I like to listen to Olly Richards’ “I Will Teach You a Language” podcast, and I happened to listen to Episode 232 called “Why you shouldn’t listen to slow audio”. He argued that the content that you listen to is more important than whether it is being spoken at normal speed or not.
Having given it some thought, I agree with him in that when people struggle with listening skills, it is usually down to the content being too difficult rather than the speed at which it is spoken at. This does pose a frustrating problem for us language learners: we struggle to listen to our target language, which is in part because we haven’t been exposed to the language enough.
Despite this, I think it is important to persevere with listening to something in your target language, even when you do not understand anything at all. This is why it is so important to find something in your target language that you enjoy, whether it be an interview with your favourite music artist, a TV show or anime.
Looking back, it is having this motivation to watch or listen to something at native speed that eventually improved my own listening comprehension skills. When I was studying for a Japanese exam (GCSE Japanese, which is probably closest to JLPT N5) I went from struggling with the exams to finding them fairly straightforward within a few months.
Looking back, the only thing that changed within those few months was that I began to watch a lot of Japanese TV/ drama (sometimes with English subtitles, sometimes without). Being a beginner in Japanese, it was extremely difficult to pick out what was being said apart from a few words here and there. However, the most important thing that happened as a result of doing this was that I got used to Japanese spoken at a native speed rather than at a slower speed. Combined with revising the vocabulary covered in my test, this made tackling the listening section much easier.
Similarly, I found that just spending more time listening to Japanese as it is naturally spoken helped with the listening section of the JLPT test (I have some last minute tips on how to tackle the listening section here).
Eventually, you want to get to the point where you understand your target language at a native speed, so it is important to start working towards this as early as possible. Therefore, as a language learner, maintaining a balance between material you listen to as immersion and material you use to study is key, as I wrote about in my post on podcasts.
So, the next time you are testing out your Japanese listening skills, try listening at regular speed before slowing things down. By listening to the material more than once, you might find that you are able to understand more than you initially thought!
I’m interested to know if you agree with Olly and I or not and why – let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Apps for learning Japanese tend to focus on a certain aspect of the language, such as learning kana or learning vocabulary. This is fine as a supplement to classes or following a textbook, but not so much when self-studying. There are few apps that offer a more comprehensive approach from the very beginning, and Human Japanese is one of them. Whilst I wouldn’t suggest solely relying on one resource, Human Japanese is free at the earlier levels (called Human Japanese Lite) and is a pretty good alternative to one of the popular textbooks.
The app starts from the very beginning, starting off by familiarizing you with the sounds of Japanese and how they differ from English. The app then takes you through hiragana before moving on to basic Japanese grammar and vocabulary across 44 chapters. You must complete each chapter before moving on with no option to skip (although this can be changed in the settings). At the end of each chapter, there is a quiz to test your learning. I would say that the app does a good job of covering reading, writing, speaking and listening equally.
One of the main advantages of using an app over a textbook when self-studying is having audio integrated into the app; Human Japanese takes advantage of this by having lots of example sentences and audio.
I think this is a good choice for those who have had no prior experience learning Japanese (or any language for that matter) as it takes you through the basics of Japanese whilst imparting a lot of relevant and useful information along the way. This does mean that the app is text heavy, which could well be intimidating and it may not feel like you are making progress as quickly. Even so, I highly recommend this for newcomers to Japanese who are intending to study the language in some depth. There are a lot of things explained in the earlier chapters that I wish I had learned from the very beginning! One aspect to Human Japanese that I like is that once downloaded the app can be run entirely offline, which reduces the temptation to go online and get distracted.
The lite version gives you access to the first 8 chapters or so – if you like these chapters, you can purchase the full app for £9.99. The app is available on Android, Apple Store, Windows Phone, PC & Mac. I suggest taking advantage of the ‘Sneak Peek’ feature and look at the previews of each chapter (especially if you have already started studying Japanese).
There is also a Human Japanese Intermediate which may be suitable if you have already studied the basics – the official website has chapter lists to give you an idea of which app may be the best for you. The intermediate version of the app probably finishes covering the main aspects of grammar for JLPT N5 and a bit of JLPT N4, but also has chapters on things like sentence ending particles -の/ んです, よ, な which are often left to a later stage of Japanese learning.
The cost of learning with textbooks can be a barrier to those who are just starting to learn Japanese. However, there are plenty of online Japanese resources which are great no matter what your budget is.
Most people are told that in order to study Japanese they should make their way through Genki textbooks 1 and 2. There is of course nothing wrong with this method (it is tried and tested after all).
Unfortunately Genki books are not cheap at around £40 (over $50) for the textbook. This doesn’t include the costs of additional materials such as the workbooks either! So if your funds are limited, buying a Genki is not an affordable option for people studying on their own.
Online Japanese Resources to the rescue!
On the other hand, the internet is packed with online Japanese resources that are actually pretty good! So I thought it would be a good idea to introduce some websites to help those looking to study Japanese without a textbook. When I think back to the Japanese language classes I have attended, textbooks were never used so I definitely think it is possible to self-study without using a textbook.
Having said that, I believe textbooks are useful because they provide a methodical framework in which to work your way through learning the basics of a language. Online resources do not always provide this same framework to follow, which can make it difficult to know what to study next. Fortunately, most of the ones I mention in the below list do not have this issue.
I recommend looking at grammar lists for the beginner level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT for short). Even if you aren’t planning on sitting the exam, you can get a feel for essential grammar and vocabulary. If you are new to Japanese your focus should be on essential words and phrases, sentence structure and how particles work. Check out my How to start learning Japanese page to get some further ideas and resources.
Here is a list of various online Japanese resources that I think learners can work through like a regular textbook. You could also use this as supplementary material to a textbook or class that you are already studying with.
Tae Kim – Probably the most well known on the list and for a good reason. Tae Kim’s website offers a comprehensive introduction to Japanese. It also tries to take a different approach to a lot of textbooks. It is being updated all the time too.
Imabi – This is a great place to start if Tae Kim isn’t for you. This online grammar guide starts from the beginning of learning Japanese right up to advanced level. The website is split into beginner, intermediate and advanced conten. Each level is split into a number of lessons, enabling you to work your way through the website just like a textbook. Best of all this is entirely free – needless to say, this is a must visit resource!
Erin’s Challenge – if you’re a visual learner you may find supplementing your study with this website useful. Erin’s Challenge is a website put together by the Japan Foundation. The website has a series of videos featuring Erin, who becomes a school exchange student in Japan. Each short video covers a different topic as she gets used to her new life in Japan. These also have explanations of key grammar points and phrases used which you can then test yourself on.
Marugoto – The Japan Foundation website has a number of free online courses aimed at those self-studying Japanese called Marugoto. Different courses with suit different learners depending on your goal. If you aim is to build practical communication skills in Japanese then I recommend the ‘Katsudoo’ course. However if you want to study Japanese in more depth then choose the ‘Katsudoo & Rikai’ course.
Human Japanese – Whilst not free in its entirety, the ‘lite’ version of this app is free. Fortunately the free content gives a pretty good indication of the app’s approach to learning Japanese. I’ve written a separate post reviewing this app as I think it is worth the cost of entry for complete beginners to Japanese.
Lingodeer – this (free!) app is more like Duolingo in style. You follow a series of lessons covering different aspects of vocabulary and grammar. Having said that, it covers topics in a way that makes it very accessible for Japanese learners. You can then follow up the lessons with some of the sites below to reinforce your understanding of the content. It also does a pretty good job of testing you on the content of the lessons in different ways, which is really important when self-studying.
It’s always good to have somewhere else to check out grammar explanations if they are not making sense straight away. Here’s a list of online Japanese resources you might find useful:
Jgram – I think of Jgram as a database of Japanese grammar points which the community contributes to. You can search for grammar points by the (old) JLPT levels or use the search function to look up something specific. Each entry has notes and example sentences which is helpful for getting a new perspective on a grammar point.
Maggie Sensei – Everything on the website is presented in a really fun and easy to digest way. As well as explanations of grammar points, you will also find posts on aspects of Japanese culture. I also like that vocabulary is listed by theme rather than difficulty.
Wasabi – Wasabi’s online grammar reference is similar to Tae Kim in layout and style. I think Wasabi’s guide is particularly good for learning to distinguish between grammar points which have similar English meanings.
Japanistry – The Japanistry grammar guide works quite similarly to the Tae Kim guide but is a great reference site for the foundations of Japanese grammar.
日本語の森 (Nihongo no Mori) – This YouTube channel has lots of videos on grammar points aimed at all levels of Japanese learners. The playlist that I’ve linked to called ‘Ekubo Basic Japanese Lessons’ starts from the very beginning, but there are a number of playlists focused on different levels of the JLPT.
Worksheets and Quizzes
MLC Japanese – full of handy printable worksheets and quizzes. There is a lot of content for JLPT N5 & N4 in particular, but you can find study plans and JLPT material for the upper levels (old levels level 2 and level 1).
Memrise – has a number of electronic flashcard decks, including decks on the main textbooks including Genki, Tae Kim’s guide and the JLPT.
Japanesetest4you – This is an all round useful website for learners, with grammar and vocabulary lists for each level of the JLPT. You can practice a bunch of mock questions online.
JPDrills – JPDrills is pretty new to the game, but from what I’ve seen is pretty good. Access to the full website requires a subscription, but you can sign up to practice a bunch of Japanese questions for free. This is a helpful resource if you are working towards the JLPT.
The above are all websites that I have tried and thought could be useful for other learners. If you are looking for even more online Japanese resources, check out my Japanese Resource Masterpost!
This post contains affiliate links. Please read my Disclaimer for more information.
Japanese grammar has a few quirks, and I would say that after sentence structure, the use of particles is the trickiest thing for Japanese beginners to get their head around.
What are Japanese particles?
Particles are little words similar to prepositions in English that follow verbs, nouns and adjectives to indicate various things within a sentence. I like to think of them as little signposts that show the relationship between different parts within the sentence.
Let’s have a look at an example sentence.
In the example above, は indicates the topic and に indicates the destination.
There are a lot of particles in Japanese, but I have put together a mini summary of the most important particles and how they are used:
は Topic marker
Not necessarily the subject of the sentence
In the sentence Antonia is the topic and movies are the subject
Often omitted unless the topic changes
Can be used to show contrast as below:
が Subject marker
Usually followed by a verb or adjective phrase
Always marks the subject of a subordinate clause
When used after the end of a clause it acts as a conjunction that can mean ‘and’ or ‘but
Used with intransitive verbs and potential forms of a verb
を Object marker
Always followed by a verb/ verb phrase and follows the strict object of a sentence
Transitive verbs are preceded by を
に Time/ place marker
Always indicates the location or place with a verb indicating movement
Also used to denote a time when an action takes place
Indicates the recipient of an action
で Indicates means of an action
Indicates the location in which an action takes place
Can also be used to show the means of doing an action
の Possessive marker
Can be used in place of が in relative clauses
As a sentence-final suffix, it can add an explanatory nuance
と Meaning ‘with’
Is also used to quote direct or indirect speech
If you are looking to get a book that has a great job of explaining the vast majority of the particles you are likely to come across, then I would consider the book All About Particles by Naoko Chino.
This book gives an overview of what each particle can mean in different contexts alongside example sentences. I like that the book shows where particles can be used interchangeably as well as how this can affect the nuance of the sentence, especially with the infamous ha and ga particles. This makes it a great reference book for beginner-intermediate learners.
Getting a good grasp on how particles work from an early stage will help immensely later on when tackling more complex grammar, so do not be afraid to spend a lot of time on studying particles.
Quick Japanese Particles Quiz:
１ 京都にはお寺__多いです。 きょうとにはおてら__おおいです。
２ 家__遊びに来てください。 いえ__あそびにきてください。
３ ペン__名前を書いてください。 ぺん__なまえをかいてください。
４ 今日は私__誕生日です。 きょうはわたし__たんじょうびです。
５ マアリーさんは大学__仕事をしています。 メアリーさんはだいがく__しごとしています。
６ 先週私は友達__パリに行きました。 せんしゅうわたしはともだち__パリにいきました。
７ きのう天気__よかったです。 きのうてんき__よかったです。
８ 窓__開けてもいいですか。 まど__あけてもいいですか。
How to practice Japanese Particles
The JLPT grammar section has some questions on particles where you have to select the appropriate particle missing from the sentence. This is a great way to practice as there are a few quizzes available online.
Pay attention to the sentences you use in your normal studies. I do write a lot about the importance of context – when it comes to particles, certain verbs for example will be used with specific particles, eg. 〜が見えます instead of 〜を見えます.
This manga is about a father and son who have recently started up their own bakery shop. There’s one small difference, both father and son are Shiba Inu dogs!
32-year-old Taro Shibata quit the salaryman life to pursue his childhood dream of running his own bakery. His son Kotaro is just 4 years old but helps out a lot at the bakery. As with all new businesses, getting the word out about the business is not easy and the manga focuses on the pair doing their best to make the bakery a success. Taro soon finds himself taking on a bigger role in his local area as he has an uncanny resemblance to a 神 ‘kami’ calledしめなわ五郎 who is meant to bring prosperity.
This is a slice of life manga with a lot of the humour coming from the characters who visit the bakery, as well as the fact that the shop is run by a dog. It also has its heartwarming moments, particularly between Taro and Kotaro. Taro’s wife does also appear in the manga, but the circumstances in which she left are not immediately clear.
In terms of language, I would recommend this to JLPT N3 learners (people close to N3 might find it difficult although not impossible to read). I think that whilst most of the vocabulary is everyday language, the manga is more suited to those who have a solid foundation in grammar and are familiar with a bit of casual language.
There is also furigana provided for some words (eg. 偉い・えらい) but not for others (eg. 謙虚・けんきょ) which adds a bit of extra difficulty. I suggest trying the manga out through the link below to see how easy you find it.
Each chapter is pretty short which makes it a fun, light manga to read – this is highly recommended. The only downside is wanting to eat copious amounts of bread while reading this!
You can read a sample of the manga on the EbookJapan website – at the time of writing, the whole of Volume 1 is available to read for free!
I have always intended to talk about Akebi on this blog as I have used it consistently for several years when I do not have my electronic dictionary to hand. If I was asked to recommend a Japanese dictionary for an android user, I would always go with Akebi – there are other apps out there that work in a similar way, but I find Akebi to be the most user-friendly and reliable of the ones I have tried.
Akebi is a Japanese-English dictionary app with a few additional features which make it useful for Japanese learners:
When you search a Japanese word in Akebi it will give you the English definition and indicate other useful things such as how commonly the word is used and whether the word usually uses kanji or kana. For verbs, it will indicate whether it is an ichidan/godan verb, or if it is transitive/intransitive.
Example sentences from Tanaka corpus are also provided underneath the definition. The app does sometimes pick up sentences that are not relevant to the word you searched but is about as accurate as jisho.org which draws from the same database of sentences.
For words that are comprised of more than one kanji, it will indicate the meanings of the individual kanji which can then be tapped on in order to learn more about them.
The app also has kanji/ vocabulary lists which can be sorted into 常用 (common use) or JLPT level.
Similarly, you can create your own lists and then add words as and when you look them up. These can then be turned into flashcards which you can review in the same way as Anki. Whilst I haven’t used this myself in depth this is a neat way of creating your own personalised JLPT study list based on words you’ve looked up rather than a premade list.
If you need more information on how to set up lists there is a really easy to follow tutorial for doing so. There are actually tutorials for all aspects of the app which is really useful for newbies.
You are able to search words by typing in kanji, kana or romaji. In addition to this, you can search for kanji by writing it on the screen. The app will then bring up a number of suggestions as to what the kanji you are writing could be. I have found this kanji writing search to be very responsive – provided you more or less follow the correct stroke order, it will identify the relevant kanji. Having said that, even when I wrote kanji using the completely wrong stroke order it managed to identify it correctly!
As you can see there is a lot to like about Akebi, whether you use it solely to look up words or not. I can easily recommend this to all Japanese learners irrespective of level, especially because the app itself is free from the Google Play Store!
I haven’t gotten round to doing one of these posts in a while (believe me, it’s not down to lack of apps to review!) but I was inspired to write one after coming across the app TangoRisto.
This app is a reading app but is tailored towards the needs of Japanese learners. Some reading apps are better suited to intermediate or advanced learners, but this has a lot of features which enable beginners to get reading in Japanese as soon as possible.
TangoRisto takes its articles from NHK News Web Easy (for beginner-intermediate learners), Top NHK News (for intermediate-advanced learners) and Hukumusume (fairy tales in Japanese).
When you select one of these from the main menu you can choose an article to read. Once selected, you can view the article with a few extra features including:
Toggle furigana on or off, or toggle furigana on for kanji split by JLPT level
Option to bookmark articles for offline viewing
Tap on any word for an English definition
If a verb has been conjugated it will indicate how it has been conjugated/ the politeness level as well as the verb in its dictionary form.
When you tap on the vocabulary again you get further information on the word: it can then be bookmarked and added to a vocabulary list to review later offline.
There is an option to search the word on websites such as jisho.org, Tangorin, Google as well as the Japanese Stack Exchange where you can ask questions on usage.
Toggle the glasses on or off to see different vocabulary highlighted in different colours according to their JLPT level (eg. N5 words and grammar are underlined in orange)
Full vocabulary list for each article
The ‘glasses’ feature on this app I think is especially useful for learners because it helps learners identify what kind of vocabulary or grammar they tend to get stuck on, which you can then use to adapt your learning – particularly useful if you are working towards the JLPT. Being able to view articles and vocabulary lists online is also a really useful feature to have (I wish more apps had this to be honest!)
All in all, a great app that I am sure will get even better over time 🙂
The app is available for free on the Apple Store and the Google Play Store, so there really is no reason not to check this out! Find out more on the app’s official website.
They say you can learn anything from YouTube, and Japanese is no different. I have done a post on this previously, but since then I’ve found three more channels you might find useful on your language level journey.
Bond Japanese is a very good resource for newbies to Japanese, I certainly wish it had been around when I was a beginner. The channel has lots of helpful bite size videos on learning hiragana as well as basic grammar, common phrases and greetings. The language videos are presented by Marina who speaks clearly and does a great job of covering basic grammar points.
I find that at times, the spoken conversations can be quite a step-up in difficulty from the grammar or vocabulary covered but all dialogues have the Japanese on screen together with the English translations. At the very least this means you get used to natural conversation sooner rather than later.
My favourite videos to watch are the ‘Stroll Around’ series which focuses on different places in the Tokyo area. Through this series, I’ve certainly discovered a few places I’d like to visit next time I am in Japan.
Chop is a bit of a strange one and is a fairly new channel, but I am oddly fascinated by it!
This channel focuses on super short videos which introduce Japanese, perfect for those looking to build their vocabulary. Each video has a short skit which can be summed up in one Japanese sentence containing the new word at the very end, along with furigana and an English translation. These skits are funny and often a bit strange, but I think this is what helps the vocabulary to stick in your head.
Whilst the type of humour will not be everyone’s cup of tea, if you do find them funny then this could be an entertaining way of getting in a couple of minutes’ study when short on time. Each week there is a ‘Weekly Chop’ which is a compilation of the skits from that week (there tend to be 3-4 videos uploaded per week).
The accompanying website has a full vocabulary list for all of the words that appear in each skit.
Talk in Japan has a large number of videos aimed at Japanese learners from JLPT N5 right through to N1. I would be hesitant to recommend the grammar/ vocabulary videos to those just starting out as all videos are entirely in Japanese with English subtitles which could feel a bit overwhelming.
Having said that, if you are working towards the JLPT (especially for N3 and above) then I can recommend their videos on each aspect of the test which is targeted towards each level. I like the grammar point videos as they are normally less than 5 minutes long, do a pretty good job of explaining usage and are accompanied by example sentences and a short dialogue at the very end. There are also some videos on business Japanese etiquette in addition to Japanese culture and cooking videos which you may find useful as well.
All of these channels are up and coming rather than established channels but I hope you find them useful and can support them as they continue to grow!
If you are new to learning Japanese, you may have heard about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT for short. It is something that myself and other Japanese language bloggers often refer to as an indication of one’s Japanese language level.
In the UK, the applications for the next sitting in December, have just opened and the results were published for the July exam very recently With this in mind, I thought it would be a good time to write about the JLPT exams for those who know nothing about it.
What is the JLPT?
The JLPT was developed as a way of measuring non-native Japanese speakers’ proficiency in Japanese. There are 5 levels to the JLPT as follows:
N5 – Beginner proficiency
N4 – Upper beginner proficiency
N3 – Intermediate proficiency
N2 – Upper intermediate proficiency
N1 – Advanced proficiency
The exact composition of the exam depends on the level you are taking, but all cover reading (with different emphasis on kanji, grammar and reading comprehension) and listening skills. If you pass, you will receive a snazzy certificate for your efforts.
The exam can be taken either inside or outside Japan – check out the official website for information on test centres in your country.
How do I know which level to take?
If you’ve been studying for a while, you might not have an idea of what level you are currently working at. The official JLPT website has some sample questions which can give you an idea of which level you are working at – alternatively, you may want to check out the resources mentioned below.
Is it worth it?
The answer to this ultimately depends on your current situation and future goals. I would definitely recommend it if you are looking to work in Japan, especially if you would like to have a bilingual role. A lot of Japanese companies look for business level (=JLPT N2) or native level (=JLPT N1) proficiency, so having this on your CV may well help you get your foot in the door. I’ve summed up what I believe the main pros and cons below:
JLPT is a well-recognised qualification
A good way of measuring your own progress particularly if you are self-studying
Can be expensive (in the UK it costs £75 per sitting)
Can only take it 1-2 times a year depending on where you live
Does not test speaking proficiency
Especially at higher levels, grammar points can get obscure
There are more cons than pros in the above list, but the pro of having a widely recognised qualification is a great advantage for those wishing to pursue further studies or employment in Japan (this is not to say that not having a JLPT qualification will prevent you from getting a job!).
How do I study towards it?
There is a heavy emphasis on vocabulary and grammar, so a lot of study is needed to cover all of the materials at each level. For this reason, textbooks are a popular choice although there are some wonderful (and free!) online resources too:
For level N5, there are not many JLPT specific textbooks available. If you are working through a textbook such as Genki, then you should cover a lot of the grammar expected at this level – refer to the online resources below for lists of grammar points, vocabulary and kanji in the test.
For the upper levels, there are two series of books that are quite popular: Nihongo Sou Matome and Kanzen Master. I have not used Nihongo Sou Matome myself but it is very highly regarded.
I have personally used the Kanzen Master series of books (pictured above – there are individual books for grammar, vocabulary, kanji and listening comprehension) which are a useful means of preparing you for the test.
There are a number of websites with vocab, kanji, grammar point lists and listening exercises – here are a couple of my favourites:
Tanos JLPT is a great place to start if you’ve just decided to take the plunge. The website has vocabulary, kanji and grammar lists which you can start to work your way through.
Japanesetest4you is a website filled to the brim with practice tests for all aspects of each level of the JLPT. As i’ve mentioned previously, it is really important to practice in exam conditions so that you have an idea of how to manage your time on the day!
MLC Japanese has lists of key vocabulary and kanji, worksheets with exam-style questions and study plan ideas for the JLPT.
Nihongo Pro has free vocabulary, kanji and grammar quizzes for all levels of the JLPT.
Flashcard apps like Anki and Memrise have a number of shared decks for each level of the JLPT
If you are lucky enough to be in Japan or a major city overseas, you may be able to find a JLPT prep class – for example in London, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) runs JLPT prep classes in the run up to the exam.
This is a general overview of the JLPT test – if you have any further questions about the JLPT please let me know in the comments.
If you are committed to studying Japanese for the long term, you might be thinking about buying an electronic dictionary, commonly known as 電子辞書 /denshi jisho. I own one of these electronic dictionaries, but for some time I struggled to decide whether I really needed one. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to put together a post for those who are about to make a similar decision.
A quick note: if you are just starting out with learning Japanese, I suggest sticking to free online dictionary resources that are beginner friendly – I recommend the website Jisho.org, or the Akebi dictionary app.
About Denshi Jisho
If you’ve been to Japan and visited a Japanese electronics store like Yamada Denki, you’ve probably come across rows of 電子辞書 denshi jisho, 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. Two of the main companies that produce these electronic dictionaries are Casio and Sharp.
The denshi jisho I have is a Casio model that I purchased about 5 years ago. I tend to use it alongside free resources depending on what I am studying.
Advantages of having a Denshi Jisho
A lot of Japanese learners reading this might be thinking, “why would I want to have a dictionary when I have a smartphone?”
Here are some of the main advantages of having an electronic dictionary:
Access to multiple dictionaries. Models nowadays contain more dictionaries than you can shake a stick at, with a number of Japanese dictionaries, Japanese-English dictionaries, and other helpful dictionaries dedicated to kanji and kotowaza amongst other things all in one.
Durable. Naturally, electronic dictionaries are not only more portable but will cope better with being thrown into a bag to take to Japanese class, for example, than a paper dictionary.
Quick and easy to search and ‘jump’ between dictionaries. It’s super easy to switch dictionaries (eg. between a Japanese-English and a Japanese-Japanese dictionary) if you want to learn more about a word.
No chance of getting distracted. I find that when using my phone to look things up during a study session, I’m highly likely to check social media.
Certain models have additional features such as handwriting input, touch screens and a SD card slot for access to even more dictionaries.
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 still a worthy purchase for Japanese learners?
In my opinion, the usefulness of an electronic dictionary does depend on how you study the language.
What to ask yourself before buying an electronic dictionary
Before committing to an investment in an electronic dictionary, it is wise to consider the following three questions:
What Japanese level are you at currently?
As I mentioned at the beginning, the usefulness of a denshi jisho only really comes into its own once you have reached an intermediate level in Japanese, no matter what your language goal.
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 to help you. 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.
How intensively do you study Japanese?
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 touchscreen where I can write kanji using the stylus. I have found this 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 Japanese 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.
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 involved, I think you may want to first 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, such as Jisho and Akebi mentioned earlier.