I’ve touched on this topic in an earlier post but it’s really sad to see the crappy resources we’re supposed to be using as English speakers learning Japanese. If you ever see me at a regular bookstore such as Barnes & Nobles going through the Japanese foreign language section, you’ll hear me mutter, “crap, crap, complete crap, crap, oooh! An utter piece of shit!”. I’m going to pick on the Kodansha Kanji Learners Dictionary because it has the word “Learner” in it but the same things apply to dictionaries commonly seen at most US bookstores. The first dictionary I bought (before I knew any better) was Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary and it was also a complete piece of shit and a total waste of my precious and meager college money.
Anyway, going back to the Kodansha Kanji Dictionary, the product description on Amazon starts like this.
The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary answers the urgent need for an easy-to-use kanji dictionary compact enough to be easily carried around, yet detailed enough to satisfy the practical needs of the beginning and intermediate learner.
The “detailed enough” is the ultimate oxymoron of all these resources “designed” for English speakers learning Japanese. Beginner and intermediate learners need the most complete coverage possible even more so than native speakers, not less! If a native or advanced student needs to find out about something, they can search on Google, Wikipedia, local bookstores, libraries, ask around, and a whole wealth of other sources in the native language that are not available for people who can’t speak the language! If you’re a beginner like I was and equipped only with these crappy dictionaries, your only options when it doesn’t have the word you’re looking for are:
- Say, “oh well” and quit.
- Feel sad or frustrated and maybe cry or punch something.
- Throw your crap dictionary at the wall and yell expletives at it.
- Take your dictionary back to the store and demand your money back.
My point is when you’re looking at some Japanese text and you have no idea what it means, the last thing you need is a dictionary that should have all the definitions but don’t. You also need lots of example sentences, related idioms, detailed definitions, and an easy way to look up Kanji. This is a huge contrast to native speakers who understand most of everything and can figure out the rest from context without even opening a dictionary.
For comparison, the Kodansha’s Leaner Dictionary has 2,230 characters compared to my 改訂新版 漢字源 which has 13,112. The Random House Japanese<->English Dictionary claims to have over 50,000 entries, which I assume is about half that since it has both Japanese to English and English to Japanese. Currently, I have ジーニアス英和大辞典 which has 255,000 entries and ジーニアス和英辞典 which has 82,000 entries. I admit the Japanese-English dictionary is a bit weak since my dictionary is for Japanese people but that’s still over 3x larger than the Random House dictionary and I also have 大辞林 which has 252,000 Japanese-Japanese entries. Overall, the difference is around a factor of 10. That’s a lot of information you’re missing out on!
Please, enough with the romaji!!!
Here’s the funniest quote in the product description for the Random House Dictionary.
The romanized entries are listed in alphabetical order, so no knowledge of Japanese is required.
So you don’t need to have any knowledge of Japanese to use a Japanese dictionary? Nice trick! What does it do, upload all the data directly to your brain Matrix-style?
And what is up with these romaji dictionaries? How the hell are you supposed to look up a word written in Kanji with a romaji dictionary?? For example, if I wanted to look up 「実際」, do I have to use a separate dictionary to look up 「実」 and 「際」 and THEN try a hit-or-miss guessing game at the reading? Ok, let’s try “jitsusai”, “jitusai”, “makotogiwa”, “mokotokiwa”, “minorikiwa”, “minorigiwa” and then proceed to the 4 options listed above. You MIGHT get lucky and find “jissai” with “jitsusai” because in this case, “s” comes right before “t” but what about 「間際」？ In Japanese dictionaries, 「き」 is right next to 「ぎ」 so it doesn’t matter whether you look for 「まきわ」 or 「まぎわ」, they’re right next to each other. But in romaji, “k” and “g” are pretty far apart. The same goes for 「じつさい」 vs 「じっさい」. In fact, 「じつざい」 （実在） comes right after 「じっさい」（実際） while “jissai” is nowhere near “jitsuzai”. It’s hard enough in Japanese when words like 「時間」、「間際」、「間」、and 「眉間」 all use different readings for 「間」. They also expect us to deal with voiced consonants and small つ being all over the place, no thanks to romaji? No wonder people think learning Japanese is hard!
Do yourself a favor and copy-paste the characters into an online dictionary. Otherwise, I don’t know how you’re going to find words like 「生粋」、「仲人」、「気質」、 and 「行方」.
Why do the Asians have it so good?
Take a look at those Japanese kids learning English. You don’t see them using crippled J<->E dictionaries. I’m sure many of you have seen Japanese exchange students, tutors, or whatnot with fancy electronic dictionaries. Those things have Genius and Progressive J<->E dictionaries with almost 100,000 entries each! But for some reason, I have never seen these dictionaries in any bookstores in the US except at 紀伊国屋 (no surprise there).
Many of those Japanese electronic dictionaries even have regular Oxford and Longman English dictionaries that are just as good as the ones we use. Some are even designed for learning other languages such as Korean and Chinese. When I started learning Chinese, this time I knew better than to completely waste my money on crap like the Concise English-Chinese / Chinese-English Dictionary so I plunked down some serious change for a Canon G90. Oh, the little paper dictionary has more than 20,000 entries in both sections? My 講談社 C<->J dictionaries have a total of 163,000 entries and a 中日大辞典 that has 150,000 entries for Chinese to Japanese alone. Booyah!
To top it off, all of the dictionaries I mentioned owning are all in one tiny electronic device, which has a whole bunch of other dictionaries I didn’t even mention. I have used this dictionary for years and haven’t regretted buying it since. Almost every entry has examples sentences in both Chinese and Japanese. You can also use the stylus pen to write and search for kanji along with animated stroke order diagrams. These features are critical for learners that are simply unnecessary for advanced or native speakers and the Japanese makers understand that. My only relatively minor complaints are poor support for traditional characters (they’re in there but only as separate characters) and the dark screen.
So what’s the deal here? Why do I have to buy an J<->E dictionary from Japan to get anything decent? And even worse, why do I need to know Japanese to get a decent Chinese dictionary? I’ve already given up on the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, which is also on my G90 after it failed me one too many times. But I bet you can find great C<->E dictionaries in China. It’s almost too depressing.
But I’m too cheap to buy an expensive dictionary!
However, if you’re really serious about learning Japanese, the extra money is totally worth it. You can get reasonably cheap ones with less features, you just need to make sure it comes with quality and beefy dictionaries. Personally, I prefer the Canon WordTank or Casio Ex-word brands.
Seriously, I feel sorry for those people who don’t know enough to actually waste their money on these crappy paper dictionaries perhaps unaware that you can get something infinitely better for free (minus cost of computer+internet). Lets spread the message that these things aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on and hopefully get some real dictionaries that are actually usable.
DEATH to the useless Learner dictionaries!!!
(Sorry, I recently watched eXistenZ. That’s one weird movie.)