Wenlin, which was recently updated to version 4.0, is one of the oldest examples of computer software that caters to students of Mandarin. Favored by academics and scholars, the program has been around since the days of Windows 95, and as such, it has built up a solid collection of tools for the language learner.
Devoted users have plenty of reasons to rave about Wenlin.
Looking up vocabulary words is fast compared with thumbing through a traditional printed dictionary. You can decipher Chinese and English documents with greater speed thanks to Wenlin’s built-in text viewer and editor, which has an “instant look-up” feature. And the dictionary entries are top-notch, sourced from the best: John DeFrancis’ ABC Chinese-English and English-Chinese Dictionaries.
Wenlin doesn’t make a great first impression, though. It takes some getting used to, mostly because of its obtuse user interface, which is stuck in 1995.
When I first opened Wenlin, it wasn’t clear what to do. There is no search bar of the type we’ve been trained to use in the age of Google. All that appears is a white screen divided into two sections and a sidebar with a handful of symbols (which are unintelligible if you don’t read Chinese characters).
Of course, looks aren’t everything. You’ll find that Wenlin’s big white screen is sort of an all-purpose search box/scratchpad/dictionary. Type in a word or a phrase, in English or Chinese (Hanyu pinyin or Chinese characters), place the cursor over the word, and the definition appears at the bottom on the bottom half of the screen. That’s the aptly named “instant look-up” feature, and it’s very handy for quickly learning the meaning of an unfamiliar word.
Because of this, Wenlin is well suited for reading. Say you have a Word document or a Web page you’re trying to make sense of, whether it’s in Chinese or English. Just copy the text, paste it into Wenlin and move the cursor to whatever unfamiliar word you spot. It worked like a charm with a Chinese article I copied and pasted from the Central News Agency’s Web site.
Yes, you can do the same thing in a Web browser — Firefox and Chrome have free extensions with pop-up dictionaries — but Wenlin’s dictionaries are of much better quality and the software provides a better reading experience. The page is less cluttered as the definitions pop up at the bottom and the experience is smoother as a whole. (I find that using pop-up dictionaries on Chrome and Firefox tends to slow the browser down.) And for any material you paste into Wenlin, you can save it to read again later.
It’s easy to dig deep into the definition of a word with Wenlin, which contains a rich amount of data in both Chinese and English. Say you’re reading a document and you find a word in the instant look-up screen, but you want more detailed information. Simply highlight the word (after choosing the “hand cursor” from the sidebar), and a new window pops up that shows the full dictionary entry.
A typical entry includes examples of the word used in a sentence, helpful for checking context and typical usage, and a long list of other clickable options designed to aid one’s understanding of the language. For instance, you can have Wenlin list the most common instances of a Chinese character. Under the entry for “harmony” or he (和), I clicked on the arrow that says “list words containing” and got these: heping (和平, peace), gonghe (共和, republic), wenhe (溫和, mild and temperate), among hundreds of other compound words.