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I'm trying to learn Chinese from books, online tutorials, but mostly from Rosetta Stone. I'm just starting, so there's still a lot I'm probably not understanding - so I don't know if I'm even asking this question right...

I would like to know how to take pinyin text with tone marks, and translate it into either English, or Chinese characters (which I could then Google-translate into English). I have found things like the Google Pinyin Input on Android, but you just type letters without tone marks, and it shows you a bunch of choices.

Since I don't know the Chinese characters at all, I don't know which to pick - and the input doesn't work if I type the tone mark myself.

For example, if I type ma, I get the characters and - one means "horse", and ones means something else - one of them is and one is ma, but I have to go through about 4 steps to figure out which is which, so if I'm trying to translate even a simple sentence, it takes forever.

Is there a good tool, app, website, etc., which would help me here? I'm really open to just about any solution on the web, or mobile, or on Windows.

  • A lot of comments interestingly discourage you from learning chinese this way, which I don't understand. Clearly you're starting from the beginning, and therefore characters aren't natural to you. To type at all in chinese isn't easy, but I don't see what's so bad about trying to learn Chinese as a beginner has to.. – sqrtbottle Jun 1 '15 at 22:54
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I suggest that you shouldn't do this.

Chinese characters cannot be faithfully constructed backwards from a tone+syllable combination -- the mapping only goes one way (and even then, sometimes characters have multiple pronunciations).

For example, as you know, 馬 is generally pronounced ma3.

However, ma3 could also reference the characters 碼 (number), or 獁 (mammoth). Without context, you do not know to which I am referring if I simply write ma3.

As you amass a vocabulary, you will start to notice patterns that will give you an intuition for which character is meant by the English pinyin, with or without tone markings.

The following two Pinyin sentences are equally comprehensible to someone with a beginning Mandarin level, as the context far dominates tone markings:

ni shi bu shi wo de pengyou

ni3 shi4 bu2 shi4 wo3 de5 peng2you5

The reader would assume:

你是不是我的朋友

Eventually, soon, you will not find it useful to use tone markings when typing Pinyin. Because it is a hassle to type, and any IME worth its salt will give you the contextually correct characters. This is probably the reason such converters don't exist.

I suggest you focus your efforts instead on learning more vocabulary and reading as much as possible. The false answers from your Pinyin IME suggestion will become obviously incorrect in your eyes.

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    Thank you - I think this was a piece of the puzzle I was missing. I (wrongly apparently) assumed that pinyin/pronunciation did translate directly into characters. I'll give it more time and patience with Rosetta Stone and just deal with the contexts as I come across them. – Joe Enos Jun 1 '15 at 22:57
  • I thought you could say 你是不是我的朋友 or 你是我的朋友吗, but not 你是不是我的朋友吗. Is this not correct? – Peter Olson Jun 2 '15 at 1:48
  • @Peter yep you are right – Mindless Jun 2 '15 at 6:07
  • @PeterOlson you're right, sorry. I fixed it. – ash Jun 2 '15 at 13:39
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You kind of hit a snag without knowing Chinese characters (hanzi), because there are so many homophones in chinese, especially without tones. In your example of 吗 and 马, they both have different tones which you don't type at all, and actually typing ma for me gives about 15 different characters to choose from.

In fact, even words like 终止 and 中止 sound identical with tones, so you only distinguish them in writing.

The best IME I can think of, so that it will 9/10 pick the right characters for you is sogou. There's other software you can use, but none of it's as accurate. If you really insist on software that uses English, google's IME is okay, but nowhere near as good as sogou (they actually had a legal incident in the past for plagarizing sogou's database).

With any IME, sometimes you can't tell which character's right, and for this, I advise http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Main_Page. Search the character, and it'll give you the meaning of that character, to help you pick out the one that's right. This also jumpstarts your character learning, which you'll need to do one way or another.

I'm sympathetic to you as a learner, based off the nature of chinese typing. You'll need to learn the characters one way or another, but everyone has to start from the bottom up! It's a long process, and one that requires many hundred (or even thousand) wiktionary searches by this method, but you'll make progress eventually.

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    Thank you - this helps a lot. I'll take a look at sogou, but it sounds like I just need to be patient and learn a little at a time, and the understanding and context will follow. – Joe Enos Jun 1 '15 at 22:59
  • That's the best choice, I think. And, enjoy learning Chinese! I think you'll gain a lot from the experience as much as from the learning itself! – sqrtbottle Jun 1 '15 at 23:01
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This is why you have to learn the actual characters first, and read and write in the actual characters. Pinyin helps indicate the pronunciation, nothing more. There is no tool that can help you distinguish between hundreds of characters equally represented by one string of Roman letters.

  • The fact of the matter is, pinyin's the most common input method for all chinese on computers. There is software that distinguishes better than others, even if none is perfect – sqrtbottle Jun 1 '15 at 22:46
  • Yes, but based on his question he only has the pinyin and not the actual characters. In other words he's asking for an inverse function from many values to one. That is impossible. – Yang Jun 1 '15 at 22:49
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I think you should buy a beginners 'learn Chinese' book, like HSK 1 thro 3. It will have pinyin typed above the characters, with the tone marks. Even Chinese children have pinyin in their books. Whatever input method you are using, you can then start typing characters, and so familiarize yourself with typing Chinese. Internet translators are notoriously bad. I have a children's version of 'Journey to the West', it is still hard work for me!

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As for the last part of the original question, what tools do exist for learning Chinese ...

as everyone has said, pinyin can't be "translated" automatically, but there's a ton of help out there for learning Chinese.
Here is the page in this website with many, many tools to consider
and the section specifically for dictionaries is
this one :-)

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