I’ve learned two foreign languages so far, and it’s been satisfying and useful. But there was one unexpected difficulty: the dictionaries. A good bilingual dictionary can be expensive, and too big and heavy
to carry around.
And riffling through a dictionary takes too much time when you’re in midconversation.
Today the problems of bulk and page-riffling have largely been solved by bilingual smartphone dictionaries. They’re easy to use and searchable, and they weigh nothing.
Ultralingua dictionary apps
$20 on iOS
Ultralingua’s apps have been my favorite for a while because of their no-fuss design. I’ve used the English-Portuguese and English-French versions. There are other languages available, including Spanish and Mandarin.
Each app’s main page is dominated by a list of words in English or the other language.
At the top is a search box and control bar that lets you toggle between French-to-English format and English-to-French, for example. Menu buttons at the bottom let you scan through words you’ve recently looked up, see your search history, and view a list of words you’ve marked as favorites.
Searching for a word in English to find its foreign equivalent is fast and easy. The results are displayed on-screen with their foreign translation displayed in a smaller font underneath. Tapping on a result expands the view to show you a pronunciation guide. If you press and hold an entry, a pop-up menu will let you look it up in the dictionary; copy it, perhaps for use in an e-mail; or take you to verb tables.
The verb tables couldn’t be easier to use: Select the right tense from a menu and pick the right conjugation for the subject “I” through “he, she, it.” It’s much easier than using a paper book.
The Ultralingua apps have rarely let me down, but I do have two quibbles. The navigation from word to word inside the app is clumsy; I’d prefer to tap a word as if it were a hyperlink on a Web page instead of holding it down and clicking “look up” from the menu. And I wish there were an audio pronunciation guide.
$5 on iOS and $6 on Android
Larousse is a good English-to-French dictionary and is available in a few other languages.
It is similar in design to the others, but the multiple colors on-screen give it a slightly garish look. Some extras set it apart, including example sentences using foreign words, which help you learn how to use the words properly. You can also hear almost all of those example sentences spoken aloud.
Other bilingual dictionary apps could take some design cues from Larousse’s, but that’s not to say the Larousse apps are perfect.
Some haven’t been updated in a while; the English-German iOS edition has been unchanged since March 2011. They don’t play particularly nicely with the display on newer iPhones.
Ascendo dictionary apps
Free on Android and iOS
Bilingual dictionary apps from Ascendo are hugely popular, like the Spanish-English app. Their popularity may stem from the fact that they’re free and they work offline, so you don’t need a data connection — handy when you’re abroad.
They are fairly comprehensive and offer tens of thousands of translated words, some with example uses. These aren’t the smartest of dictionary apps, however, and finding your way through the pages can be tiresome.
Surprisingly, given how useful a bilingual dictionary can be to language learners, there aren’t many truly great apps in this category. Many have free or “lite” editions, however, so you can try out several to see which suits you. Look for apps that include audio pronunciation guides and those that work when you have no data connection.
Kit Eaton writes on technology for The New York Times.