Read my lips: When Chinese is too Chinese for me

Monday 14 November 2011, 5.47am HKT

How do you read Chinese when you only speak it?

Consider my situation:

  1. I can’t read or write Chinese (or, pedantically, Standard Written Chinese) — regardless of the characters are in Simplified or Traditional Chinese.
  2. I can almost recognise maybe two dozen Traditional Chinese characters, so long as they are related to food items.
  3. I can’t speak a word of Mandarin (although my folks are Mandarin speakers).
  4. I am a native speaker of Cantonese (but I am not Cantonese).

In deference to Google Translate, it’s balls to me — it throws up only Mandarin results, and therefore useless to an out-and-out Canto-mummer.

So, you see, my only recourse would be to find something that turns written Chinese into Cantonese transliterations or sounds rather than the usual Mandarin ones.

What to do?

* * *


After much sweaty searching around, it seems the Cantonese mafia has finally come up with this:

Cantonese-English Popup Dictionary for Chrome

Basically, this is a Chrome extension for Windows users. It works by mouse-overing some Chinese characters and a pop-up shows the Cantonese pronunciations and definitions. Not a winner but it IS workable and gets the job done.

Overall steps:

  • Windows + Chrome/Chromium browser
  • Install the Mouseover Dictionary Framework (MDF) extension
  • Install the Chinese-English Dictionary extension
  • Install the Cantonese-English Dictionary extension
  • Mouse over some Chinese words
  • Popup shows Cantonese pronunciations and definitions
  • ?????
  • Profit!
* * *

Step 1

Install the Mouseover Dictionary Framework (MDF)


MDF (by is a dictionary manager extension for Chrome for popup (mouseover) dictionary extensions by providing functionalities such as getting text under the cursor, displaying search results with popup and keyboard shortcuts.

Installation takes a while (around a full 1½ minutes), so be patient.

N.B. MDF is installed in disabled state. The new version (v1.0) includes features that need additional permissions from you. For security reasons, any older version installed is disabled at the time of auto-update. Re-enable MDF in the Chrome browser’s Extensions management page (chrome://extensions/). For more information, read the release notes:

* * *

Step 2

Install the Chinese-English Dictionary


This dictionary (also by is actually a Chrome extension and acts as a front end to CC-CEDICT (, a widely used Mandarin-English dictionary file that offers you a variety of ways to look up Chinese characters in it.

Again, it takes a fair while for it to install (around 1½ minutes), so have a pee while it trudges along.

* * *

Step 3

Install the Cantonese-English Dictionary


This extension (uploaded by verschoter) helps you quickly look up Cantonese words by hovering the mouse pointer over them or using the searchbox.

Again, installation takes a minute or two, so be patient or grab some coffee.

ASIDE: This dictionary was compiled by writecantonese8 (blogpost link here) using data from “Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life” by Kingsley Bolton (originally Christopher Hutton and Kingsley Bolton).

That book is out of print but is still available direct from its publisher:

Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life
by Kingsley Bolton
ISBN 9781850654193
Published in January 2005 by C. Hurst & Company
Hardback, 492 pages
Price £45

C. Hurst & Company (Publishers) Limited
41 Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3PL
United Kingdom
Telephone +44 (0)20 7255 2201

Direct URL to book:

This is no slang dictionary — it’s actually a mainstream dictionary of Cantonese but with slang and foul language added as extras. The book title doesn’t do justice to the contents.

From what I read in some Cantonese-related online forums, the author apparently wanted to update the dictionary with prison slang and outdated slang from the past, thereby aiming to make the dictionary a record of Cantonese usage.

* * *

Step 4

How to use 

Dictionary icon should show up in Chrome’s top bar.

  1. Every time you use the dictionary, click on the dictionary icon and select Cantonese-English Dictionary in the dropdown menu.
  2. Give it a few seconds for the dictionary to load.
  3. When the blue label changes to “ZH,” click Reload and it’s ready to use.
  4. Hover the mouse pointer over a Chinese word, or use type Chinese into the searchbox located in the dictionary icon’s dropdown menu.
  5. A popup will show Cantonese pronunciations and definitions.

You can change the style (appearance) of the popup window in the Options page.

* * *


No software is perfect, and this one comes with its own anomaly.

Like the compiler (writecantonese8) said in his/her blogpost, the Cantonese-English Dictionary extension was built for Mandarin originally, so some tone marks for Cantonese are in fact still rendered for Mandarin instead of the usual Yale romanisation marks.

The fact that you’ve got to load the dictionary every time you use it is not exactly user-friendly, but it’ll do with an user-unfriendly language like Cantonese (no, Cantonese is not a dialect, honestly speaking).

* * *


One of the original compilers ( has made a further modified version of the Cantonese-English Dictionary that can handle Yale romanisation correctly (plus adding several features).

  1. Download that modified extension [here].
  2. Unzip the downloaded file.
  3. Type chrome://extensions/ in the browser addressbar.
  4. Press Load unpacked extension button and choose the folder just created.
  5. Update your extension if you like it.
* * *

Firefox version

See blogpost below about the Firefox version of the Cantonese-English Popup Dictionary:

© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2011. Images via writecantonese8.

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