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In the year or so since I last reviewed iPhone apps for Japanese language learners, there’s been an explosion in the number and variety available. Look in the iTunes App store today and you’ll find a wealth of vocabulary builders, apps to teach you how to write in hiragana and katakana, kanji flashcard programs, pronunciation guides and powerful dictionaries.

I asked a few Japanese language teachers and Japanese language learners for their recommendation. The result was a list far too long to cover in a single article, so I’ll be breaking them down into several groups, starting off today with Japanese-English dictionaries.

Whilst not the sexiest of apps, dictionaries can (literally) be lifesavers for non-Japanese in Japan – don’t leave the house without one! Whilst there are a huge number of English-Japanese dictionaries in the App Store, for a long time now there have been two clear leaders, Kotoba! and Japanese, and it’s these two that I’m focusing on here.

Kotoba!

Free: iTunes | Website (currently no iPad version).

This app has progressed a great deal in the past year, with a range of new features having been added to turn it into a force to be reckoned with.

The main database was created with files from the JMdict project (which in turn was based on Jim Breen’s EDICT), resulting in it containing over 130,000 Japanese / English entries. Version 2 saw the addition of example sentences, and a more recent update an astonishing 6,500 stroke order diagrams added. Aside from the English translations, there’s also partial support for French, German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian – accounting for another 100,000 translations.

There are several ways to look up a character, making it almost impossible to not find what you’re looking for. The search function accepts romaji, kana or kanji input – and kanji input can of course be done using your finger to trace the character (go to your iPhone’s keyboard settings panel to enable the Simplified Chinese Handwriting keyboard).

If you don’t know the reading of the kanji there are also a number of pre-defined lists to work from, including the SKIP index (used in the popular Kanji Learner’s Dictionary), Radicals and JLPT levels.

A note on JLPT levels: in most Japanese language learning apps you’ll find that the JLPT lists have yet to be updated from the old four levels to the new five levels (N1~N5). There’s a simple reason for this: the organisation behind the test is refusing to make the new kanji lists public, thus at this stage any attempt to classify them by the new levels would have to be based on guesswork.

Having found the character or word you’re looking for you’ll be presented with a wealth of information, including the reading, meanings, all verb conjugations, kanji compounds and a staggering number of example sentences. You can add individual words or entire sentences to personalised lists, copy them to the iPhone clipboard or append them to the clipboard – meaning that if you’re wanting to paste a string of kanji into an email you don’t have to go back-and-forth between the dictionary and your mail app between kanji. Cross-reference numbers are also provided for about 19 other kanji lists including Heisig, Nelson and Halpern.

But better than being able to share entries via the iPhone clipboard is the export feature. Simply go to your chosen list and send it via email as text or a CSV file.

Overall, revisiting Kotoba! after a year of not using it, I was pretty blown away by how comprehensive it is – although at times I must admit that I felt a little overwhelmed and lost in all the options – what other app do you know that has over 40 options to toggle in the settings panel?!


Japanese!

$15.99: iTunes | codefromtokyo Website (iPad version available soon as a free update)

This was one of those apps that I loved right from the start. I bought it on the recommendation of a friend, prior to even owning a iPhone to run it on. I’ve used it consistently since, and it remains one of my favourite (and most expensive) apps. It was definitely worth it.

With over 150,000 Japanese entries and about 12,000 kanji, it’s a truly comprehensive dictionary. There are many similarities with Kotoba!, including word lookup by romaji/ kana / kanji / handwriting, kanji lists, multiple example sentences, personal vocabulary lists and cross-references for other kanji resources.

However, it has a number of other features that set it apart from the Kotoba!, and make it feel like more than just an interface for the JMdict database.

Firstly, the search function activates as soon as you start typing, with suggestions appearing below. When you tap on the word you’re looking for, along with translations and example sentences you’ll find popular compounds and conjugations – no need to dig deeper into the sub-menus.

Also, should you enter a long phrase into the search box, the search engine will try to break it down into individual elements (see image below). Numbers can also be transcribed – just enter the digits and out comes the kanji & reading.

Similar Kanji are another feature, helping avoid confusion with lookalike characters, whilst the recent addition of furigana (little hiragana characters above the kanji) show you the readings of individual characters in search results.

Adding words to your personal lists just takes two taps- you also have the ability to apply self-defined color labels.

Integration of Spaced Reptiton flashcards

The killer feature for this app, and the one that really sets it apart from Kotoba!, is the integrated Spaced Repetition flashcard function. This can be used with any word list within the app – not just those that you create yourself. Pre-loaded lists include JLPT (pre-2010 for reasons explained above), expressions, proverbs, interjections, nouns, verbs, adjectives, particles, a huge array of subject categories such as Art, Chemistry, Food etc …and many more.

What this means for the student then is that there’s no need to export your lists to import to a similar SRS such as Anki – although should you wish to you can share lists as text-emails for import – let’s hope that CSV exports are on the cards for a future update.

Another feature that makes this app stand out from the crowd in the ability to import vocabulary lists – provided they are in the same format as when exported – just copy and paste from the email app into a new list.

A nice little touch is the ability to change the color of the app; personally I’ve gone for purple now.

A video demo of the app can be found at www.codefromtokyo.com/japanese

Summary

So there we have it – two powerful dictionary apps for Japanese language learners. Considering the price tag (free), Kotoba! is an incredible resource, and for those who just need a dictionary and are not actively studying Japanese, it makes sense to choose it over Japanese.

For serious students of Japanese however, the integrated SRS makes Japanese a better choice. It has some really handy extra features, and I find it to be a more ‘beautiful’, iPhone-esque app – little things like that instant search function, the smoother kanji stroke animations, the text styles used.

Whilst some may think the price tag a little high, it compares well with many other major dictionary apps, and in my view is well worth the investment.

Code from Tokyo is also due to release an iPad version soon – look forward to seeing that in the app store.

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