Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Summary of Devices for Reading Foreign Novels

If you're an intermediate student of a foreign language and you want to try to read a novel in that language, you need an e-reader that lets you press on a word and instantly get a definition without having to leave the page you're reading. It also needs to let you easily switch back and forth between two dictionaries:

  • a bilingual dictionary that lets see the definition in English. (To my knowledge, there are no good free bilingual dictionaries. This will be an extra cost--usually under $10.) 
  • a monolingual dictionary that gives you the definition in the same language as the book you're reading. (These typically come for free.)
The reason you need both is that the monolingual dictionary by itself is too difficult for an intermediate student to use, but the bilingual dictionary is limited in size and won't have the most difficult words in it. Over time, you'll move to using the monolingual dictionary more and more--especially if the device lets you use the bilingual to look up unknown words that appear in the monolingual's definitions. When you don't need the bilingual anymore, you won't be an intermediate anymore either.

At this point, I know of only four devices that are able to support multiple dictionaries in this way. I'll discuss their pros and cons and then mention some other devices that are known not to work.

Kindle E-Readers and Apps

I have already written at length about how to read a foreign novel on a Kindle e-reader. All three of the current models seem to be running the exact same software as far as foreign-language support is concerned. Whenever you download a foreign-language book, Amazon automatically downloads the appropriate monolingual dictionary for free.

Basic Kindle

This is the cheapest Kindle that will do the job. It doesn't have the built-in light the other Kindles have, it's heavier than the Voyage, and it has lower screen resolution, but it's half the price of a Paperwhite and only a third the price of a Voyage. Otherwise, they all have about the same features. If price matters, this is the Kindle to get. Caveat: this is a model I haven't ever used personally.

I see that Amazon is offering Kindles on sale for National Reading Month. I don't get a kickback, but I know that many people have wanted to try reading a foreign novel with a Kindle but been unable to do so. At $59 ($20 off the regular price), this is probably the cheapest anyone can get into the game.

Kindle Paperwhite

The light is nice, and the improved resolution is helpful for reading languages with lots of accent marks. (E.g. French.) It's actually very slightly heavier than the Basic Kindle for some reason. It's $119, and I've usually thought of this one as the best value (I used one for a long time and loved it), but, during the sale this month at least, the Basic Kindle seems like the better deal. Caveat: some people like the light so much that they consider it a must-have. (I wonder how they ever managed with paper books.)

Kindle Voyage

If $200 doesn't seem like a lot, and you want the best, this is the one to get. I was pleased with the weight reduction when I switched from a Paperwhite, and I appreciated the resolution improvement too--especially for reading the accent marks on French letters. Even the little page-turn strips on the side are nice, once you get used to them.

Here are Amazon's specifications for all three devices:

Kindle App on iOS

Apple's iPad and iPhone host a Kindle app that appears to have all of the foreign-dictionary support that the Amazon e-readers have. If you already have an iPhone or iPad, that would obviously be the cheapest alternative--hands down.
From How To Add a German-English Dictionary To Kindle on Your iPad or iPhone (iOS) by AndrĂ© Klein

The screen shot from André Klein's web site clearly shows that you can press on a word, read the definition, decide that you want to see that in a different dictionary, and select one without closing the dialog.

Older Kindles

The Paperwhite I and the Kindle Touch also support multiple dictionaries, although not as conveniently. My original post on how to read a foreign novel on a Kindle describes the extra hoops you had to jump through to make those work.

Prior to the Kindle Touch, Amazon's devices didn't have touch-sensitive screens. However, a determined reader could move the cursor next to a target word and get a definition anyway. Readers have told me that the same instructions for installing a bilingual dictionary which worked for the Touch will also work for the older Kindles.

Other Devices

At present, I know of no other devices that have multidictionary support. I would be very happy to get information from more people who use a variety of devices. In particular, I can't figure out whether it does or does not work on a Kobo e-reader. The documentation suggests that you can install and remove dictionaries, but it doesn't say how you change the default dictionary for a given book.

Here are a few that are known to not work.

Kindle Fire and Fire Phone

I have no clue why Amazon doesn't make the e-reader on the Kindle Fire work the same as the ones on the dedicated e-Readers, but, as of this writing, you can only chose one of Amazon's free monolingual dictionaries. You can download a bilingual dictionary, but only to read as a book

Kindle App on Windows 8.1 (Metro version) and on the Windows Phone

It doesn't let you change the dictionary at all. If you open a Spanish book it still tries to use an English dictionary. One wonders why it isn't easier for Amazon to just have a single code base for all their apps and devices.


You can't change the dictionary on a Nook without rooting the device, which I don't recommend. If you want to read Spanish books, you'd have to buy a Spanish Nook. Supposedly the Nook apps all work the same way.


If you want to read a novel in a foreign language, you either need to run the Kindle app on an iPad/iPhone or else buy one of the three Kindle e-readers. If anyone can send me screen shots showing that some other device or app also works, I'll be very happy to include that info.


cunningjames said...

"(I wonder how they ever managed with paper books.)"

I haven't used the current base-model Kindle, but I own an older light-less Nook. Even in very good light the contrast was so low that I found it deeply unpleasant to read for extended periods of time. In low light it was totally useless, and a clip-on book light caused bad glare on a large portion of the screen.

I just got a Paperweight and that's much, much better, so that's what I'd recommend (albeit several months in the future from the perspective of this post). :)

Greg Hullender said...

Useful feedback nevertheless. I'll probably update this article in September or October around the time new devices come out for Christmas.

Still, it really does look like Kindle is the only game in town for dedicated e-readers. That's a pity because I think Amazon would benefit from some competition.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the useful info. One correction: my Nook 4.1 (on a Samsung Tab4) allows you to select the monolingual dictionary of your choice, under 'settings'. However, I don't yet know if you can use a bilingual dictionary, and it seems there is no way to quickly choose between 2 dictionaries.

Unknown said...

To follow up on my previous comment: On the Nook you can select the built-in monolingual dictionary for English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, or Dutch. You are limited to the built-in dictionaries and cannot download or use other dictionaries.

Charlie said...

As a data point, I can say that using the Kindle app on my Android device gives no dictionary support at all.

I'll have to try reading with a Kindle one of these days. I'm not sure I would like having a dictionary so handy. It seems a bit too quick for actual learning.

In general, I seem to have good results in just reading without looking up every word. I'm not sure if that's a skill or perhaps a state of mind that let's me live in uncertainty for a while. Often by the end of the paragraph, or a few paragraphs, I will have figured it out, just as one does in a conversation.

To be honest, this approach goes against a lot that I was taught in the university as well as in my professional life, but it seems to work for me and I find it quite freeing.

Perhaps I'm only pretending to understand and enjoy what I read. :-) When I was getting started with Italian, I used to say "Faccio finta di parlare italiano e gli italiani fingono di capire." So long as we're all happy!