As I began learning Japanese, I realized one very important piece of information. This piece of information is something I always stress to those just beginning their study of Japanese, and even to those who have been studying for years. My biggest piece of advice? Find good resources, especially a good Japanese dictionary.
A good Japanese dictionary is one of the most important resources for learning Japanese correctly. Why are dictionaries so important? The simple answer is because they are the most commonly used types of books for students of foreign languages. I know from personal experience how essential dictionaries are! I have plenty of memories from my Japanese class, and there were many times where I would sit in my classroom and have no idea what some of the words on my worksheet meant. There were plenty of other occasions where I knew what word I wanted, but could not remember how to spell it or the kanji I needed. Unfortunately for me, I often forgot to bring my Japanese dictionary to class with me. The short dictionary in the back of the textbook just didn’t cut it—those textbook dictionaries usually only incorporate words used in their lessons, so if you need a larger vocabulary, you’re just out of luck! That is one reason why full length dictionaries are so helpful. You don’t have to worry about being limited to the words the textbooks want you to know. When I did remember to bring my dictionary to class, I felt more confident when I was called upon to give an answer or when I was completing class activities that required the students to formulate their own dialogues.
Japanese dictionaries are definitely important for classroom use, but what about non-traditional students of Japanese? Now that my formal Japanese education has ended and I have begun expanding my knowledge on my own, I can tell you a good Japanese dictionary is still a high priority for me. There are many methods for studying Japanese outside of a classroom, and each of these methods has their own approach. Depending on how you choose to study Japanese, the sources you use will all assume you know a different set of words. This makes learning Japanese outside of a classroom difficult since it is not likely all students learn the same vocabularies in the same order. This is where dictionaries are so helpful! Anytime you run across a word you have never seen before, just look it up. It’s better than trying to figure out what the word means from context clues, or just passing over it thinking you will come back to it later. Look the word up immediately and study the hiragana and kanji for the word. Dictionaries are the best tools for building your Japanese vocabulary.
By now I hope I have convinced you that you need a good Japanese dictionary if you seriously plan to study Japanese. So which one should you buy? There are loads of Japanese dictionaries on the market, both in bookstores and online. There are also plenty of free web-based dictionaries out there that you should consider. I personally prefer to have both a paper dictionary as well as several web-based dictionaries that I refer to.
While many Japanese dictionaries are great, few approach perfect. There can always be mistakes or mistranslations in any dictionary. This is why I prefer to have several options open. If I have a question about a word, I can look it up in several different dictionaries and see what I get. If I get the same translations, great. If I don’t, then I can make a decision about which word is right for my context.
You should search for a Japanese dictionary that you like, but also consider what makes a good dictionary. In my opinion, a good dictionary should not be too small. Look for medium to large sized dictionaries—this way, you are broadening the scope of the words available to you. You should also look for dictionaries that give you both the hiragana readings of a word and the kanji readings. These types of dictionaries are the most helpful. Some dictionaries will even include usage notes or example phrases and sentences to help you understand the words. I recommend getting a dictionary that has that feature. This feature is easier to come across in online dictionaries, but there are print dictionaries like this too. Some dictionaries function for both English and Japanese; in other words, you can look up a word in English and get the Japanese translation, or look up a word in Japanese (often times romaji) and get the English word for it. These are very, very helpful and huge timesavers. Check the front and back of the dictionary to see if there are lists of kanji or the kana alphabets. I find that I often check lists like this in the front of my dictionary. They are very accessible and save me a lot of time!
While searching for a good Japanese dictionary, you may also want to look for a kanji dictionary. These dictionaries can go more in depth about the kanji system, which is very helpful for intermediate and advanced students. Many of these books will teach you the essential, every day kanji that you need to know (especially if you plan on visiting Japan)! A good kanji dictionary should show you the stroke order of the symbol, the readings of the symbol, and what number that kanji is in the alphabet. Kanji dictionaries are best when used in conjunction with a regular Japanese language dictionary. Sometimes you can find dictionaries that combine a regular dictionary with a kanji dictionary. If you can find an organized, easy to use dictionary like this, it’s a great option to consider.
Studying any language is a great challenge, but there are definitely tools available to aid you in your success. As you continue on your journey, remember the importance of a good Japanese dictionary!