to Japanese Language Tools
You're on your way to having the best Japanese language tool money can buy. You've probably looked into denshi jisho (electronic dictionaries like the Canon Wordtank series)—if you're in Japan, you've certainly seen your Japanese friends and colleagues punching furiously away at theirs. Denshi jisho are the perfect language tools for the users they were designed for: native Japanese who need help with English. They can be quite useful for those of us in the opposite circumstance, as well, but there's something much better out there.
This is a solution designed around the needs of non-native Japanese speakers who want help with Japanese. Basically, you get a personal digital assistant (PDA) or smartphone and load it up with a good dictionary reader program and various dictionaries. And you can do it easily.
There are two ways to go.
- First, you can buy a complete system all set up and ready to use. By buying a complete system, you don't have to worry about the most difficult part of the set up for Windows Mobile: getting a PDA that can deal with Japanese (you can't read or write Japanese in a regular English version of Windows Mobile). Plus, you get a deluxe set-up for less than you'd pay to buy an equivalently capable device and set it up yourself.
- Second, you can buy your own PDA, phone, or tablet and set it up yourself. This site has extensive instructions for setting up the system on a Windows Mobile OS PDA or phone (hard to set up, but makes the best dictionary--note this is NOT the same as Windows Phone); an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch (easy to set up and use, good for most users, but inadequate for serious study or if you need to read Japanese often); and an Android phone or tablet (better than an iPhone etc. for Japanese, but still limited compared for the serious user unless you get one of the Samsung Galaxy Note series, which because of the precise stylus input is almost as good as the old Windows Mobile PDAs for Japanese). The JLT dictionaries can also be used on a Windows or Mac computer, laptop, or tablet (excellent but not as portable as the devices above), Linux computer, and other platforms. Of the truly portable devices, Windows Mobile makes the best Japanese dictionary--it's got the best Japanese support and dictionary program--but any of the Galaxy Note phones and tablets are a close-enough second for any but the most heavy user.
Why is the PDA/Smartphone dictionary better than a denshi jisho?
Denshi jisho (Canon Wordtank, Casio Ex-Word, etc.) are designed native Japanese speakers. There are two big problems for the rest of us:
- Denshi jisho don't have a great way to enter kanji you don't know. This isn't a huge problem for a native Japanese who's already spent 12 or 16 years learning kanji.. But even for the native speaker, the lookup options on the PDA/phone system are much better (not to mention more fun). In addition to the same input and lookup methods you'd find in a denshi jisho, in a PDA or phone you can simply draw the kanji on the screen to find it--it works beautifully and it's forgiving of mistakes. Some denshi jisho now have handwriting entry, but in general it's much stricter--you often have to write kanji in several times before it finds them, and it happens much more often that you can't find the kanji at all. And that handwriting entry is still subject to problem no. (2):
- The second problem is harder to overcome. To look up a Japanese word in the main dictionaries of a regular denshi jisho, you have to enter it in hiragana (or katakana if the word is normally written that way)--if you enter the kanji for the word, the denshi jisho won't find it, even if the word IS in one of the dictionaries on it. Thus if you see a word in kanji and don't know how to write it in hiragana (i.e., how to pronounce it), you can't look it up. There's an awkward workaround, but even that works for only about 20% of the Japanese words in the denshi jisho--so 80% of the time you simply cannot find the word. For example, if you see the word "活躍" and don't know how to write it in hiragana, you can't look it up in a denshi jisho. However, the word IS in there--if you already know the word, as the native Japanese speaker the denshi jisho was designed for certainly would, you'd simply enter "かつやく" and instantly find "活躍 【かつやく】 (n) (1) activity (esp. energetic)." If you ever need or want to read Japanese, a regular denshi jisho is not going to be much help. With a PDA or phone dictionary, you can look up a Japanese word by how it's pronounced, just like in a regular denshi jisho, but you can also look any word up by the kanji in it. When you're reading, whether it's a sign by the side of the road, a menu in a pub, or a text essential to your thesis, the PDA dictionary is a lifesaver. Click to see some examples in Edict, Waeijiro, Koujien, and Kenkyusha. How many Japanese words can you find if you search by kanji in a denshi jisho? About 48,000 of the 250,000 or so Japanese words in the various dictionaries (and they're not the 48,000 most common or useful words, either--they were selected to illustrate kanji). How many in PDA or phone with the JLT dictionaries installed? All 2 million. What's 2 million divided by 48,000? If you've got a PDA or phone dictionary, you can find that out quickly, too, because it also includes a calculator.
Of course, it's not just what the denshi jisho do wrong, it's what the PDA/Smartphone dictionary does right.
- Using the free Edict and the spectacular Eijiro dictionaries, you'll have about over two million English-to-Japanese entries and another two million plus Japanese-to-English. That's 10-20 times more than the dictionaries built into denshi jisho have (about 50 times more if you're trying to look up Japanese words by kanji). It's a pretty common experience for me and a friend with a denshi jisho to be looking up a word or expression at the same time: especially with figures of speech, complicated or rare terms, and colloquial terms, often I can find it but she can't. That's saved many a conversation. Eijiro also has great example sentences to illustrate how a word is used (not just nuance, but grammar--from the examples you can see what particle to use and how to structure a sentence)--and with the cross search feature, it's easy to find not just words but phrases and sentences--I write entire business letters this way, and because the sentences were written by real Japanese, they don't come across with the stilted weirdness that machine translation creates. Another bonus: the JLT system includes a guide to conjugating every verb in the dictionary.
- With some PDAs, including my Complete Systems, you can use automatically look up words you find in other documents or while surfing the net. You can also look things up in wikipedia--even when you don't have internet access (the JLT X51V systems have the full text of the English Wikipedia on the storage card, so you always have access to it).
- The PDA or Smartphone is essentially a computer. You can add whatever dictionaries you want and need. In fact, you can add exactly the same dictionaries you'd find on any given model of denshi jisho—and because of problem 2, above, the PDA versions will be much more powerful than the same dictionaries on a denshi jisho. Plus, I'm always working hard to improve how my dictionary system works--as great as it is now, every few months you can download a new version of something and make it even better. One cool option is to add the JLPT vocabulary audio files and a special version of Edict from me: in the entry for each of the 8000 most essential Japanese words, tap a link and you'll hear a native speaker pronouncing the word clearly and properly. Recent customers have added Korean, Chinese, and Greek dictionary packages to their JLT Complete Systems--there are even free Sanskrit-English and Buddhist terms dictionaries you can add.
- Again, the PDA or Smartphone is a small computer, not just a dictionary, so you can add whatever other software to it you like. I run a huge astronomy database and sky map, a GPS navigation program with hi-res topo maps of all of Japan, an mp3 player, photos and slideshows I use in the classroom, a full scientific calculator, my appointment and phone books, and a few games. I use the voice recorder to record my students, and to record model readings for them to practice with. I can watch movies, surf the web, check my email, edit Word and Excel documents, use Skype, and find any postal code in Great Britain--it's a computer, not a single-purpose device, so the possibilities are endless.
- If you get a PDA or SmartPhone with a decent-sized VGA or better display, as I recommend, the size and clarity of the display beat any denshi jisho hands down--even though the entire PDA, safely in its armored metal case, is smaller and more pocketable than most denshi jisho. Check out this screenshot (note that a VGA PDA has much higher resolution--pixels per inch--than your monitor, so even though it has the same number of pixels the actual display is both smaller and sharper than it looks here).
Finally, I do have to acknowledge that there are die-hard denshi-jisho fans out there. If you're at a high enough level of Japanese that you can get full use out of a device designed for a native speaker, you may find that a regular denshi jisho will serve you well for less money. If you'd like to find out more about the standard denshi jisho, take a look at bornplaydie.com's helpful guide.