Putting “Japanese” through its paces

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The iPod Touch puts Swiss army knives to shame. Never mind that you can’t use it to cut cheese, start a fire or skin a wild mountain goat. With a Touch in hand, you can bop along to the heavenly tunes of Palestrina one minute and study for the JLPT the next. Heck, why not do both at the same time?

(Because Latin and Japanese don’t really mix well, that’s why. But you could if you wanted to.)

Today, Diego turns the spotlight on an app that iPod Touch or iPhone-toting Nihongo students might consider adding to their software arsenal: codefromtokyo’s Japanese.

INTRODUCTION

Japanese is a language reference app that bundles a dictionary, kanji database, hiragana/katakana guide and various lookup/study aids into a single software package.

The price? US$19.99. (In a word: Ouch.) By the end of this review, you’ll know whether I think the app is worth giving up a few overpriced gourmet lattes for.

The current release (version 2.0) weighs in at a hefty 47.2MB, but the space investment is well worth making because the entire database resides on your iPod Touch or iPhone. No internet connection is required for the app to function properly; just switch on your device and you’re good to go.

As for system requirements, Japanese is compatible with both the iPhone and the iPod Touch, in both cases requiring version 3.0 of the iPhone OS. (Note: The app’s official website says that only version 2.0 or 2.1 is required, whereas the App Store product page says 3.0. I’ll err on the side of caution in this case and prescribe 3.0.) 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 OS version 3.1.2.

FEATURES WALKTHROUGH

Japanese is like a Swiss army knife within a Swiss army knife: out pops the blade, which in turn sprouts even more blades. There are almost too many features on this app to write about, but let’s try to go through some of the most important.

First up: the dictionary function. There are four ways to dig up the word you’re seeking – the lunatic way (scrolling through all 154,957 entries until you find the one entry you need), the boring way (using the standard Western keyboard to type in romanised words), the fun way (using the built-in kana keyboard to type in hiragana), and the really fun way (which I’ll save for later).

Doing a search is easy peasy: just type in the word you want . . .

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. . . then tap on the desired result to bring up the word’s full dictionary entry.

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Now let’s pop out a few more blades. Tap on any item in the “Kanji In This Word” section to bring up a full database entry for that specific kanji that sets out variant readings, sample sentences, popular compounds, radicals and identifying codes for various references (such as New Nelson and Kodansha). The sample sentences, compounds and radicals can themselves be tapped on to bring up even more information, but let’s not get into that here or we’ll soon find ourselves tracing out a tree with seemingly infinite branches.

Before we return to the dictionary entry though, let’s tap on one more thing in the kanji database entry – the stroke count. This will bring up a large, almost full-screen animated diagram setting out the proper stroke order for drawing the character, very useful for writing practice (although its usefulness is limited by the format which follows the straight-edged word processor style, not the more natural handwritten style found in some printed works).

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Back to the dictionary entry. Scroll down and you’ll find a list of example sentences containing the word you searched for – another useful feature for students. Tap on any item in that list to bring up an enlarged, more readable version of the example (complete with furigana). And the blade-popping doesn’t stop there: tapping on another word in the sentence . . .

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. . . takes you to the dictionary entry for that word.

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A great feature of the dictionary in Japanese is the ability to search 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 successful search.) For my part, I found this a very handy function whilst listening to Japanese songs: on hearing the word 漕ぎ出そう in the Aria opening theme, I typed the word into the Japanese search bar and it brought up the entry for the verb 漕ぎ出す. (Moreover, the dictionary entries for verbs contain an extensive list of conjugations, including informal variants and special types like imperative and volitional forms.)

Earlier, I mentioned a really fun way to do a word lookup. Now for a demonstration. Picture yourself in a Japanese convenience store (within the borders of Gakuen Toshi, to put the screencap in its proper context), idly browsing through the magazine racks. As your eyes flit from one cover to another, you run into a word you can’t understand.

gakuentoshidensetsu

What now? Even the kana keyboard is useless if one doesn’t know the word’s correct reading. Fret not: just open Japanese, bring up the Traditional Chinese handwriting recognition keyboard (which should have been activated beforehand via the device’s general settings), draw in the kanji one by one, select the result that matches what you’re seeing . . .

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. . . and you’re done.

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This direct-entry feature isn’t always spot on, but keep in mind that it was designed for Traditional Chinese. As of this writing, the people behind the iPhone OS have yet to introduce a handwriting recognition keyboard tailored specifically for the Japanese language.

There are many other features worth writing about, which I shall have to rush through in the interests of brevity:

  • Hiragana and katakana charts, complete with stroke-order animations for each character.
  • A 12,736 entry kanji database, which includes the 1,945 jōyō kanji and stroke-order animations for more than 2,000 characters. Kanji are categorized by component, radical and school year (i.e., elementary levels 1 through 6 and junior high). The best part: a feature that allows users to search for kanji by their individual components.
  • Various lists and list-making features, including a search history, classifications (ranging from food to mechanical engineering) and lexical categories (proverbs, nouns, verbs, adjectives and so forth).

    There is also a special section that may be of help to anyone revising for the JLPT. Vocabulary entries are grouped into four levels (following the ranking format of the exam), and there’s a reminder up top that tells you how many days you have left to study.

    Japanese_app 001

    PERFORMANCE

    Japanese loads very quickly on my iPod Touch, requiring no more than two to four seconds from first tap to search-ready. It also responds to search queries with blistering speed – something that I’ve found very convenient when trying to look up a word heard moments earlier in a song or an anime episode.

    The app’s broad range of personal settings allow for a substantial degree of customisation. Controls are available for features as basic as the romanisation method (five to choose from, including two variants of Hepburn) and as obscure as nanori (special kanji readings used mainly for Japanese names).

    FINAL VERDICT

    Prior to the major improvements that were rolled out with version 2.0, Japanese offered few advantages over the free dictionary app Kotoba! (with which it shared a number of features such as handwriting input and the use of the massive JMDict Project database). While Kotoba! remains an excellent and reliable option for those on a budget, Japanese has now pulled well ahead in terms of features and performance. (For a general overview of what the app was like before version 2.0, check out the great review of a previous version on iPhoning Japan.)

    Packing several print references’ worth of information into a single user-friendly – and highly portable – app, Japanese could prove a handy companion for students who need to look something up on the go. In view of its comprehensiveness, wide range of features, ease of use and fast response time, the price of a few visits to a pretentious cafe seems well worth paying.

  • 8 Responses

    1. […] EDIT: This app has now been updated. For a review of the incredible new version check out the review by Diego […]

    2. Great review. Totally agree, the new version is fantastic.

      Thanks for linking to iPhoning Japan – have added a link to the old review to point people here!

      Joseph

    3. Seems to be pretty good, but I won’t be getting it do to i’m not intrested in getting am iphone or touch in general.

    4. […] Putting “Japanese” through its paces […]

    5. @Joseph: Thanks for the link. With the app in its current, much-improved state, it might even make more sense for some people to invest in a multi-functional iPhone or Touch (then download “Japanese” along with various other apps, music and so forth) rather than shell out a small fortune for an electronic dictionary that does little else than, well, act like a dictionary.

      @HyperKnuckles99: That’s fair – no sense in spending a large amount of cash on a device just to use this one app. On the other hand, the many other things one can do with an iPhone or Touch might make it a worthwhile investment.

    6. Great review, now I’m starting to wonder if getting this instead of a DS (and the available Nihongo apps) would be a more worthy investment for Japanese studies and beyond… hm. To think that there are visual novels for the iPhone or iTouch too…

    7. @usagijen: I’d grab an iPod Touch or iPhone rather than a DS – but then again, I’m biased.😉

      The versatility of this device is hard to beat, and with new apps (many available free of charge) coming out all the time, it hardly ever seems to age.

      What’s more, it’s possible to get it cheap if one knows where to look. My sister got her second-generation Touch at about half the price I paid for my first-gen. Use the savings on a DS and get the best of both worlds.

    8. […] EDIT: This app has now been updated. For a review of the incredible new version check out the review by Diego […]

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