There’s no doubt that the iPhone has made my life easier when it comes to travelling – from booking accommodation, to finding places to go and viewing a map of how to get there. Aiming to become the latest addition to my arsenal of travel-assisting apps is Lingvo Dictionaries.
Developed by Russian company Abbyy, Lingvo draws on the developers’ twin strengths of optical character recognition technology and 20+ years’ experience of making electronic dictionaries. As well as standard look up by entering search terms, the app allows you to capture text with the phone’s camera and translate it.
On launching the app for the first time, you’re prompted to select which dictionaries you want to install. Lingvo features over 50 free dictionaries and over 200 premium ones, with prices ranging from £2.99 to £14.99. The widest selections are available for translations to and from English and Russian, covering a vast range from Portuguese through Danish to Turkish and Slovenian. There are also a few dictionaries for French and German users.
Selecting and installing dictionaries is straightforward – simply select the language combination you want and choose from the list of available dictionaries. Most of the basic free dictionaries contain 44,000 words and will take up 4 or 5 MB of storage space, while the premium ones often contain several hundred thousand words, with file sizes well into double figures of megabytes.
Using the dictionary search is intuitive – as you begin typing in the box, a list of possible words appears below. When you’ve got your word, selecting from the list or tapping the search button will bring up the dictionary definition. If you want to switch dictionary, tap the button at the top left to choose from your installed dictionaries. Tapping the button at the top right will switch the translation direction for your current selection.
The definition page gives the English pronunciation followed by the dictionary definition and translation into your chosen language. Tapping the translation allows you to access the appropriate entry in the selected language – for example, from an initial search of “car” in English to French, tapping the translation “voiture” will take you to that page in the French dictionary.
Also of use is the “inflected forms” button at the top right of the translation page. Tapping this takes you to a wide explanation of the use of the word in different grammatical situations, such as past tense, negative etc. From a grammar reference point of view this is a real selling point, especially if you’ll be doing a lot of writing in a foreign language. This feature is included in the basic free dictionaries as well, not just the paid ones.
One of the downsides of the free dictionaries is the absence of foreign language pronunciations; all you get is a simple translation. While this is fine for a quick look up, or if you want to check the English meaning of a word, it’s not so great if you’re wanting to speak the language. The paid-for universal dictionaries do contain this feature, so it’s worth paying the extra if you’ll be needing pronunciations.
Another feature mainly confined to the premium dictionaries is sound files so that you can listen to how the word should sound. Where a dictionary includes this feature, it’s an optional download in addition to the dictionary file. The free Essential Russian <-> English dictionary has audio clips for the English words, so I installed these as a test. The file is large – 122MB – and the download kept pausing, so I had to keep an eye on it. Once done though, the clips are of a very good quality, well recorded and clearly spoken.
Lingvo Dictionaries’ other selling point is photo translation – just point your phone’s camera at the word you wish to translate, capture it and after about 15 seconds the recognised word will appear on screen, with its translation into your chosen language underneath. Tapping on this takes you to the same dictionary page you would see if you’d used the manual search input. The text recognition is excellent – Abbyy have a lot of expertise in OCR and it shows here. I tested it out on various items around the house, as well as text from a laptop screen, and 9 times out of 10 it recognised the correct word – I expect a few of the failures were down to the phone’s camera rather than the app itself (I tested on an iPhone 3GS).
Some minor niggles
The app isn’t perfect – as well as the aforementioned problems of downloading sound files and the occasions when it fails to recognise a word, it did have a few random crashes while using it. These aren’t serious enough to stop me using the app, but could do with being addressed in a future release.
I’m impressed with Lingvo Dictionaries – the range of translations available is good, even with the free dictionaries. You’d need to spend money on the premium ones if you want to use it as a serious aid to speaking a foreign language, but that’s fair enough and the prices are reasonable. It’s the word recognition that really makes the app stand out – if you need to get a quick translation of a sign or menu, for example, it will do an admirable job. With so many free dictionaries available for installation, this £1.99 app offers excellent value for money.