In 2011 Geoffrey Prewett moved to Beijing from the U.S. to work with Happylatte, which develops mobile games like HighNoon, Days of Crime and PeeMonkey. Frustrated with the Chinese dictionaries available at that time, he decided to develop a dictionary that would really help expats find the words they need in the conversation they are having at any point and thus Eight Brains Studios was born. The startup has been beta testing the app on iTunes for some time now and is officially launching the app this week.

“When I came to China, I had a dictionary on my iPhone, but I found that if I needed to go from English to Chinese, I got about 10 words and had no idea which one I should be using. Randomly selecting one did not work well!” says Geoffrey on difficulties he faced while using Chinese language dictionary apps. “The other difficulty was that the definitions did not give me the confidence to learn words.  I discovered that just because the definition for ‘石 shi2′ said ‘rock / stone / stone inscription / an ancient musical instrument’ does not mean that you could actually say ‘shi2′ to mean a stone (like what you might see on the ground), for that you say “shi2tou” (石头).  So I wanted to create a dictionary app that an English speaker could use to confidently learn and use new words without needing to consult a native speaker to verify their understanding of the particular definition.”

Geoffrey adds that Eight Brains Chinese Dictionary has a number of unique features for the expat in China:

Definition List - Milk

An illustration for the search feature which sorts the words by likelihood of the word being the word you are looking for.

1) Search results are sorted by likelihood of the word being the one you want. The result list has information about the HSK level and the written and spoken frequencies, to help the user figure out whether this is the word they are looking for.

2) Custom definitions for the 2400 most common words (in addition to CC-CEDICT definitions for 100,000 words). These definitions have a lot of cross references to other words:  antonyms, the oral (or formal) synonym, and related words.  Also, the meaning of some words changes depending on the grammatical structure it is used in, so that information is provided where relevant.  Some characters cannot really be said by themselves;  if this is the case the definition is colored red.

Finally, meanings of characters within a word are shown (knowing that 闹钟 is noisy + clock helps in remembering the meaning of “alarm clock”), as well as usages of the character/word within other words.

3) Flashcards are integrated in with the dictionary, so you can create lists of the words you need to learn and review them on the subway. Eight Brains Chinese Dictionary also comes with flashcards for the HSK 1, 2, and 3 tests built-in.

4) Summary of Chinese grammar, organized for English speakers. Mandarin courses seem to give a lot of small grammar units, without showing the relationship to each other, so I have organized many of the common grammar structures into related ideas.  For instance, Chinese has no future-tense conjugation, but it does have a number of grammar constructions to talk about the future, so those are all organized into a “Verbs (Future)” section.

5) Ability to take pictures of Chinese characters and scan them.  Take a picture, position the scan rectangle around the character you are interested in, tap scan, and then you can tap the characters to get pronunciation and meaning.  You can also export the scanned characters to the clipboard, or make flashcards out of selected characters.  You can also copy/paste Chinese text (like from an SMS) instead of taking a picture. “I wish I had had this when I was first in China:  I would get messages pasted on my door, or Chinese texts, and I would have to painstakingly draw the character to find the pronunciation, then look up all the characters to figure out if this message was something important or just an advertisement,” adds Geoffrey.

The app costs $6 which gets you all the features – search features especially for English speakers in China, flashcards, character recognition and grammar summary.  Geoffrey thinks expats new to China will find this to be a compelling value.

“I am constantly adding definitions, looking to find ways of identifying recommending which word is actually used and which exists but you probably shouldn’t be using.  I have some ideas for improving the flashcards. I love using character-recognition, and I’m on the lookout for improvements there. I’m working on getting another update pushed soon,” answers Geoffrey when asked about features he is working on to improve the app.

The app was built with the intention of solving the problems the founder faced while using other Chinese dictionaries and this could make the app handy for its target audience.  If you have used the app, share your feedback in the comments section below.