Learner/Beginner Dictionaries: The Ultimate Oxymoron

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:

  1. Say, “oh well” and quit.
  2. Feel sad or frustrated and maybe cry or punch something.
  3. Throw your crap dictionary at the wall and yell expletives at it.
  4. 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!

If you’re too cheap to buy an electronic dictionary that can cost several hundred dollars, you can use several online dictionaries for free!

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.)

25 thoughts on “Learner/Beginner Dictionaries: The Ultimate Oxymoron

  1. I had the same experience, I bought the Oxford Basic Japanese-English Dictionary about a year ago…

    Mmm…no good.

    I now have a electronic dictionary with ジーニアス and 大辞林 (as well as many other things)…much better. The Genius J-E dictionary is definitely less than perfect, but it’s a lot better than the paper one I bought…and the Daijirin…well, it’s great, although many of the definitions are still pretty difficult for me to understand.

    You mention Casio and Canon, I think Sharp is pretty good as well. I have a Sharp Papyrus PW-AT770, it was about 18,000 yen on Amazon.co.jp, and it has the touch pad as well as a backlight. I’m very happy with it, although I’ve since realized I might decide to undertake Korean after I feel confident with my Japanese (might be awhile)…so I’ll have to upgrade. 🙁

    Oh, also, there’s the 漢字そのまま DS楽引辞典, the Nintendo DS Japanese dictionary. If you have a DS and aren’t quite ready to plunk down a lot of cash, I’d definitely recommend it. It has the Genius J-E and E-J dictionaries, as well as a J-J dictionary as well (I forget which one, not one of the “big 2” though). I don’t like it nearly as much as my dedicated dictionary, but it’s a good option if you already have a DS and you’re on a budget.

  2. I usually use the WWWJDIC and Yahoo辞書, but I’ve been considering an electronic dictionary lately. I’ve been looking at the Casio EX-word XD-GP7250. The handwritten kanji lookup feature is attractive, and the French dictionary would definitely speed up my French class (paper dictionaries are so slow). I’m just intimidated by all these different dictionary names and such, and I’d rather get an excellent dictionary for Japanese and English than a good dictionary for Japanese, English, and French.

    So, for someone learning Japanese, would you say that there are any specific dictionaries that it is crucial that an electronic dictionary include? If not, what kinds of dictionaries should one ascertain the presence of?

    Sorry if I’m being a bit forward to ask this kind of thing. Thank you.

  3. good and resourceful. hmm~

    i wonder if you read some Japanese newspapers online? i guess i’ll take some time before i can read these sites like asahi shimbun…

  4. AND your blog is blocked by our beloved net nanny, in her mysteriously good-willing wisdom. Did i say i have to use a proper proxy to surf your blog? …

  5. Yes, you are definitely right, paper dictionaries are usually so bad !
    But don’t complain too much ! Because I am French and, you know, it is really something like 10x more difficult to find anything valuable about japanese, written in French. Well, actually, I should rather say it’s 10x more difficult to find anything in French about Japanese at all ! When you are French, you have in fact no other choice than to look at E-J dictionaries like WWWJDIC.
    So, feel relieved ! The life of Japanese learners whose native language is not English is really harder !

  6. @toudhjo
    I hadn’t thought about 漢字そのまま DS楽引辞典. Less than 5000円 and much better than any paper dictionary! Great suggestion.
    I’m sure Sharp makes great dictionaries, I just never owned one.

    You can’t go wrong with a new model of Ex-word! I see it for less than $400 on amazon, so make sure you’re not overpaying.

    Have you tried rikai-chan? Really useful for deciphering online text. Especially newspapers which don’t use much grammar and slang.

    Stupid Net nanny.

    Yes, you’re right. I guess I shouldn’t complain TOO much. By the way, how is the French translation of the grammar guide?

  7. I can confirm what Basuchan just said. Same thing for Italy… The best I-J dic I’ve found was a pocket-size one, ROMAJI ONLY. I must have burned it, because I don’t have it any more.

  8. Hmm after reading your post I’m having second thoughts about getting the Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese Dictionary, which I’ve been eyeing for a long time.

    But I guess you’re right that nobody would want to touch a paper dictionary if they have a good electronic one.

    Since 2005, I’ve been using a En-Ch/Ch-En electronic dictionary made by a Chinese brand called 快易典, mainly for work, and I’ve been thoroughly satisfied with it. What’s more, I bought it in China and it was really cheap.

    I now see that they’ve come up with an English-Korean-Japanese-Chinese machine which is now my next target: http://www.hwapu.com.cn/products/ProDetail.asp?machineid=73

  9. Damn and I just dished out all my bucks for that Kondansha KanjiDIC. *sigh* Some people just have bad luck…..

    Then again, on the bright side, I got 5 単行本 of ワンピース! 😀

  10. @K

    Wow, that’s a crazy dictionary! Maybe I’ll get it to learn Korean once I learn Chinese. 🙂 What I don’t get is why they have color, it’s a dictionary, not a portable game system! The color screen just drains the battery.
    The Furigana Japanese dictionary looks a lot better than what I first bought but 30,000 combined Japanese and English entries? Sad.

    I hope you enjoy One Piece, it’s my favorite manga.

  11. I agree with your basic idea that most dictionaries which claim to be beginner oriented are utter pieces of crap. And yes, electronic dictionnaries are much better. And yes, I don’t understand nobody in the west makes anything similar. And yes, it sucks that you need to know Japanese to have a Chinese one.

    But there is one point where I would add a nuance, and one where I disagree.

    Nuance: as great as electronic dictionaries are, they are designed for Japanese people, and the UI or some parts of the explanations can therefore be confusing to beginners. It is still better than anything else, but I really makes me whish someone designed one for english speakers.

    Disagreement : The particular dictionary (Kodansha Kanji learner’s dictionary) you took as example is actually pretty good. Yes, it is a bit short, and claiming it has all you’ll ever need it not really serious. But the coverage is decent, if not great, and for what it has, I have never seen a better made dictionary. Explanations are great, it is easy to search for stuff. It is actually the only paper dictionary I readilly recommend.

  12. Yes I was skeptical too when I first saw the colored screen, which would be a battery guzzler.

    The one I have now is just black text on an LCD screen and the in-built rechargable battery lasts me a few months (I search for about 2 to 3 entries each day, or none if I’ve got internet access).

    Hopefully they would have the sense to use a powerful battery for the one in the link. I can’t imagine anything less than that seeing how it has 1GB of memory and can be used to play mp3s.

  13. @Florian
    I may be unfairly picking on the Kodansha’s Kanji dictionary since I’m sure there are dictionaries much worse. But looking at just the coverage, I still don’t think it’s worth your money.

    That’s totally overkill for a simple dictionary. Might as well add internet at that point then I can just go to online dictionaries. Mine runs on two AAA batteries and I have to replace them once every year or so!

  14. does any of the electronic devices mentioned here
    have both E / J AND E / Korean dictionaries,
    if yes, could you recommend one?

    i ve been looking for one in Japan and Korea
    but available models were all made for either
    K or J speakers.

  15. I don’t know of any. See why the Asians get it so good? I would suggest learn Japanese first, then you can use the J<->K dictionaries but maybe that’s not very practical.

  16. HI!

  17. Yes, I definitely agree that Japanese electronic dictionaries are far superior learning tools. I recently picked up the Casio Ex-word Dataplus 4. Besides features mentioned earlier, it’s got quizzes for the 漢字検定, 四字熟語辞典、and something I really like is that you can download plain text files into it. So I head on over to 青空文庫 and pump it full of stories. Then while you’re reading the text on it, if you don’t know a word, you can jump right to any of the dictionaries. とても便利だよ。

  18. A bit more about the Kodansha’s Kanji dictionary. I actually have a (slightly old) sharp electronic dictionary. It has the two geniuses and the 広辞苑 and a kanji dictionary. I look it up first, because it is more convienent. But I pretty often get frustrated with it, because even though coverage is great, explanations are not, and I am often left wondering what some kanji really mean, and the Kodansha’s Kanji dictionary is usually very good at clearing things up.

    The main problem is that being writen for Japanese people, electronic dictionaries will focus on explaining you the difference between english words, but when one english word can be translated in to several Japanese ones, they are not always that fantastic at telling you the difference.

    But I think I have solved this issue. I am probably going to get myself one of the newer Casio electronic dictionaries, because they seem good, AND they have the Kodansha’s Kanji dictionary as an add-on.

    On the topic of French dictionaries, most electronic dictionaries include the exact same one as most people would be getting in paper version (petit royal), and they are not really great.

  19. I have definitely found paper dictionaries are missing many entries. I also wish my first dictionary was *without* the romaji, since the last thing I am going to buy now is another dictionary (though I found a pretty good pocket dictionary). Unfortunately, it takes learning some Japanese before you realize that there even *is* a kana, and that romaji is a crutch.

    As for hand-holding with the kana, that is a major annoyance and one reason it is hard to find appropriate beginner texts. Learning the kana is *super-easy* and you do not need a workbook for it — all you need is a chart, some rules on pronunciation, and a sheet of paper. You can learn them quickly all on your own.

    One thing about the Random House dictionary, though, is it has very good examples.

    Online dictionaries are wonderful, if not perfect. I like Denshi Jisho ( http://www.jisho.org ) because its search functions are great and a kanji entry is enlarged merely by hovering over it with your mouse. However, it often returns a lot of unmatching examples, and the “show all” link doesn’t work — you have to navigate each page of results manually.

    My favorite kanji and word lookup mehtod is “Moji” (Firefox extension, because you can just highlight a word and hit “Alt+K” or “Alt+W”.

    I considered getting an electronic dictionary (and I partly still wish I did), but I decided on an iPod in the end for the ability to listen to audio lessons.

    I also found a kanji dictionary for iPod, called “Kotoba”, on iTunes for free. Though one gripe is figuring out how to use the limited screen keys to tyep *any* hiragana is confusing, and it’s actually missing き! The only way around this is to enter your word without the き (for example, if it’s an i-adjective, use another form), then follow with another word that will auto-complete including き, then backspace over everything in between. Well, that’s what you get for free, sometimes.

    Anyone have a better suggestion for an iPod dictionary?

    I did spend a large chunk of time in the iStore, but that stuff is bottomless! If I could search directly for a particular app, that would be great!

    *Note: I do not have wi-fi or iPhone* — this has to be a stand-alone app that does not have to connect to the Internet. My iPod is only connected when docked on my computer, and if that’s the case, I’m using the computer for something else.

  20. I find that the real value of a learner’s dictionary is not using it as a reference work, but rather as something to flip through and learn something new. Most people don’t flip through dictionaries for fun, but I do on occasion, and my Oxford Beginner’s Japanese Dictionary gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling when I flip through it. By contrast, a large dictionary is too likely to have a whole ton of stuff you don’t need to know, especially in the early stages of learning a language. I mean, it’s definitely good to have for reference, but it’s not so good for flipping through unless you’re interested in obscure words or usages. And I find flipping through an electronic or computer dictionary to be no fun at all.

    – Kef

    • I find that the real value of a learner’s dictionary is not using it as a reference work

      (゚_゚)I think that would surprise and annoy a lot of people who buy it exactly for that purpose.

  21. All these posts about the merits of particular electronic dictionaries have led me to wonder about (apparent) vast differences in quality considering the price. I mean, for about $300-400 you can get a top-end (last year’s model) Casio Ex-Word GP9700 or a Sharp RD-PM10. The Casio model seems like the standard Denshi Jisho with the same ol’ back-lit B&W LCD screen with pixelated fonts. Although it has a long battery life, it uses 2 AAA batteries, which for portable electronics these days is a bit 90’s. The Sharp model on the other hand, seems like a glorified PDA with a rechargeable battery, color screen, internet access, hard drive, MP3 player, etc, etc. I know these crazy MID model dictionaries can be a bit distracting with all these extraneous features, but at least they use nice ‘anti-aliased’ font types and intuitive UIs. It goes without saying that both models have competent handwritten Kanji recognition.

    So what does the Casio model have over the Sharp? I would guess that it has better search features, better dictionaries(?). But really I don’t know, and for $400, I would want something pretty high quality (heck, an iPod Touch is about that much).

    So what’s the advantage? I would really like to know.

  22. I have used such a device from Korea and it’s horribly slow, the battery life a joke, the user-interface is atrocious, and it’s bloated with features I don’t need.

    However, I have not tried that model. You should probably try both in the store and see which one you like better. I would be careful to note what kind of dictionaries are loaded to make sure they are comprehensive enough.

    Personally, I like something that I don’t have to worry about recharging (2 AAA’s are good for years before I have to replace them) and I need it to be responsive and easy to use for the sole purpose of learning new words.

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