Putting “Kotoba!” through its paces

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The best part about owning an iPod Touch (or an iPhone, for those lucky enough to live in places where it isn’t sold at an extortionate premium) is being able to download all those clever applications that keep marching onto the virtual shelves of the iTunes App Store. From war games to financial tools to the complete works of Shakespeare, there’s bound to be an app for almost any requirement somewhere in the App Store’s massive 20,000++ item catalogue. What’s more, some of the best apps are available at no cost to the user.

Today, we’re throwing the spotlight on a free dictionary app that students of the Japanese language will find useful: Pierre-Philippe di Costanzo’s Kotoba!.

INTRODUCTION

Kotoba! is a multilingual Japanese dictionary app that draws on the massive lexical database developed under the JMDict Project. It’s a fairly space-heavy app, with the current release (version 1.2) tipping the scales at 62.7MB, but that’s all for the best because the entire database resides on your iPod Touch/iPhone – meaning that no internet connection is required for the app to function properly.

As I wrote earlier, this app is available for download free of charge. It’s compatible with both the iPhone and the iPod Touch, in both cases requiring the iPhone 2.1 Software Update. All of the information in this post is derived from the app’s performance on my device, which is a first-generation 16GB iPod Touch loaded with software version 2.2.1 (the latest update rolled out by Apple).

Kotoba! has been around since August of last year (with the current release dating from late November), but I’ve only had it on my device since yesterday so this post may be updated in case I run across any other features worth writing about.

FEATURES WALKTHROUGH

Kotoba! accepts search queries entered using either the standard English/romaji keyboard or the special Japanese/kana keyboard. There’s a third (and more fun) way to start a word lookup, but we’ll save that for later.

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Hit the blue button and Kotoba! displays a list of matching terms.

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Tap on the item you want to bring up a full dictionary entry that includes the original word, its kana and romaji equivalents, and what it means in English (and, where available, in French, German, and Russian).

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Scroll to the bottom of the dictionary entry to view the “Kanji decomposition”, which lists the individual kanji that make up the original search term.

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Tap on any item in the “Kanji decomposition” to view a detailed entry that includes the character’s readings (onyomi, kunyomi, Pinyin, Korean), English definition, stroke count, radical data, JLPT level, index numbers for various external references, etc. The proper stroke order is set out via a small animated diagram on the upper-right-hand corner (NB: this feature is not available for all kanji).

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Now for the fun part. Let’s say we’re ambling down a street in the heart of Tokyo when a sign bearing a few strange kanji comes into view. Neither the English keyboard nor the kana keyboard will be of much use in this case, since we don’t know the proper readings for the unfamiliar characters. No worries: just trace out the offending kanji using the handwriting recognition feature of the iPod Touch/iPhone’s Traditional Chinese keyboard, hit the blue button . . .

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. . . and presto! Kotoba! generates the usual list of matches, which (hopefully) contains the kanji or multiple-kanji word we’re seeking.

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This direct-entry capability is a great (and potentially very useful) feature, but it’s not without its flaws. For one thing, the iPod Touch/iPhone’s base software currently doesn’t include a handwriting recognition tool designed specifically for Japanese, so Kotoba! relies on the tool that comes with the Traditional Chinese keyboard. It does the job well enough for the most part, but the results are often peppered with non-Japanese ideographs that can throw our search off-course.

Another thing is that it’s not enough for the drawing to simply look like what we’re searching for: it should be drawn whilst observing the proper stroke order. I could be mistaken, but that’s what I observed after testing the tool with a few correctly shaped kanji written using reversed or randomised stroke patterns. This could be a problem if we’re dealing with kanji that are unfamiliar to us – and whose stroke orders we may not be certain of – though in such cases, applying the general principles that govern the placement of kanji radicals should see us through most of the time.

(For the record, it’s quite clear that these shortcomings are not the fault of the app creator. These should be addressed by Apple itself, through future improvements to the language features built into the iPod Touch/iPhone’s base software.)

POSSIBLE FUTURE UPDATES

On Kotoba!‘s official website, the creator lists some of the improvements that may eventually be released for this app:
– A search history feature
– A feature that will allow users to search for kanji by radical
– Verb conjugations

Note the creator’s plea advising users not to write him concerning release dates. Fair enough – this is a free app after all, written entirely during the creator’s spare time, so pestering him with unreasonable requests is really just bad form.

FINAL VERDICT

This is easily the best free Japanese language reference app I’ve come across so far. User friendly and comprehensive, it should hold its own in the face of competition from paid reference material such as the expensive (but, to be fair, quite impressive) Japanese offered by codefromtokyo. (For anyone interested, there’s a great review of that paid app on iphoningjapan.) UPDATE: With the release of Japanese version 2.0, the scales have tipped decidedly in favour of the paid app. Check out my review of the new and improved version here.

9 Responses

  1. It looks like a handy feature, but I don’t have nor plan to get an iPhone.

  2. @Kitsune: Quite understandable – the iPhone isn’t exactly cheap, after all. The hefty price tag was pretty much the main reason why I decided to go with the iPod Touch, which gave me twice the capacity for less money.

  3. Even an iPod touch isn’t reasonable for me now, seeing as I’ve got quite a few debts to pay back >_>

  4. @Zeroblade: Yeah, it’s really hard to part with large amounts of cash these days, with the crisis and everything. Even something as trivial as an overpriced Starbucks frappucino seems unreasonable to me now.

    Still, the crisis does mean that there are plenty of good deals around, if one looks in the right places. My sister just got a 2nd-generation iPod Touch for about P10K less (!!!) than what I paid for my 1st-generation unit more than a year ago.

  5. Love Kotaba! Use it for studying and some of my technical editing work. SoftBank now offers iPhones at a reasonable price during the “iPhone for Everyone” campaign.

  6. @Chip: Regrettably, I’m in no position to take advantage of SoftBank’s generous offer, seeing as how I’m not a Japanese resident. (T_T)

    On the other hand, if any Japanese residents are reading this, go out and snap up those iPhones!

  7. […] Putting “Kotoba!” through its pacesThe best part about owning an iPod Touch (or an iPhone, for those lucky enough to live in places where it isn’t sold at an extortionate premium) is being able to download all those clever applications that keep marching onto the virtual …https://animeaffairs.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/putting-kotoba-through-its-paces/ […]

  8. […] for verbs using their conjugated forms – something that the otherwise excellent free app Kotoba! didn’t have. (In that app, one had to know the dictionary form of a verb to conduct a […]

  9. […] Joseph is a crazy dude that I love. He writes for so many blogs that it would take from Tokyo to the moon to write them all down. Diego over on ディエゴの日々 has posted an excellent review of Kotoba! [app website] [iTunes store], the multilingual Japanese Dictionary app for the iPhone and iPod touch. “Kotoba! is a multilingual Japanese dictionary app that draws on the massive lexical database developed under the JMDict Project. It’s a fairly space-heavy app, with the current release (version 1.2) tipping the scales at 62.7MB, but that’s all for the best because the entire database resides on your iPod Touch/iPhone – meaning that no internet connection is required for the app to function properly…“ […]

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