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     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.

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:

  1. 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):
  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.

      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.

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