Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kotoba!: More than just words

Ah, the electronic dictionary. One of the most, if not the most, important tools you can have while learning Japanese. The big problem is they're pretty pricey. An average one will set you back a couple of cool 10,000yen notes while a top of the line one will cost you the same as a lightly used scooter and a full tank of gas. Fortunately there are alternatives, like paper dictionaries. HA! Just kidding. But really, don't use them. They're heavy and slow and if one is light enough to carry around it will absolutely be lacking in information. Unfortunately it seems no matter what you do you're going to have to suck it up and lay down a year's worth of beer money on one of these mechanical wonders. Or get Kotoba! which is free. I suggest you go with the pro-beer option.

First, this is a silly question but I have to ask; Do you already have an iPhone or an iPod touch? What? You don't? That's weird. Well, go buy one. I'll wait.

OK. Good. Now install Kotoba!, the completely free Japanese dictionary. Yes, what follows is a review but I'm already telling you to get it. I admit I'm completely biased. I love this program. I might even be in love with it. I don't know how it feels about me. Most reviews give the good points first but I'm going to go backwards here and get the bad ones out of the way. Also, if I did the good points first the review would be top heavy and would fall over and break the internet.


- No definitions in Japanese. As you progress along your journey to learn Japanese you will begin to realize that definitions translated into English and other languages lack the finesse and nuance of a simple Japanese definition of a Japanese word. Many advanced students of Japanese prefer ordinary Japanese electronic dictionaries, the same dictionaries Japanese natives use, for that reason. If you are JLPT level N3-N5 this most likely doesn't apply to you and English only definitions would be fine, if not much, much better.

- Searching for a word sometimes brings up strangely prioritized results. This bad point will sound a lot worse than it is. Let's say I want to look up the English word "take" to find the Japanese translation. Let's make a guess at what would be the first definition to appear in order of most common usage. I would guess toru(取る): to take (something). You might guess the other toru(撮る): to take (a picture). Or maybe even motteiku(持って行く): to take (something to somewhere). But we're all wrong, the first definition we get is tsukau(使う): to use. What? Well, one of the definitions of tsukau they give is titled an "idiomatic expression" and is written as "to take (one's lunch)". The heck does that mean? Fortunately the word following tsukau is much better, kakaru(掛かる): to take (time or money). But after that we're back to weirdness, aogu(仰ぐ): to look up to/depend on. Aogu can also apparently be translated as "to drink, to take". Huh. OK. Following that we get our toru's, our motteiku, and ukeru(受ける) which is another good one. So out of the first seven words, five are good. You can always check if the word is what you're looking for by reading the example sentences which are in Japanese(Kanji and Romaji) as well as in your foreign language of choice. I know this part makes the dictionary sound terrible, but it's amazing how rarely it causes me problems. Usually I'm looking up Japanese words for English translations anyway.

- You need an iPhone or iPod Touch. You also need to eat to have energy to work the iPhone/iPod. You probably need a house to live in to keep it out of the rain too.



- Based on Jim Breen's excellent JMdict dictionary. You might be using this already. Or maybe you use Rikaichan which is based on Jim Breen's work. Basically I'd be shocked if you didn't already know and use these resources daily. If you don't and want to learn more about them (as you absolutely should) googleして.

- Size and convenience. Normal electronic dictionaries are a bit smaller than a stack of B6 papers. They are definitely not pocket-sized unless you still wear your JNCO jeans from 1995. If you live in Japan and want to learn Japanese it is imperative you have a dictionary within easy reach at all times so you can study when your not studying. With a dictionary always at your fingertips you can take a second here and there during the day to look up Kanji you see on a sign or check out a word you overhear. We're all lazy. No one wants to root through their bag, unzip their dictionary from it's sheath, only to look up something they're just a little bit curious about. Instead we'd all just half wonder what that word means and forget about it. But with Kotoba! it's on your phone or your mp3 player, which is always right there for you. Like a good friend. In your pocket.

- Multiple ways to search for Kanji. There are tons of ways to find that Kanji that you always see but can't seem to remember. Of course you can search by the reading, if you know it. You can draw the Kanji yourself by activating "simplified Chinese" in the iPhone/iPod's keyboard settings. You can use the SKIP system which is what many popular paper Kanji dictionaries use. You can search by JLPT level. You can even search by Japanese school grades. This is incredibly handy if you want to feel superior to a 6 year-old, yet inferior to a 7 year-old. By far the best way I've found to search though, which goes back to one of my previous blog entries, is by multi-radical. You don't have to know what the arbitrary base radical of the Kanji is. Just select the radicals which make up the Kanji and your Kanji will appear, like magic. Having this system always at my side has drastically improved my kanji reading ability since now I can quickly look up any Kanji I run into.

- *******Word lists.******* To me, this is the most important part of Kotoba!, so it gets asterisks. This has nothing to do with it being a dictionary, but everything to do with how it is an incredible study aid. When you look up a word and decide this is a word worth remembering, just click the star in the top right corner. This will add it to your word list. You can have multiple word lists broken up into verbs, adjectives, nouns, or whatever. As for me, I break them into groups of 50 or so miscellaneous words. When I have a bunch, I make a new list. That in itself is kind of cool. I mean, this is supposed to just be a dictionary. It's nice that I can save words I want to remember. Although a list of words isn't really useful for studying. What would be great is if Kotoba!, this free dictionary software, could export your word lists into a flash card program like Anki. That way you wouldn't have to retype all your Kanji, readings, meanings, and tags. Oh wait, IT CAN DO THAT. In Kotoba! just click "E-Mail CSV" and send it to your computer. CSV stands for comma-separated values and it's one of the formats that Anki can import, perfectly, without any fiddling to get it to work right. If you use Anki already you might already realize how powerful this makes Kotoba!. Typing new Kanji, meanings, readings, and tags into Anki is time consuming and a pain. When you carry around and use Kotoba! you are always building your list of useful words to study. Anytime you look up something new and interesting just click on that star. One plus of studying words this way is that you learn common Japanese words used in daily life, not only the ones a textbook designer thought you should know (though, you should be studying them too). So Kotoba!(free) + Anki(free) + common words you run into(free) = an excellant way to learn new vocabulary.

- Miscellaneous good stuff.

>Has a good amount of colloquial terms.

>Has stroke order for Kanji.

>Has the Katakana equivalent of most English words, which has randomly come in handy for me.

>In addition to English, Kotoba! supports French, German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.


I conclude that it is awesome. It's super awesome. What more do you want for free? It might even be worth picking up an iPhone or iPod Touch for, though that would make it drastically less free. I say save those yennies. I know I can't live without it.

If you give the app a shot, let us know what you think in those comments down there.


  1. Though I don't have the yenners to spare at the moment, after seeing the stuff you and Dylan can do on your iTouchs in regards to Japanese study aps, I'm really considering getting one in the future. I like the electronic dictionary I have, but a Touch would be a good complement to it, I think.

    Nice write-up, Joe!

  2. WoW. i bet you have the hard to understand the function of it. why don't you take a Japanese lesson? maybe it will help you to improve your Japanese skill.Well, who knows?

  3. I also use Kotoba on my iPhone. It's been very useful for me, and much faster than a traditional J-E dictionary book. I had no idea about the simplified Chinese setting! That is useful! I'll have to try it.

  4. I've been using Kotoba on my iPhone 3G, and while it's useful and a great piece of software, it's just too slow to get any real studying done. For my marathon sessions, I can't go without my XD-A9800. I'm curious to know if it's noticeably faster on the 3GS or 4.

  5. I used to have kotoba. But it was kind of clumsy and slow so I bought one in the app store for around 30 dollars (Think it's just called Japanese, will have to look). Works great. But if you can deal with the performance issues (and the size of the app itself) then it might be worth saving the 30 bucks. I found 30 bucks was worth eliminating the frustration.

  6. Are you serious about this? Rather than buying an overpriced gadget, why not buy a good smartphone for the fraction of the price that Apple demands and get a free dictionary there. Oh and even if you do, electronic dictionaries are still usually better, because they have been specifically made for the job and come with many advantages. The only downside I see is that you have to carry an extra device around. But still, a normal smartphone + an electronic dictionary are together still way cheaper than an Apple iPhone and provide much more capabilities.

    Of course, if one already owns an iPhone then Kotoba is a nice alternative to buying another device. Still, it's not as good as a standalone electronic dictionary.