I downloaded an app for my iPad yesterday that excites me. It’s a version of the Hebrew Bible with some interesting options for those who are trying to improve their Hebrew language skills. One can choose to read the text just in Hebrew, just in English, in a hybrid mode with Hebrew and English side by side, or in a ‘learning’ mode where the text appears in Hebrew, but when you tap a word, a box pops up with the English meaning.
The recent Passover holiday reminded me how rusty my Hebrew has gotten, and following some first-grader-esque stumbles over the words during a reading at my stepbrother’s seder, I have vowed to put in some time to improve it before next year’s holiday. I had fun experimenting with the different viewing options in this app. The pop-ups were nifty, and you could even tap again to see further elaborations on the root of the word and the commentary on it in various concordances. There was even a rudimentary read-aloud feature. Like some of the other functions, it was somewhat clumsily implemented, but I can see the beginnings of an e-learning architecture with real potential.
Oh sure, I hear you saying. I can get the same functionality, more slickly implemented, in both the Kindle and iBooks apps, right? Right…if what you want to learn is English. All of the iPad reading apps are, for now, limiting readers to only the dictionary which came pre-installed! My question is….why? There seems to be no logical reason at all for such a restriction, and it’s a real missed opportunity for taking ebooks beyond just paperback fiction and really using these apps for a type of reading where a techie version might actually be a superior experience over plain old paper. Just tap a word and see its meaning? So simple, yet so handy. And…so forbidden. Why, why, why?
I’ve heard rumours on the Mac forums that iBooks restricts the dictionary to only the one pre-installed because they worry about users picking up viruses. But why doesn’t the iBooks store simply sell its own dictionaries then? The Kindle store does—-I bought a lovely French-English translation dictionary for my Kindle, and it’s revolutionized my reading in French. But I can only use it on the Kindle device itself. There is no mechanism to load it into the iPad Kindle app.
It baffles me; it’s a real missed opportunity. Firstly, it seems to me like it would be so simple to implement. So why not implement it? Why withhold a functionality when you can offer it? And why do so when the functionality in question can be both useful and profitable? Teachers would go crazy over this sort of thing—no more back and forth between a book and a dictionary, between a translation and an original text. Just keep on reading, and tap on the word when you get stuck. And another thing—if it works, and you get people reading in another language, doesn’t that mean you can sell them double the books?
Oh, wait. Nobody sells French ebooks. A missed opportunity once again.


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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. You’ll have to ask Amazon why they haven’t ported their dictionaries to other platforms, but aside from that, doing the job on other software is not a non-trivial task. As far as I know there is no standard for dictionary databases, so for each additional dictionary they license, they’ll either have to reformat the dictionary DB or rewrite the parser for it. Best case scenario they can save themselves some trouble by buying from a vendor that supplies multiple dictionaries in the same format.

  2. There are many many functionalities that some customers wish they had on iPads, iPhones and Kindles etc etc etc. The whole ecosystem is in development. There are hundreds of throusands of apps, with more every day. If there is a market opportunity I am certain there would be or there will soon be an app or an update to the iOS or Kindle.

    Perhaps the demand is so limited that no one feels it is worth while doing. On the other hand maybe Chris and yourself could get together and approcah an app developer and inform him of the huge potential being passed up by Apple …………..

  3. Meanwhile, just in order to polish your Hebrew, you can read Hebrew eBooks on your iPad. You can get books from Mendele HeBooks at
    I found it cool! Anyway, your idea seems like something that will be available in the near future. I mean, I’m sure there will be a Hebrew-English dictionary that will be available soon.

  4. My understanding of what you are saying, Joanna, is that the software/hardware is capable of doing it, but no one has developed the application/option to do so. I agree, but that is no different to what I am saying. Investment in delivering it won’t happen until there is a demand worth satisfying. It will probably need European developers to tackle it because maybe that is the market most likely to produce a market for it ?

  5. Howard, all they have to do is allow you to load your own dictionary instead of using the one it comes with. For example, on the actual hardware Kindle, it comes with I think three dictionaries and you can buy other ones and load them on. All you have to do is go into a preference, tell it to use that dictionary instead, and you’re good to go. The stand-alone app I mentioned seems to be using a Google Translate plugin—yes, you have to be on-line to use it, but that is a fair trade-off to me because I would not be using the app if I was not prepared to sit down and study for awhile (therefore, I could plan for being somewhere with wifi).

    It seems, to my admittedly uneducated eye, like this really should not be difficult. The hardware and software both have dictionary capability, clearly—since the one it came with works just fine. All they have to do is sell you another one and allow for a preference where you can specify it. And such dictionaries are clearly available already—Amazon happily sold me one for my hardware Kindle and it works just fine. So…what’s the problem?

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