Whether it’s your first or second language, English can be tricky. Many of us use our smartphones mainly for reading and writing — not to mention our tablets, of course. So what do you do when you come across an unfamiliar word, or when you need to write an important message on the go without making embarrassing mistakes? Of course, you can always use Google as your dictionary, and there’s Google Translate, too. But if you’re looking for a non-Google solution, today I’d like to share three free and useful apps that can help with both reading and writing English: Two dictionaries, and a keyboard.
Merriam-Webster needs little in the way of introduction. Originating in the early 19th century (1828, to be exact), this is one of the most respected and trusted English-language dictionaries. I have reviewed the Merriam-Webster Android app for MakeUseOf two years ago, and while the app has undergone a few subtle visual changes in the time since, its functionality remains identical. In other words, it’s a very good dictionary:
Its speech recognition feature worked relatively well on my current device (a Sony Xperia Z), and I was able to dictate most of the words I wanted to look up. Each word has a pronunciation guide, but you can also tap the little loudspeaker button to hear a human speak the word. Yup, a human – a real live person, rather than a voice synthesizer. In other words, what you hear is a true representation of how a native speaker pronounces a given word.
Another useful Merriam-Webster feature is offline support: You don’t need to have a data connection to look up words. And finally, if you don’t need to look up a specific word but simply enjoy learning more about language, there’s always the word of the day:
While the Merriam-Webster app is certainly useful and authoritative, it is far from an epitome of modern Android interface design. If you are looking for something that looks a bit more Holo, you would do well to check out the Dictionary.com app:
The flat aesthetic and thin, airy sans-serif fonts certainly seem more at home on a device running Android 4.0 and above. Dictionary.com also offers a wider selection of features, compared to the Merriam-Webster app:
Just like on the Merriam-Webster app, you’ll find the word of the day on Dictionary.com as well. But that’s just one of the features: There’s a slideshow, a language blog, a feature for checking out what other people are searching for, and more. True to its modern form, the app offers a navigation sidebar, too:
Some of the sidebar entries feel redundant because you can access them from the main screen just as easily, but offering a navigation sidebar is still a good practice for modern Android apps.
Finally, the Dictionary.com app offers a companion widget for your homescreen, showing the word of the day and allowing you to quickly look up words:
While the Dictionary.com app is decidedly more modern than the Merriam-Webster one, it’s not necessarily better: For one thing, it lacks Merriam-Webster’s robust offline mode. And of course, when it comes down to it, the most important factor is the quality of the definitions. This is a matter of personal preference, and you’ll have to try both apps to see which one offers definitions which are easier for you to understand. Good thing they’re both free.
Ginger’s Grammar & Spelling Keyboard
While both dictionaries can help you when you read articles or messages, using them to look up words you’re trying to spell can get tedious. Android includes a good built-in spell checker, but here’s one keyboard that tries to complement it: Ginger’s Grammar and Spelling Keyboard.
Above you can see a snippet of a text message I started typing. Android’s built-in spellchecker caught “tonigt” as a typo, but it missed the other errors. Ginger did a better job: It correctly offered to fix “Let’s” and “to”, even though “lets” and “too” are real words in English. It missed when it came to dinner, however, suggesting to fix it to “dine.” The resulting sentence (“Let’s go to dine tonight”) is still more intelligible than the original, though.
You can either apply the corrections selectively, by tapping each suggestion, or you can tap the large checkmark and apply all corrections at once. The former is a nice way to learn from your mistakes, but most people would likely opt for the bulk-correction option, just because it saves time.
Non-Native English Speakers: Do These Help?
If you’re a non-native speaker, I’m curious to hear: Did these apps help you better understand and use English on the go? I would be particularly curious to hear about your experiences with the keyboard. And of course, if you’ve found any other apps that help you better use English, I’d love to hear about them too. Let me know in the comments.