If you’re trying to learn a new language, you know the frustrations of reading a book or article in that language and constantly having to look things up in your dictionary. Thankfully, using a Kindle Paperwhite makes that process much, much easier. With the built-in dictionary and Vocabulary Builder on your Paperwhite, reading in another language is as convenient as it will ever be.
The Paperwhite has gotten a slight refresh since we last reviewed it, making it an even more capable device than it already was, and with the Kindle Matchbook program, which gives you a free or discounted copy of the eBook in exchange for purchasing the physical book, buying a Kindle has never been a smarter choice.
You will need a basic foundation in a foreign language for this to work; don’t expect to learn a completely new language from scratch this way. Reading in another language, even with a dictionary at your fingertips, requires some knowledge of that language’s grammar and sentence structure.
Gather The Necessary Materials
To get started, you’ll need three things:
- Kindle Paperwhite (Second Generation)
- eBook in the language you’re trying to learn
- eBook dictionary that translates from that language to your native language
The Kindle Paperwhite, which we’ve recommended in the past for those shopping for a new Kindle, can be found on Amazon for $119 with Special Offers. It’s a bit more expensive than the $69 Kindle, but while this Kindle also has the built-in dictionary feature, it doesn’t have a touch screen for easily selecting unknown words, and it doesn’t have the Vocabulary Builder feature that we’ll discuss later.
First, you’ll want to be sure that you have a second generation Paperwhite, rather than a first generation, which doesn’t have the Vocabulary Builder feature. The second generation device went on sale in the US on September 30, 2013, so any Paperwhite bought before then is a first generation. If you’re still not sure, go to the home page of your Paperwhite, click the options button in the top right, select Settings, then press the option button again and select Device Info.
For older Paperwhites, the Firmware Version should be 5.3.9, but newer Paperwhites should have 188.8.131.52. If you get a different number from these, you should connect your Kindle to WiFi and allow it to automatically update. Regardless, devices with 5.3.x don’t have Vocabulary Builder, but 5.4.x devices do.
Next, find a book. Your options will vary depending upon what country you’re in, what language you’re learning, and what your native language is, but the simplest option is just to search on Amazon for the book you want. By doing an advanced search, you can even apply a filter to only search for books in a certain language, and then sort by department to find books of your favorite genre.
For a dictionary, you can try searching for it on Amazon or looking under categories. Under Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Education & Reference > Foreign Language Study & Reference > Language Instruction, you can find everything from French to English as a Foreign Language to Spanish. Make sure you buy the correct version; for instance, if you speak English and are learning French, make sure to buy a French to English dictionary rather than an English to French dictionary.
You should also be mindful of the reviews because the dictionary has to be programmed to be recognized as a dictionary by Kindle or it won’t work properly. If many reviews state that it doesn’t work correctly, avoid it. However, if you buy it and it turns out not to work the way you imagined or it has too limited a vocabulary, you can always return the book within 7 days by visiting amazon.com/myk.
Once you’ve got all the materials, it’s time to get started.
Set It Up
After buying a book on Amazon, make sure that it sends it to your Kindle. It should ask during the purchasing process where you would like to send it to. If it doesn’t arrive, you should be able to access it and download it by tapping “Cloud” on your homescreen, but to do that, you will need to make sure that you’re connected to WiFi. If your Kindle gives you any trouble with this, be sure to check out these troubleshooting tips.
To prepare the dictionary, tap on options in the upper right, then tap Settings, then Device Options, then Language and Dictionaries, and finally select Dictionaries. For each language, you can select one dictionary to be the default. Select the dictionary for the language you are trying to learn if it is not already selected. If it doesn’t appear in this list, and you’re sure it has been downloaded to your device, you may want to refund it and try another dictionary.
Once the book is downloaded and your dictionary is ready, simply tap on the book from your homescreen to open it and begin to read. When you come across a word that you don’t recognize, simply tap and hold on the word to get a definition.
As you can see above, the book I’m reading is in French and I’m using a French-English dictionary to get English translations. It’s not perfect, and it can’t translate all the words, but it is still incredibly helpful ninety percent of the time.
For the words your dictionary can’t recognize, there is also a translate function. The downsides to this are that it will require Internet, it takes several more taps to reach, and it won’t add words to the Vocabulary Builder. Regardless, it can help you greatly in a pinch. Simply tap on “More” and then on “Translation.”
This is where the Vocabulary Builder comes in. It’s an app that comes pre-activated on your Kindle Paperwhite, but if it doesn’t appear on your homescreen after you’ve looked up a few definitions, you can always find it by going home and then tapping the options button in the upper right where it will be listed as Vocabulary Builder.
This handy feature takes all of the words that you looked up in the dictionary and lays them all out for you to practice.
You can swipe to the left to scroll through all the words, or you can tap on Books in the upper left to sort it by which books you want to practice from.
Yes, I’m reading Harry Potter in French. Ha Ha. Now, moving on. The Vocabulary Builder has a feature for creating flashcards to help you memorize these unknown words. Tapping Flashcards at the bottom of the page will bring them up. You can tap See Definition to turn it over, or tap the arrow on the right to skip to the next card.
On the flashcard, it will show you the sentence in the story where the word was used so that you have some context. Once you feel like you’ve gone over it enough and can recognize it without a problem, you can mark it as Mastered and the Kindle will take it out of your practicing pile and move it into a mastered pile.
With the Paperwhite’s fast processor and impressive screen refresh times, using the flashcards is simple, easy, and fast.
I hope that this can help you with learning a new language as much as it has helped me. You might also want to check out Duolingo, a Web service for learning a new language that also has apps for Android and iOS. We’ve reviewed the Android app and loved it, and I personally find it to be incredibly helpful.
As for the foreign language Kindle books that you’ll be downloading, it is possible to break the DRM of Kindle books and use them in other places, but this is against Amazon’s Terms of Service, so do it at your own risk.
What do you think of these new Paperwhite features? Any multilingual professionals out there with other advice for picking up another language? Let us know in the comments.