eReaders in Foreign Languages

I’ve been keeping an eye on eReaders for quite some time.  It would seem to me that the digital format has enormous potential to make reading much easier and enjoyable for students of a foreign language.  Glosses have been around for a decade on html texts that show definitions of words from a foreign language dictionary.  It seems logical that an eReader would come with a built in dictionary, and if the eReader or book was from Germany, that the dictionary would be built-in.

I was so confident of this assumption, that I bought an eReader years ago for just such a purpose.  It’s still sitting on my desk, the eBookMan EBM 900.  It wasn’t a successful experiment.

eReaders have gone main stream now, though, and they’re backed by huge international corporations such as Apple, Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble.  Unfortunately after some testing, I still haven’t been able to find one that has my very basic foreign language dictionary.

I started with Amazon. The Kindle has a built in English dictionary.  Unfortunately, that’s not the language I need.  It also isn’t possible to buy ebooks from European Amazon sites, so it was a quick dead end.

The Nook also has a built in English dictionary, and I was able to find famous older texts on their site, but I couldn’t find any of the top German best sellers.  It looks like the books they have are just famous works from the public domain that they’ve formatted especially for the Nook.

The Sony Reader can be set up for a specific locale.  By choosing Germany, the device automatically connected to a German bookstore site when I wanted to add books.  Finally I could at least access current novel in German, but I still couldn’t find a dictionary in German that integrate with the text.

The iPad could conceivably work, but I gave up after a day.  I had found the Ultralingua site which advertises dictionary for Windows, Mac, and other Apple devices.  It worked fine on Windows, so I thought I’d give it a try on the department iPad.  First problem was there’s no free trial for the iPad, so I have to buy it sight unseen.  I was mildly annoyed.  I then tried to add it to iPad via iTunes, but since another person in my department had used it first on her computer I was stuck again.  Once she returned, we tried from her office.  Unfortunately, she had apparently done it from her laptop at home.  I was beyond annoyed at this point, and clearly this was going to be a much bigger pain if I had planned on giving them to students as loaners for all or portions of a semester.  Besides, who wants to read an entire novel from a computer screen?  Granted, it’s easier to hold, but this isn’t a big step from just reading from a laptop.

Update: After Tweeting about this problem, I received a reply from Sony Electronics that the Sony Reader dictionary supports German, French and Spanish.  Fingers crossed.

Update #2: It works very well with German at least. It let me choose the dictionary when I first started. I chose a German to English dictionary. If you tap a word twice, it looks it up. Works with ePub and txt format, though not with pdfs. The note functions also work better than I though. Perfectly fine for underlining, though it’s hard for me at least to write legibly.

11 thoughts on “eReaders in Foreign Languages”

  1. Thank you for this article. I am very interested. I have a number of non-English books on my Kindle and would have many more if there were a touch-word dictionary facility. One of my work PCs has the facility and I don’t know how it got there. It is good but I don’t use my desk top work PC as an eReader.

  2. Thank you for this article which I found interesting. I have a Kindle but would like an eReader with touch-word dictionary. If it existed I would buy many more foreign language books

  3. I really appreciate the lengths to which you’ve gone. This is hands-down: the single-most-useful article on E-Readers I have read to date. Out of the untold thousands of videos on these devices; I haven’t been able to find one that addresses this issue. It’s as though the inventors never even considered this type of usage for their devices! And it’s such a shame because they’d be perfect for bi-lingual students. So I’m basically in the same boat as you (the only difference being that my 2nd language is Spanish). Thank you so much for your research. Keep up the good work.

  4. great summary
    any updates for sept, 2012? I’m interested in finding a good e-reader i-pad app that reads e-pub and offers an italian-english translation dictionary.

  5. Perhaps it is just the passage of time, but there are numerous excellent resources for foreign languages available in late 2012. Regarding Italian, the Oxford Paravia Italian – English translation dictionary app is excellent for Ipad. Devoto Oli is an excellent Italian dictionary (not a translation dictionary) app available for Ipad. You can easily purchase books in Italian from sellers like and convert them to MOBI for use on a Kindle or via the Kindle app on Ipad. Once on Kindle or the Kindle app, you can use the excellent Zingarelli Vocabolario to look up the definition (in Italian of course) of any word by just placing your finger on the word. Wonderful!

  6. Based on the above input I ordered a Sony PRS-T2 with 6 dictionaries. Unfortunately, the beast is intended for Canada and the US, so the 6 dictionaries comprised 2 English, 2 French, and 2 Spanish. NO German. And the accompanying literature makes a point of there being no dictionaries available other than those that are preloaded. It seems utterly ridiculous to me that eReaders are not available with a reasonable choice of dictionaries. An add-on dictionary is apparently impossible for ePub documents because of format issues. This is something that the manufacturer must build in to the unit from the get-go. Can anyone assure me that a Sony PRS-T2 purchased in Germany would be equipped with a German dictionary? I could have a friend buy one for me and mail it, but I don’t want to get stuck with another dedicated to Canada and the US.

  7. I have, myself, been looking into this over the past two weeks with great frustration! I find it so amazingly incredible that with all the technology it comes down to companies trying – as usual – to control media.

    I tried finding an Italian version of the Hobbit for an eReader. Amazon (US) had the paperback but no ebook for kindle. Amazon (Italian) had the ebook for kindle but I can’t buy it because I don’t live in that region. There is no way to purchase it through Amazon. I found an Italian bookstore online where I was able to purchase the book I wanted and then had to jump through hoops to get it onto an eReader.

    I still haven’t found a reasonable solution for getting an Italian-English dictionary to work with it though. Google Books Reader works perfectly for this in that it knows if you are reading a foreign language book and when you highlight a word it gives you the English translation but there are two problems with this. 1.) I can’t find the books I want in the language I want. For some reason the idiots who run these companies don’t think we need to purchase books in other languages. 2.) The dictionaries only work if you have a wifi or cellular connection.

    This is so incredibly frustrating – beyond belief!

  8. I share the same frustrations. E-readers are a great way to read foreign language books and could be of more help in learning foreign languages, if translation – and preferably also same-language- dictionaries were included in the readers. I am looking for a good Italian and/or Italian-English dictionary in a physical e-reader (having given up on finding PC-based E-pub readers with coupled dictionaries). I am now exploring the possibility of importing an e-reader from Europe.

    Finding and buying non-English language books is another frustration beyond my belief!

  9. What you are looking is most definitely available and has been for sometime. it does take some digging though. It is available on kindles (NOT kindle Fires). This is how it works. Amazon has a section of what it calls defaultable dictionaries. This means that they are able to be set as the default dictionary for a specific language. I currently own a Fire HD and a regular kindle to use this feature as you cannot currently do it on the Fire. Back to how it works. I purchased Miriam Websters Spanish translation dictionary: Kindle Edition ( and set it as the default spanish dictionary. Now when I read spanish language books and select a word in the text, the english translation comes on my screen. If you have any further questions about this or how it works contact me on facebook or by email. Also you can do a search on amazon’s site and (search-changing default dictionary). Also you mentioned not being able to buy books from amazon europe. Why would you need to? I have little trouble finding excellent books in any language on, both real and e-texts. Thanks. By the way these instructions are also on youtube with video.

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