Can Westerners use Chinese dictionaries?
If a Westerner wants to learn Chinese, he or she can best learn through a language called "pinyin". Pinyin is a phonetic system that is considered a “romanization" of the Chinese language, and most of those who study CSL begin by learning pinyin. Even Chinese youngsters learn with pinyin since Chinese characters give no hint to their pronunciation. Mass literacy was not the goal of the ancient scholars.
By teaching pinyin, students learn how to pronounce the characters. The learned pinyin characters and words can become a learning dictionary. There are some problems even with pinyin: The main disadvantage to romanization is that students often have preconceived ideas about the pronunciation of the Roman alphabet. For example, the Pinyin letter “q" has a “ch" sound, and it can take some effort to make this association.
When the student graduates from a workbook vocabulary list to a dictionary, more problems are encountered. Part of the problem with using a dictionary is that sooner or later (usually sooner) the CSL student runs into a word that is not in their workbook. To improve vocabulary, we use dictionaries with characters, pinyin, and the native language of the student. Pinyin dictionaries are not organized in strictly alphabetical order. They are organized by Chinese character and then by alphabetical order. Ren, the basic character for “man" is followed in my dictionary by “rencai", a talented man and “renzhong", an ethnic group. Following this are the listings for “ren" representing benevolence and then ren’ai and so forth. If you do not know the characters, you will have trouble using the dictionary.
There is no way to avoid learning characters if we want to learn Chinese.