lot more planned for this in upcoming releases. Eventually, Chinese Toolbox will maintain the context of where you learn a certain character or word. When you view a character or word dictionary entry, you will instantly be able to see where it is that you’ve read that character or word in your previous studies.

What Chinese Toolbox Is

Chinese Toolbox is not merely a Chinese dictionary, or a Chinese reader program, or a Chinese reading assistant. It is a set of integrated software tools to help you focus on learning to read Chinese, and in learning to read, you are learning the language itself: radicals, characters, Chinese words, phrases, idioms, how words and phrases contextually fit together. The more and better you’re able to read, the better you’ll be able to communicate verbally with others. Features are built in to the program to help you do more reading and less translating. Other Chinese reader programs provide automatic lookup of word and character definitions, but no other program helps you to rely less on dictionaries through marking for unassisted reading.

Not a Replacement for a Chinese Class

If you want to learn Chinese, you should take a class or have an environment where you can practice speaking Chinese. Ideally, you should also be writing Chinese characters by hand. Chinese Toolbox 2012 cannot help much with your writing or conversation. Other resources, like real teachers, are needed to build up those skills. Some other programs and websites can also help. If you are serious about learning Chinese, reading will be a part of your study regime, and this is where Chinese Toolbox can help.

What Sets Chinese Toolbox Apart

The following are the key aspects of Chinese Toolbox that set it apart from other Chinese reading programs.

  1. Designed for learning, not just dictionary lookup: Chinese Toolbox helps you to focus your efforts by separating and keeping track of what you’ve learned (Known list), what you need to learn (Need-To-Learn list), and what you haven’t yet learned (Unknown list). Frequency lists (dynamic and published) represent what you should learn. These lists can all be exported for use in third-party flashcard programs, such as Pleco and Anki.
  2. Document Analysis: This feature helps to determine the value (in learning investment) of studying a certain document or set of documents. The analysis compares the current document or all loaded documents against the currently selected character frequency list. A summary appears on screen after the analysis is complete with the text of the complete analysis written to a file. The “Document Analysis Settings” window provides configuration options for the analysis.
  3. Multiple documents: Chinese Toolbox allows you to maintain up to 1000 documents and conveniently switch between them. Each time you switch documents, characters and Chinese words you had marked as Known in one document will show up correctly parsed in the document you’re switching to. You can name documents as you see fit with document names appearing in the Documents menu of the main window. With the Unknown tab context menu you can specify whether to show unknown characters and words for the current document only, or for all documents. Support for multiple documents is also integrated into the Document Analysis feature, as well as the Flashcard export feature.
  4. Dynamic character frequency list: Character frequency lists are commonly available for studying Chinese, but Chinese Toolbox dynamically keeps track of the characters you see most frequently. Each time you import a document into Chinese Toolbox, the characters of the text are counted and added to previous tallies. When you click on the Character Frequency tab of the Reader, a list of characters is shown beginning with the most frequently occurring character. By regularly reviewing this list, you can ensure that you are focusing your attention on the characters that occur most frequently in your reading. A checkbox in the Settings dialog, “Show details in Character Frequency display”, allows you to switch from a simple view of the character frequency list (showing only characters) to one with a little more information (character position in the list).
  5. Published character frequency lists: Two published character frequency lists are integrated into Chinese Toolbox; they are accessible from the Frequency List menu. One is primarily for simplified characters and the other for traditional characters. Like the dynamic character frequency list, these can help you to focus your learning efforts on characters that occur most frequently in Chinese texts.
  6. Access online resources within Chinese Toolbox: Anyone who studies Chinese these days uses online resources from a number of different websites. With Web Links, you can connect these websites to Chinese Toolbox. Clicking on one of these web links does not merely open a website in your browser. It shows the Chinese character (that you’re currently viewing) in the target of the web link, usually an online dictionary website. One of the web links plays the sound of the character from an online dictionary.
  7. Reader text parsing control: Chinese reading assistants display the meanings of words according to rules built into the software. Sometimes part of a person’s name and the text that either precedes or follows the name may be incorrectly marked by a Chinese reading assistant as being a word when, in the context, it is not a word at all. Chinese Toolbox provides keyboard shortcuts that give you more control over how Chinese text is parsed. Ctrl-D marks selected characters as a word. Ctrl-T temporarily removes a word from the word dictionary for the current run of the program only. And Ctrl-E permanently removes a word from the dictionary.
  8. Two customizable dictionaries: Unihan, a character dictionary from Unicode.org and CC-CEDICT, a community supported dictionary. Character and word definitions appear automatically as you advance through the reader text.
  9. Characters are time-stamped when selected. Chinese Toolbox keeps track of when characters were last viewed. Initially, characters do not have time stamps. Each time you select a character in the Reader, or view the character in the dictionary, a time stamp is either attached to the character, or the previous time stamp is updated. The context menu of the Known tab in the Reader allows you to specify whether or not to view characters in timestamp order, with the oldest characters (in terms of timestamp) displayed first. In a future release, timestamping will be the basis of a review system.
  10. Data can be customized. All frames with red borders can receive text input.
  11. Most data can be exported, modified, and reimported. When character dictionary and character understanding data is exported, it can be processed, analyzed, modified or selectively replaced. The Word Dictionary exists as a text file (cedict_ts.u8) in the Chinese Toolbox program directory. This file can be edited or replaced with an updated version from the mdbg.net website.
  12. The program can be used offline.
  13. Help Tips and Online Help: The “Help Tips” feature is designed to provide concise and to-the-point guidance to help you understand how to use Chinese Toolbox. More complete help is available for each tip by clicking on the “Online help” button.
  14. Still evolving: The vision of an effective tool for learning Chinese existed long before Chinese Toolbox debuted in 2007, and the process of envisioning, designing, and developing still goes on. If Chinese Toolbox does not have the feature you’re looking for, just check back later. Better yet, send an email with your feature request.