Very early on in my studies of Chinese Menu, I ran up against the need to make vocab lists. As discussed in the comments on Friday's post, I think it's well worth making your own notes and vocab lists, rather than relying on those made by other people. Not only does this let you organise (and reorganise) things in a way that makes most sense to you, it also gives you extra opportunities to work with the characters and hence cement them in your brain.
The only really tricky aspect of this is that some of the most common menu characters are actually quite complicated to write, so I found the easiest way to make my vocab lists was on the computer. While you can get away to some extent with just copying and pasting characters from the interweb, it's a lot quicker if you can set up your computer to let you input Chinese characters by typing in pinyin.
Typing in pinyin under OS X (tested on version 10.6.2)
- Go to System Preferences -> Language & Text -> Input Sources.
- Tick the appropriate boxes. I have "Chinese - Traditional / Pinyin - Traditional" ticked.
- I also have "U.S. Extended" ticked, to let me use accents such as ā (ALT-a a), á (ALT-e a), ǎ (ALT-v a), and à (ALT-` a) — these are very useful when you want to input actual pinyin (as opposed to characters) into a document.
- To help me keep track of what language I'm typing in, I also have the "Show Input menu in menu bar" checkbox ticked, which gives me a little country flag on my menu bar that shows me what my current input source is.
- To switch between input sources, press CMD-SPACE.
- Once in pinyin mode, to type a Chinese character just type the pinyin and press SPACE; this will give you a drop-down menu of all the characters that match the pinyin. Use the up and down arrow keys to find the one you want, then press RETURN to select it.
- Handily, the drop-down menu will adapt and learn from your choices, so after you've used it a few times, your most commonly-used characters will appear at the top.
Typing in pinyin under Ubuntu Karmic
On Ubuntu Karmic, one method of acquiring some form of Chinese input is to turn IBus on (via IBus Preferences), then set the keyboard input method system to IBUS (via Language Support). You may or may not need to add IBus to your startup applications.
Cangjie input seems to interpret a space bar keypress as both a break between characters and as a space, so I'm ending up with spaces between all my characters. If anyone knows how to stop this, please let me know.
I'm afraid I can't give instructions for other operating systems — does anyone have any hints to share?
Edit, August 2010: I now have a follow-up post to this.
Looking things up
It is, of course, also very useful to be able to look things up. The website I use most often for this is CantoDict; although it's run by a Cantonese speaker, it also includes Mandarin pronunciations in pinyin, and it makes a point of highlighting when a given character, word, or phrase is restricted to one dialect or the other. If CantoDict can't find the thing I'm searching for, then I check mandarintools.com.
These two aren't the only Chinese lookup tools on the web by any means. If you have a favourite that I haven't mentioned, please feel free to evangelise in comments.