If you’ve been in a Japanese electronics store like Yamada Denki, you’ve probably come across rows of 電子辞書 (でんしじしょ), or electronic dictionaries often aimed at students and businessmen learning English and other languages.
As educational gadgets go, these little things can be pretty expensive, with top models costing hundreds of pounds. Obviously there is some benefit to having lots of dictionaries all wrapped up into one gadget, but in the age of smartphones is an electronic dictionary worth the investment for Japanese learners?
I can personally say that I have found my dictionary extremely useful and do prefer it over using apps. However I think the usefulness of an electronic dictionary does depend on how you study the language. I suggest considering the following questions before committing to any purchases:
How intensively do you study?
Whether I reach for my electronic dictionary or my or my phone depends on what I am looking up. I find the specialised functions of a dictionary the most useful when I am looking up more than one word (eg. Perhaps when I am starting to read a new book). The backlit screen and easy zoom buttons make reading definitions really simple, and if a word uses a kanji i have not come across before I am able to click on it and find out the stroke order much more easily. In addition, because I can choose from a number of different dictionaries it is easy to cross reference meanings and get more example sentences, whereas on my phone I would have to bring up each dictionary website individually. A crucial benefit of the model I have is that it has a touch screen where I can write kanji using the stylus and is much more accurate than the equivalent apps I have on other devices, especially if I am having to look up a lot of unfamiliar kanji. Even basic models will allow you to jump between different dictionaries easily, so if this is a function you think you would make use of then an electronic dictionary may be for you.
What are your language goals?
Your value for money for an electronic dictionary is going to depend on what level of proficiency you are aiming for in Japanese. It is worth noting here that the dictionaries you have on these gadgets will not have more casual or recent buzzwords; for this type of vocabulary the internet is definitely your best friend. If having a high level of literacy is part of your language goal – for example studying in a Japanese university, or pursuing a specialist profession in Japan – then an electronic dictionary is more likely to be a wise long term investment.
What level are you at currently?
Buying a Japanese dictionary in Japan of course means that you have a whole new gadget to get used to without a manual in English. A lot of features on the model I have are intuitive and fortunately with a bit of playing around it is quite easy to work out how to look things up. As a gadget aimed at Japanese natives, there are more dictionaries and resources solely in Japanese rather than Japanese-English/ other languages. Therefore if you are, for example, at a stage where you are looking at moving towards using a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, you will find much better value in purchasing an electronic dictionary.
Based on the above considerations, the types of people who I think would make the most out of electronic Japanese dictionaries would be those that are already at an intermediate level, who are perhaps in a situation where they are studying towards becoming proficient in Japanese for professional purposes.
This isn’t to say that you should not buy a Japanese dictionary if you do not fit the previous description, but given the expense I think you may want to consider borrowing a model from a Japanese friend if possible and see how useful you find it. I personally found my model on eBay, so looking online for a cheap electronic dictionary is another good option for keeping the costs down.
However if your budget cannot stretch to buying one just yet, do not worry as there are some great Japanese dictionary apps and websites out there which cost very little or are free. I will be writing a follow up post on my favourites so watch this space!
As an aside, if you prefer physical dictionaries and reference books, Tofugu recently had a highly informative guest post by Kim Ahlstrom about dictionaries that serious learners may find useful.
Have you got an electronic dictionary? Do you find it useful or prefer using an app or physical dictionary? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!