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.

Kotoba!Diego over on ディエゴの日々 has posted an excellent review of Kotoba! [app website] [iTunes store], the multilingual Japanese Dictionary app for the iPhone and iPod touch.

“Kotoba! is a multilingual Japanese dictionary app that draws on the massive lexical database developed under the JMDict Project. It’s a fairly space-heavy app, with the current release (version 1.2) tipping the scales at 62.7MB, but that’s all for the best because the entire database resides on your iPod Touch/iPhone – meaning that no internet connection is required for the app to function properly

Check out the complete review here.

EDIT: This app has now been updated. For a review of the incredible new version check out the review by Diego

Japanese: The Japanese – English Dictionary
2300 yen / £11.99

Rating: ☆☆☆

Being a student of Japanese, and being a foreigner in Japan, one of the first iPhone apps I looked for was a decent dictionary. Having been disappointed with the limited vocabulary of a dictionary I’d bought for my old DS Lite, I was keen to find one that used Jim Breen’s EDICT as its main database, and (if possible) supplemented by additional dictionaries aimed at those looking to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

‘Japanese’ [app web site – includes demo video] [iTunes], an app developed by codefromtokyo (a one-man-show?) matched these criteria. It contains 127,829 words from the comprehensive JMDICT and KANJIDICT2 databases, as well as a dictionary of the kanji that appear in the JLPT (divided into the four current JLPT levels).

Additionally – and this is pretty sexy – it contains mini-movies showing the stroke order of all kanji taken from the Shodo Project.

Word groupings

As well as appearing in the main dictionary, entries are grouped into various categories to enable easy search / use. These are:

Hiragana & Katakana; Kanji (listed by radical / stroke count / school year / kokuji [native Japanese kanji]); classification (e.g. agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…); counters; expressions (“I love you” “nice to meet you”…); proverbs; vocabulary lists.

The vocabulary lists are particularly useful as they allow you to build up your own personal word lists for quick reference and review.

Search

Whilst the various categories as listed above may have their uses, I think that they are ultimately of limited functionality when it comes to finding what you’re looking for – they’re more likely to be of use when using your iPhone as review / study tool (although you’d be far better off with iAnki for that).

Searchability is the key to a dictionary’s usability – ‘Japanese’ gives us several options.

1) Browse the catagories as listed above
2) Input your word in Japanese using the regular keyboard. You can use romaji or hiranaga / katakana for this.
3) Use the iPhone’s Chinese handwriting keyboard.

The handwriting recognition function is possibly the most useful thing about this dictionary. It’s figuring out kanji readings that often proves to be the biggest stumbling block for me when I’m out and about in Japan – despite having ‘learnt’ the majority of the basic 2000 when at university, I’ve since found a lot have fallen down the back of the bookshelf in my mind.

Where the app falls down

Whilst it’s a good, solid dictionary app, there’s still several areas where it falls down.

  • History function. The most useful thing about my dedicated Sharp electronic dictionary is its history function, whereby when I return home I can see a list of words I’ve looked up recently and transfer them to my flash cards / Anki.
  • Dedicated support for Japanese handwriting recognition. Ok, so it’s Apple that needs to act on this one, thus perhaps it’s unfair to include this as a point against the app. Currently, handwriting recognition relies on using the Chinese keyboard (thus throwing up a lot of non-Japanese kanji during the search procress). Let’s hope we see this introduced with the next major iPhone update.
  • The price. At 2300 yen / £11.99 dictionary is flying in the face of typical App store pricing, and good reason to not buy the App. Whilst it is cheaper than its nearest competitor (Longmans) it is still way too expensive for what it is. I’d like to see it down in the 300 – 500yen range.

Overall rating: ☆☆☆

‘Japanese’ is a good solid dictionary app with a nice clean iPhonesque user interface. It’s super-fast when searching for words, and has never caused my iPhone to crash (always a bonus!).

Were it not for it being overpriced it would be getting 4 stars – and the final star will be earned when the History function is introduced!