For anyone who has ever studied in Japan or is thinking of moving here and taking the plunge into a language that has three alphabets you will more than likely be lured by the electronic option. For me, who came to study in Japan with next to no Japanese ability, as with most foreign students even those that come here almost fluent, the benefits of using an electronic dictionary are clear. In the course of studying in a foreign language you can find yourself looking up scores of words a day, the ease and speed that electronic dictionaries present, especially when dealing with kanji where the reading or pronounciation of a word may not be obvious, is compelling.
The tool of choice for the foreign students in 90’s was the Canon WordTank IDX-9500, a little black box the size of a pencil case containing 650,000 dictionary entries, 35,875 compounds, and 9,800 sample sentences. This compact workhorse hardly left my side for half a decade and although I have a lot to thank it for (i.e. a certificate of tertiary education), the convenience of the WordTank coupled with my sheer laziness as a student has left me practically illiterate in Japanese. The sentiment that ‘if you want to get good at something you need to work at it’ was truely tested by my WordTank. Indeed its not unheard of for students to abandon their ‘compact solutions’ and go back to the more traditional, and heavier, paper versions.
Gift or curse though, the WordTank remains one of the best electronic dictionaries in the Japanese market and is still a perennial favourite in the foreign student community (note that Wordtanks are manufactured only for the Japanese market and are not officially available elsewhere). In 1995 there was a single all purpose model, these days Canon markets no less than 19 sleek looking WordTank variations featuring a myriad of features catering to students, businessmen, world travellers and even the elderly! The machine specs are now even more impressive with Tanks now sporting touch sensitive screens to input and track down that illusive kanji, and the average machine now has about 1.5M entries from some 20 dictionaries. One element that seems to have been developed considerably and may go some way to redeeming the WordTank from its ‘too easy’ label is the ability to quiz and test yourself on such things as vocabulary and even kanji stroke order.
Electronic dictionaries don’t rank very highly these days against the sexier iPods, mobile phones and Web 2.0 apps. If you’re a lover of gadgets and looking to learn Japanese though you’d be hard pressed to walk past a WordTank.