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A good dictionary is one of the most essential tools for language learning. Fortunately, the days of lugging around a huge paper dictionary or expensive denshi jisho are gone. These days, if you have a smartphone you can download one of several sophisticated apps which turn your phone into a state-of-the-art Japanese dictionary!
We’ve tested out several apps, and we found that the best free Japanese dictionary app for iPhone is imiwa?
Unfortunately, the app is only available for iOS (iPhone and iPad) at the moment, but we’ll be covering the best dictionary app for Android phones soon.
Here’s why imiwa? is our top pick:
When you look up a new vocabulary word, it’s not enough to see that word in isolation.
This is especially true with a language like Japanese, which has many concepts that do not translate directly into English.
That’s why we love the example sentence feature of imiwa?. You can see each word in the context of several example sentences. This is the best way to get a feel for how that word should be used naturally. It’s also a great way to find sample sentences to add to Anki or your flashcard app, if that’s how you like to learn.
Freaking out over the thousands of kanji you need to learn? Break them down into groups.
Under the ‘learn’ section of imiwa?, you can view lists of kanji organised by JLPT level or Japanese school grade. This feature is super useful if you’re preparing for the JLPT exams. It’s also fun to browse through the school level kanji and see how you compare to a Japanese first grader.
The app also features a comprehensive page on each kanji, including onyomi and kunyomi readings, sample words, and reference number for various text books such as our top pick Remembering the Kanji.
Oh, there’s also a handy animation of stroke order – essential if you want to learn how to write kanji correctly.
Different ways to look up kanji
How do you look up kanji in a dictionary? This is a problem for many Japanese learners. If you come across an unfamiliar kanji, and you don’t know how to pronounce it, how do you go about finding it?
Luckily, imiwa? offers a number of options. You can look your kanji up using the SKIP system, by combining radicals, or by Chinese radical. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, your Japanese language learning program or textbook should explain all about radicals.
Alternatively, just add the Chinese handwriting keyboard under your iPhone keyboard settings, and you can draw it in with your finger.
Does this situation sound familiar? You’re reading something in Japanese, come across a word you don’t know and check its meaning in your dictionary. The next day, you come across the very same word again – only to find you’ve completely forgotten what it means!
That’s because words rarely stick in your memory the first time you see them. To really commit new words to your long term memory, you have to review them.
This app has two great features to help with that: search history and personalised vocabulary lists.
Search history is just what it sounds like: select ‘history’ under ‘lists’ in the menu, and you can see an instant list of everything you’ve looked up recently. This is a great way to review all your new words after a long day studying.
Imiwa also allows you to create your own personalised vocabulary lists. See that little star at the top of each entry? Simply click on that, and the word will be added to your favourites list. This way, you can save words that you know you’ll want to revisit later.
You can also make specialised lists around different topics. Planning a trip to Japan? Create a ‘travel’ list, and save all the essential travel vocab that you think might come in handy.
Text analyser: the instant translation feature
Ok, this is seriously useful. If you ever get text messages or emails in Japanese, or read Japanese articles on your iPhone, you will LOVE this feature. If you have a piece of Japanese text on your phone that you want to translate, all you have to do is highlight and copy it, and then open up imiwa?. The app will instantly analyse the text for you, giving you a translation of each individual word. You don’t even have to paste it in! This feature is such a time saver if you like to like to read online and look up words.
You can also type in your own text into the analyser function if you can’t copy and paste.
Multiple language support
The majority of Japanese language study resources out there are designed with native English speakers in mind. Many people with a different mother tongue end up using English as the intermediary between Japanese and their own language. That’s why we love the fact that imiwa? also offers translations from Japanese to French, German and Russian, as well as a smaller number in Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and Italian.
Don’t want to see all of these languages? That’s fine. You can easily select your preferred language in the settings.
We hope you found this review of imiwa? helpful. In our opinion, it’s the best free Japanese dictionary app for iOS out there.
If you’re learning Japanese, you can get free lifetime trial access to our recommended online Japanese course here.
Are there any other great free apps that you recommend for learning Japanese? Let us know!