4 Reasons I Want the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters

There’s a new Kickstarter project related to learning Chinese definitely worthy of more attention: the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters. I’ve had the pleasure of multiple Skype calls with John and Ash of Outlier Linguistic Solutions, and this project is no joke. They’re out to build something I’ve wished has existed for quite a while, and they’ve got the skills and dedication to make it happen.

The Kickstarter page is packed with explanation, so I won’t rehash the same information you can check out on your own. But I will tell you what’s interesting about this project to me.

  1. It integrates with Pleco. Pleco is already my favorite dictionary, largely because it contains so many different dictionaries. It would be annoying if the Outlier Dictionary were a separate app, and building an app from scratch is a huge drain on resources. So I think this was a smart way to launch the dictionary.
  2. The Outlier founders are learners turned experts (check out this profile). Sure, no one knows Chinese better than the Chinese, but the perspective of a foreigner that has the passion to devote years and years of his life to it is hugely valuable. They have put a lot of thought into the difference between how native speakers learn Chinese and how foreigners learn Chinese, they’ve deconstructed the process, and they’ve come up with a better way for foreigners to learn characters. We learners need this!
  3. The dictionary is academically rigorous. Unlike most dictionaries, it doesn’t hold the legendary 说文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi) as the ultimate infallible reference. In fact, research into mistakes made by the Shuowen are part of the dictionary. This is amazing!
  4. The approach taken to Chinese character structure is new and necessary. I’ve complained about certain products claiming that radicals are a revolutionary way to learn characters. They’re not. In fact, the term “radical” itself is outmoded and confusing, because it’s tied to outdated dead-tree character dictionaries. So the Outlier Dictionary rightly ditches the term “radical” in favor of “functional component,” and it doesn’t stop there. Check out this breakdown:

Outlier Functional Components

OK, but is it too geeky?

One of the concerns I expressed to the Outlier team was that they were building a dictionary for academics that didn’t really serve the practical needs of the average learner. They fervently assured me this was not the case; they are building a dictionary that enables a strong understanding of the system of functional components behind characters, while also enabling curious learners to go as deep as they want in their character studies. This is exactly how it should be done, so I can’t wait to get my hands on this dictionary. I also plan to keep working with the Outlier team and deepen my involvement in their project. I know that clients of AllSet Learning could really use what Outlier is developing.

I’m embedding a demo video at the bottom, but there is a ton of information on the Kickstart page, so check it out!

Outlier Linguistic Solutions — Demo Walkthrough from Outlier Linguistic Solutions on Vimeo.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. David Moser Says: May 20, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Wow! A melding of AllSet and Outlier! Some nice synergy possibilities there — a nice “Sino-splice”, you might say.

  2. Alexander Says: May 20, 2015 at 5:04 pm

    This is the neatest summary of the Kickstarter’s page. Clearly & precisely reviewed, John.

  3. Daniel Lundqvist Says: May 21, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for the heads up! It’s a given to support this.

  4. Peter N-H Says: June 2, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I’ve sponsored this on Kickstarter after receiving an email from Michael Love at Pleco, but I must say it’s in spite of rather than because of their presentation of the project. Poor public speakers; confusion of markets; failure to get straight to answering the ‘What’s in it for me’ question. If the dictionary really is for beginners they’ve done everything they can to drive those away with dry-as-dust presentation. If they haven’t reached target yet I’ve no doubt it’s their failure on this front that’s the cause. Even I’m not entirely sure why I’ve sponsored this. Your not-for-novices explanation above is superior to anything they’ve produced. I wish them luck, nonetheless, and look forward to seeing the finished product. Whatever it is.

  5. […] very happy to report that the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters I wrote about before has met its $75k funding goal. That means that this dictionary will soon be available through […]

  6. Afnan Linjawi Says: July 30, 2015 at 4:57 am

    I like the fact that there is finally an academic resource for learners of the language. Academic resources available on Chinese are geared towards learners who want to understand the language, but towards linguists who have zero interest in learning the language.

  7. Have just received an email update from Outlier Linguistic Solutions saying that one of the founders of the project “unexpectedly left the company last November. He removed the company’s funds and some company property without permission.” They go on to say that they will therefore not be able to meet their target date. This is obviously very serious and very disappointing.

    On a brighter note they say they have signed a contract with a new investor and will deliver something within three months of receiving new funds.

  8. […] back in 2015 I recommended the Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters for Pleco. It’s been a while, but the team has […]

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