Electronic dictionary recommendation

Better Option
Absolutely Essential Electronic Dictionary (ED) Features
Recommended Models

I recommend getting a PDA or SmartPhone set up with dictionary software INSTEAD of an electronic dictionary. Why? First of all, electronic dictionaries (EDs) are designed for Japanese trying to learn or use English, not the other way around. Some models, especially the Canons, let you put the screen menus in English. That doesn't begin to address the real issues. For example, if you enter the English word “creep,” you get a screenful of kanji. You have to choose a particular word and then jump through some hoops to see how it's pronounced (using, appropriately enough, the "jump" feature), then a few more hoops to get a complete English definition of the word you found, just to confirm that it really is the “creep” you're thinking of (when you mean, “move stealthily,” you don't want to use a word that means “scary pervert” ). So my old recommendations on how to buy an ED focused on finding the models with the easiest hoops to jump through. But a solution designed for English speakers doesn't have hoops. You enter an English word, and right there in front of you is the Japanese word in kanji and kana (so you know how to say it) and the word's complete English definition (so you know what it REALLY means). The PDA system has all the same ways of entering and looking up kanji and words that the denshi jisho has, plus it allows you to write kanji in by hand and you can summon up an animation teaching you how to write the kanji. It's faster and more fun to use than an ED. One dictionary you can add for another 2000 yen has ten times more words than even the largest dictionary in a denshi-jisho--it's especially rich in current and collequial Japanese. Plus, the basic software is free and a lot of PDAs are smaller and cheaper than even high-end EDs (and you can play games, keep your schedule, listen to MP3s, surf the net, etc. depending on what PDA you buy—mine was only 13500 yen used [would have been 20,000 new] but I keep a huge star atlas and astronomy database, financial/scientific calculator, kanji and compound flash cards for the nikkyuu test, personal photos, photographic utility software, my datebook and addressbook, and a few games on mine).

The biggest advantage, though, is for the higher level student or someone living and working in Japan. Let's say you're reading your homework or something you have to prepare for work and you see a Japanese word you don't know. The problem with denshi jisho is that you have to enter most words in hiragana. If an ED boasts a 100,000 word Japanese-to-English dictionary, perhaps only about 1/3 to 1/4 of those words can be looked up by kanji. If you don't know how the word is pronounced, you can't enter it in hiragana, so most of the time you won't be able to look it up. Here's an example of how you look up a word in an ED. If you see the word 活動 but you don't know how it's pronounced, you can use the kanji dictionary's lookup features to find the first kanji, 活, and then you can pull up a list of words beginning with 活; scroll down, and you'll soon find the word you were looking for, 活動. Tap it any you'll get to that word's entry. But if, instead of 活動, you'd run into 活躍, you'd do the same thing, look up 活 in the kanji dictionary and then pull up the list of words beginning with it. But 活躍 isn't on the list. However, if you ask someone and find out it's pronounced かつやく and you then enter かつやく into your denshi jisho, you'll find the entry for it. It's there, but it can't be looked up by kanji, only by hiragana. Nothing is more frustrating than to be sitting with something you need to figure out and your $300 denshi jisho knows the word and won't let you find it. However, with a PDA system, every Japanese word in every dictionary can be found by entering it in either hiragana or kanji. If you pull up the list of all words beginning with 活 on a recent Canon Wordtank, the latest Sharps, or any model from any other manufacturer, you'll see 24 words, but if you do the same thing with a PDA running my version of Edict, you'll see 68. You've got a much better chance of finding the word you're looking for. And if you've sprung 2000 yen for Eijiro, you'll have 1279 活 words to choose from!

The top-end EDs include entire bookshelves of reference works, as well as top-grade Japanese-to-Japanese dictionaries to really nail down the nuances. Although Eijiro has many example sentences and usage notes, there are more in the refence works in the EDs. For a really high-level student, these resources can be quite useful. However, you can also buy and download these very same dictionaries and put them on your PDA. And, as I explained above, they'll be much more useful on the PDA than in an ED.

But, if you really want to go the ED route instead of getting a smaller, perhaps cheaper, and in most ways more powerful PDA system, here's my old advice.

There are two critical features for non-Japanese.

  1. Super Jump. Constantly under stress as a stranger in a strange land, you're preparing for a doctor's visit by memorizing a few key terms. You enter "gastric ulcer" in the English>Japanese dictionary and the result that pops up is 胃潰瘍. You want to learn how to pronounce it, and you want to see if it has any other meanings that might be confusing. Super Jump is the feature that lets you select an entire word and look it up in another of your ED's dictionaries. Thus you can quickly find how to pronounce it in the Japanese>Japanese dictionary and see the word's entire English definition in the Japanese>English dictionary (back-checking a word you've looked up sometimes turns up surprises--definitely something you should do). Regular jump, common on older machines, lets you look up only one Japanese character and even then only in the kanji dictionary. You have to hit another button to pull up a list words beginning with that kanji, and if the word is on that list, you can that select it and look it up in another dictionary. Notice I said "if"--most likely the word is NOT on the list and you can't find out more about it. When you look up the Japanese translation of an English word, the dictionary gives you the Japanese word--in Japanese. You enter "creep," hit the enter button, and the result is a screen full of kanji. It assumes you are fluent in Japanese and can read it easily--remember it was made for Japanese speakers who need help with English, not the other way around. To be useful for English speakers, a dictionary MUST provide a quick way to jump from a Japanese word in the results to that word's entry in the Japanese or Japanese-to-English dictionary so that you can see its pronunciation. Then you may want to jump to the word's entry in the Japanese to English dictionary to see exactly what it means in English ("move stealthily" or "scary pervert"--such distinctions can be important). That's usually called superjump. Before you buy, be sure your dictionary has it and that it can also jump from Japanese words (some models only let you jump from English, on the assumption that you, as an educated Japanese person, already know everything about Japanese). Regular jump is the ability to jump from one particular kanji to its entry in the kanji dictionary; if that's all your ED has it's a pain in the neck, because then you have to scroll through all the words containing that kanji to find the word you're looking for. Foreigners need superjump, which takes you right to the entry for the word you're looking for.

  2. Ability to look up a word by how it's written. This is the big advantage of the PDA system I discussed above. In most EDs, including all new models, most of the Japanese words in the dictionary can't be found unless you know how they're pronounced. If you're reading and you want to look up a word you don't know how to pronounce, you may not be able to. However, some models are significantly better than others.

    When I go to the store and look at all the different models available, I give them the 活 test: I see how many words come up on the list of words beginning with 活. When I first tried this a few years ago, the Canon and Sharp models did pretty well. Canons came up with about 64, and Sharps with 50. All other companies machines came up with 24 (always the same 24). But now, Canon and Sharp have "updated" to the same system the others use, so all of their new models also find only 24. That's no problem for the Japanese, who already know their language pretty well, but it makes those models unusable for the less-than-natively-fluent foreigner who hopes to use them to help him read.

Particular recommendations: My late Sharp PW-M310, the PW-M800 and other Sharps in the stores at that time came up with around 50, and my late, very tiny, very old Canon IDC-310 (alas, no superjump, but great just for reading) and my friend's Canon IDF-3000 came up with about 64—although almost all the words that were in the Canons but not in the Sharps were long compounds that you'd easily find as two or three separate words in the Sharp and usually turned out to be things like the names of obscure UN committees, so really the old Sharps weren't as far behind the old Canons as the numbers might suggest. I've now tried all the current model Sharps and Canons, and each of them came out with only 24, so the new Canons aren't as good as the old for us foreigners. If you're not in Japan and can't try an ED out before buying it, then stick to the known safe bets, the Canon Wordtanks IDF-3000 and IDF-4600 for anyone who doesn't need a small dictionary to carry around, and the just-barely-pocketable Sharp PW-M310 or PW-M800 for anyone who does. You used to be able to find the IDF-3000 on eBay all the time for around US$100, but it's getting rarer--keep looking. The smaller Sharp PW-M800 is still available new online in Japan for about US$70 and on eBay in the US for about $120. But I think you'd be much better off buying a Palm PDA and downloading PAdict, WDIC, and the WDIC version of the complete Edict, along with Eijiro if you really want to go whole hog. Again, for comparison, my $130 used Sony Clie running free software and a dictionary I adapted from Edict finds 68 活 words, and those are mostly real words, not proper names of obscure committees, meaning that even the old Canons I had seen as ideal were missing quite a few words. The same $130 PDA running the $20 Eijiro dictionary database found 1279 (granted, a lot of those were longer phrases, which often do turn out to be useful, and proverbs, which usually don't, but many hundreds of them were plain old words).