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As per the title, what should I look for in a dictionary to help me study Japanese? Are there certain things that I should look for in the dictionary or are they all pretty much the same?

To elaborate a bit, what should one be looking for when they are at the following stages?

  • Casual traveler who is visiting Japan and wants to be able to communicate but does not wish to learn the language.
  • Student who is just starting to learn the language.
  • Student who is looking to move to being fluent in the language.
  • Individual who is already fluent in conversational Japanese but is looking for more specialized knowledge (e.g. computers, engineering, medical, etc).
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closed as off-topic by jkerian Jul 30 at 8:20

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

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This is a good question from someone you understand that has really began learning. I had the same feelings and this is related to the topic. –  Herr K May 31 '11 at 19:28
    
Perhaps more detail would be useful. What do you intend to use this dictionary for? What level of language have you studied so far? Do you need to translate for business or pleasure? Do you mean an en-ja dictionary? ja-en? or ja-ja? –  jkerian May 31 '11 at 19:28
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@jkerian - However, one could argue that that question would also get state fairly quickly and would be off-topic for that reason. That said, this question is formatted along the line of what you might see on programmers.stackexchange.com as opposed to stackoverflow.com proper. –  rob May 31 '11 at 19:47
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@jkerian - Thus trying to find the right way to format the question: telling someone what to look for in a tool is going to be much more useful than telling them what tool to get. –  rob May 31 '11 at 19:53
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One thing I'll look for in dictionaries is whether they mention etymology. –  Andrew Grimm Sep 17 '11 at 1:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

You will want:

  • No romaji. Romaji hurts your pronunciation and is a crutch. Get something with furigana, or even better, hiragana in parentheses.
  • Lots of example sentences. Context is invaluable in learning new words.
  • Electronic is better. It's faster and can be used mid conversation much more easily. Plus you can write in unknown characters with a stylus. Plus if you get a good one you might never need to replace it.
  • Once you are at a high enough level you will want to make use of a 国語辞典 (Japanese dictionary in Japanese). They are often more thorough, and some stuff is just hard to explain in English.
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+1; no romaji is good, but it is a good idea to learn hiragana first so you can actually read it ;) –  poke May 31 '11 at 20:03
    
@poke: usually the non-romaji books first lesson will be learning hiragana. –  Mark Hosang May 31 '11 at 23:40

In a kanji dictionary, or perhaps a J—E dictionary, make sure you're comfortable with the method for looking up words, or use a dictionary that offers several methods.

There are methods such as looking up by the radical, the おんよみ and くんよみ, and even the number of strokes in the kanji.

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An online dictionary is much more useful than a paper one. Online dictionaries can be updated with new words and meanings and searched more quickly. There are a few free online Japanese<->English dictionaries, but the best one (in my opinion) is http://jisho.org/.

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Why do you think it's the best? It uses a deficient gloss, EDICT. It's not a real dictionary -- it just lists equivalent English words for a given Japanese word. It does not have English-to-Japanese entries, either. -1 –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 20:10
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Actually, the only thing EDICT is really good for is looking up obscure words or jargon that are missing from "real" dictionaries. It's one of the more comprehensive ones in terms of listing out every sense of each word (as far as it's capable in English). What it won't do is teach you about the definition and usage - it will just train you to translate to English in your head, and without any nuance. EDICT can be harmful -- don't let shiny packaging delude you. There are several commercial dicts available free on the web that will service a beginner better than it. –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 20:55
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I use EPWING dictionary software myself, so I'm not sure which is best - but off the top of my head, dic.yahoo.co.jp dictionary.goo.ne.jp excite.co.jp/dictionary alc.co.jp Each of these uses a version of one of the standard dictionaries you'll find in 電子辞書 or as published books. The one downside is you need to learn a few dictionary-centric words to use them (like, knowing what 和英 and 英和 mean). It'd be nice to find a guide someone's written for one of these sites. –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 21:21
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EDICT is Japanese->English, like these. These also have English->Japanese. A big win is the curated example sentences inline with each definition, as well. –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 21:51
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Not to mention if you have a Mac, it comes with a few great dictionaries that are easier to use than the web versions (since you can click words in an entry to look them up). –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 21:58

There are a couple things to keep in mind when looking for a dictionary:

  1. How easy is it to find what I am looking for? A given dictionary might prove to cover every single word in the Japanese language, but if you can't find what you are looking for then you will think it is just a waste of money. Your best bet here is to look for ones that are used by other students and try and examine it yourself. Also, remember that you will need to get used to Japanese before you feel really comfortable using the dictionary unless you limit yourself to the romanized ones (i.e. Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary).
  2. How long can I use the dictionary for? If you are planning sticking with Japanese and learning the language then investing in a more expensive dictionary might prove useful (i.e. The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary); however, if you just need a quick reference for a trip then you don't need an extensive one.
  3. How will the dictionary help me learn? Beyond the obvious use of the dictionary to look-up new works that you are unfamiliar with, some might prove better than others for learning the words once you look them up. Having the furigana (i.e. Kodansha's Furigana Japanese Dictionary) on hand with the kanji will help students in that they now see the words in question in two different scripts in addition to the the definition that they are looking for.

Beyond that, a dictionary will come down to a bit of personal preference, while the ones previously mentioned could cover most of the basis and provide a wide coverage of the language, you may eventually graduate to the point where a proper Japanese language dictionary is required or you may desire something a bit more exotic such as a loan-words only dictionary.

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