Sunday, 23 September 2007

Language learning on FOSS vs OSX

My primary desktop is OSX and for the most part, it suits my purpose well. 99% of the time, everything just works, there are few hassles and things behave the way you expect them to. The Ubuntu releases are close but not quite there yet for me.

As great a desktop as OSX is though, it only shines in the most commonly used functions. In many niche areas, FOSS can provide superior solutions by virtue of the huge variety of applications, developers and freedom to develop on it. One such area that comes to mind these days is language learning.

I'm barely able to read in Chinese and trying to work my way through a website or document is pretty much impossible without a dictionary. I particularly need a dictionary that can immediately translate words I highlight on screen. On OSX, the options are pretty limited. Most solutions are shareware or paid software. Right now I'm using TranslateIt! which works fairly well. I highlight the word(s) I want translated, hit a keyboard combination and TranslateIt! pops up, hopefully with the translations. It is one extra step though. The paid version for TranslateIt! includes the functionality to get immediate translation after I highlight it.

My colleagues on FOSS desktops don't need to pay for this. StarDict comes with most distributions and does the highlight/translate thing right out of the box. It's invaluable in a mixed Chinese/English environment like Exoweb. Besides the software, the power of FOSS shows up in StarDict's dictionaries, which are varied and extremely useful. So much so that TranslateIt! actually uses StarDict dictionaries and all the translations I am using are StarDict's. Without StarDict, TranslateIt! would actually be useless to me.

My favorite StarDict dictionaries include (all zh_CN -> en):

  • cedict-gb dictionary (has pinyin and tone marks. Must have)
  • langdao-ce-gb (a much larger vocabulary but translations sometimes not precise. No pinyin)
  • Chinese idiom dictionary (a dictionary translating chinese idioms. Unfortunately the translations are chinese->chinese and some colleagues have said its translations are suspect)

Two are under the GPL while the cedict library is under its own license similar to cc-by-nc.

While I'm sticking to TranslateIt! until such time StarDict works natively under OSX, I would simply be unable to read anything at all in Chinese without StarDict's dictionaries.

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