Are electronic dictionaries worth it?

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?

My Casio EX-Word XD-D4700 has served me well for a few years now

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!

Podcast Recommendation : News in Slow Japanese

Are you interested in listening to news articles whilst learning Japanese but don’t have time to tackle a full length piece? Then News in Slow Japanese may be the podcast for you.

Every week or so Sakura produces a short podcast of 2-3 minutes long covering something that has been in the news recently. Each episode of the podcast has this news piece read at a slower pace to allow learners to pick up on words and grammar points they may not have caught at native speed. There is also a version of the same article being read at native speed to test your listening skills.

I had been alternating between the slower speed and native speed episodes to see what I could pick up, and then looking up the words I didn’t know to add to my language journal. Little did I know that the website for News In Slow Japanese is a wonderful resource in itself – here you can find printable pages for each episode with transcripts in kana and romaji as well as ready made vocabulary lists! It is also worth mentioning that the website allows you to sort by topic, so if there is a topic you would like to study in more depth you can choose to focus on that only, which is useful no matter your Japanese language level is.

These podcasts and accompanying website have clearly been decided with language learners in mind. I think this resource is a good way of dipping your toe into newspaper style articles and seeing how much you can pick up: at only a couple of minutes long it is easy to listen to an episode a day without feeling too overwhelming. Sakura herself recommends using the podcasts to shadow a native speaker’s pronounciation, rhythm and intonation, which is certainly a great way of making use of the podcast in addition to testing your listening skills. Some of the earlier episodes have YouTube videos with the transcript, which some learners may find helpful too.

Everything I have mentioned above is free, although Sakura offers a monthly subscription service that gives you access to additional study materials for reading comprehension, vocabulary tests and shadowing.

I think this resource is best more intermediate and above learners, but I think the short form of the episodes makes the podcast accessible to advanced beginners too.

JLPT exam prep: Nailing the Listening Test


Unfortunately you don’t get these snazzy headphones in the real exam

So we are in the final days before the July sitting of the JLPT. The listening exam is of course a big part of this, which can be tricky but at the same time is an area you can score pretty highly with a bit of practice. Here are my tips for tackling this section of the exam:

  • Listening to anything and everything in Japanese just before the exam. Especially when preparing for a language exam outside of Japan, you want to go into the test room having set your brain to Japanese mode.
  • Practice timings by doing a mock test in exam conditions. The exam has different type of listening questions, and depending on the level you are taking the composition of questions will be slightly different. It is important to practice the test under timed conditions to give yourself an idea of how long you have for each of the question types when sitting the real thing. At the beginning of the test the questions are more straighforward, but at the same time the thinking time for each question is pretty short. You do not want to be caught out early on in the exam where it is realtively easier to pick up marks. You can find example question papers with answers and the transcript on the official website.
  • Maxmise use of the reading time by making notes – by preparing yourself for what you might hear you can use the actual exam time for listening insteaad of stressing about what is being asked of you in each section of the test. The questions are written out in Japanese on the question paper, so use the reading time to make notes (if you have practised the exam previously, you shouldn’t have to spend too much time working out what each question is asking of you). Highlight words on the question paper that give you an idea as to what type of information you are looking for, often indicated by question words like どこ, なに, どんな, いつ, どうして. Make a mental note of what the differences are between the potential answers in the multiple choice sections, and for questions accompanied by a picture you could jot down the appropriate Japanese vocab for key items in the picture.
  • For the longer conversation questions, keep track of key points in the dialogue signposting the flow of the conversation. Words like でも, しかし, それから and その後 may precede essential information for answering the question correctly. When I sat the N2 exam this was really helpful to bear in mind, as the conversations can lead you towards one answer and then indicate the correct answer mid-way or at the end of the dialogue.
  • Writing something is better than nothing! These exams do require concentration for a long period of time, and if like me its been a while since you last sat an exam the whole day can be pretty daunting. This may seem obvious, but if you find that you’ve missed a key bit of information on one question, put something down on the answer paper and move on to the next question.

If you are reading this and about to sit your exam, good luck! More importantly, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back once it is all over – whatever the outcome of the exam is, getting to the stage of sitting the exam at any level is an accomplishment.