Amazon’s Kindle versus Apple’s iPad - What's best for Language Learning?

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Stuart Jay Raj examines the pros and cons of the Kindle Vs. the iPad. Can these electronic devices ever be as effective as good old "real" books?
## I Love my Books and They Love Me

It all started with an email from a fellow linguaphile in Bangkok back in 2009  – *“Jay, you have to get an Amazon Kindle e-Book reader.  For someone who loves reading and learning languages, you’re going to love it!” *

I appreciated the notion, but over the past 10 years I have developed a disdain for e-books.

When learning a language, books are like the life blood of my language learning process.  When I’m not ‘out in the field’ using the language with people, I will be constantly reading books to build up vocabulary, get exposed to literature in the language and learn the grammar.  I love the feel of books in my hands and the ability to go back and forth between different sections in a book in an instant.  For me this is a crucial part of the language learning process.  For anyone familiar with language learning books, you will normally have something like this:

  • Introduction
  • Contents
  • Glossary of terms and symbols used in the book (especially during early stages needs constant referencing – e.g. ‘tone symbols’, phonetic transcription system, abbreviations etc)
  • Sound System of Language and Transcription
  • Lessons – Dialogues / Glossary of Dialogues / Explanations
  • Appendices – Including Keys to Questions in Each lesson, numbers, alphabets / writing systems, days of week, declension tables and other goodies
  • Dictionary – Language I –> Language II | Language II –> Language I

When reading a normal book for enjoyment, while you might take a peek at the end of the book before you actually get to it, the reading experience is a pretty linear experience.  In order to get the most coherent experience out of it, you would want to read it from the beginning to the end in one direction.

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This is how good language books are supposed to look

When reading a language book however, I will first open up to the sound system, then flick through to some of the dialogues to see if I can work out how to pronounce them first.  I’ll then look at the glossary for a given dialogue (not necessarily the dialogue from the first lesson) and I’ll learn it as best as I can and then go back to the sample dialogue.  There might be words that I hadn’t come across yet, so I will jump to the Dictionary / Glossary at the back to search for the word.  I will then spend time actually going through each lesson, doing the exercises, reading the grammatical points etc.  While doing this, I’ll be sneaking into the Appendices to look for tables and hints to help me construct (and deconstruct) the language faster than the book is trying to present to me.

Eventually, I will finish all the lessons in the book, but that doesn’t mean that I’m done with the book.  I will be constantly going back and forward through it as a reference and refreshing the different grammatical points when they start to fade.

This is one of the reasons why I have been such a proponent of ‘real life books’ when it comes to language learning.  There are a series of criteria that I need when it comes to a language book:

  • Portable – able to be read anywhere
  • Easy to hold / lightweight
  • Easy on the eyes
  • Contain clear Tables and Charts of data
  • Present information in foreign writing systems / fonts
  • Allow me to make notes on the fly
  • Multiple bookmarks
  • Ability to quickly cross-reference other sections in the book
  • Ability to quickly search glossaries and Indexes
  • Long Lasting

Here is my personal assessment of Normal Books:

How Do Real Life ‘Physical’ Books Weigh Up?

Portability☹   Yes – but when travelling, multiple books can be bulky meaning extra luggage, added baggage weight, sore back.  

Normal books cannot be read in the dark either, limiting times when you can read.

Easy to hold☹   Some books can be really awkward to hold for long periods.
Easy on the eyesProviding my eyes are functioning fine, I am yet to own a book where the font-size is too small
Tables and ChartsI prefer to read tables on one piece of physical paper – can easily jump and compare fields etc.
Foreign ScriptsNo problem with foreign scripts
Note-takingAble to jot notes down and highlight areas in the book.  These physical notes act as good memory pegs
Multiple bookmarksAble to use physical bookmarks / dog-ears to mark important sections that need to be used regularly.
Quick Cross-referencingAnyone regularly uses dictionaries or text-books would understand the feeling of being physically ‘calibrated’ to a book.  In the end you can ‘feel’ your way around different sections of the book.
Glossary / Index SearchPhysical glossaries and Indexes become memory pegs in the body.
Long-lasting☹   While books don’t have batteries that run out, books do get old, pages turn  yellow, fall out or can get stained.
## Enter – The Kindle

Right up until the beginning of 2011, I was divided as to whether I should give into the movement toward e-books or not.  While I would often make PDF files up on the fly from information I found around the place on a certain language to help me learn that language, if I was at all serious about using that PDF file, I would normally take it down to the print shop on the corner of my Soi in Bangkok, have them print it out and bind it for me so that I could access it like a real book.  Otherwise, using PDF files or other formats on a normal PC or laptop would be a cumbersome experience.  You couldn’t read for long periods on end – eyes would strain with the back-light from the monitor, jumping back and forth between the document would be more trouble that what it’s worth, making notes was a frustrating experience, having to ‘change tools’ to jot something down and then it was just as much of a chore to retrieve the information.  The reader didn’t remember the place I was up to and all in all it wasn’t an enjoyable experience.

When the iPhone came along, reading PDF books in iBooks was ok, but I mainly used it for a quick reference.  The screen was way too small to have any meaningful learning experience with the book.

People were telling me to hold out on getting the iPad as the ‘new version’ was just around the corner.  In Feb 2011, I found myself having to go into hospital for about a week.  Not wanting to be forced into watching mindless TV shows during my stay, I ordered a Kindle 3 from Amazon for $138.  In the end, I thought that if I bought an iPad, I would start reading for a few minutes, then jump to use other apps, surf the net, respond to email etc.  I didn’t want those temptations / distractions while reading.

It arrived from the US on my 2nd day in hospital (only took 4 days to get to me).   I had a collection of about 700 language PDF files / e-books on my hard-disk.  I quickly loaded them into the Kindle and that was that.  For the next week in hospital and even up until now, I have turned back into a Booky Monster (a Biblio version of Cookie Monster).  I went through book after book – my surgeon was from Sri Lanka, so while I was in hospital, I did a course in Sinhalese and learned how to read and write the Sinhala Alphabet all from my Kindle.

The Kindle is amazing.  The first thing that strikes you is that the e-ink display is like no other electronic device’s display I’ve ever seen.  It’s just like reading something from real paper.  The downside as an electronic device is that you can’t read it in the dark like a computer screen or iPad screen, but that’s nothing a small clip on light can’t fix.  The upside is that there is zero glare or reflection on the screen, so I can take it to the beach and have it in the blazing sun and read it just as I would a normal book.  My polarized sunglasses won’t make the screen turn black either as they do to other LCD screens like that of the iPad.

Here are some other things about the Kindle that I love:

Kindle Pros and Cons

PortabilityRather than taking 10 books with me now on a trip, I just take the kindle that has over 1000 language books loaded into it.
Easy to holdThe unit is extremely light only 8.07 oz. You can hold it in one hand for hours and page turning buttons are on both sides of the unit. I bought a leather case for mine for $13 that looks nice and protects it very well.  It adds to the weight slightly, but is still much lighter than many of my ‘real’ books.

Easy on the eyes☺☹The Kindle’s e-Ink display is amazing.  You can’t see the ‘dots’ as you do with normal digital displays.  It just looks like printed ink on the screen. The only one drawback with the display is when you get into foreign scripts.

While most PDF files can be turned into MOB or other e-book formats using a programme called Callibre (Callibre is a must have for any Kindle owner to arrange your library, file formats, sync’ing etc), I don’t think that most language books are suited to current e-book formats.  They don’t handle tables well, and foreign scripts like Thai, Chinese, Arabic etc don’t render properly – or don’t render at all.

Tables and Charts☺☹As long as you’re using PDF documents, the native PDF capability of the Kindle is fine.  I suggest reading in landscape so that the fonts are a decent size.  

I have experimented with a few things and will be posting soon on tricks to prepare your PDF ebooks for maximum enjoyment on the Kindle.

Foreign Scripts☺☹As long as you’re reading PDF documents with the fonts embedded, foreign scripts are ok in the Kindle.
Note-taking☺☹What the Kindle lacks in being able to write physical notes and ‘feel’ different sections of the physical book, it makes up in being able to jot notes down and highlight sections anywhere in the book.  As soon as you do this, it becomes a bookmark that you can jump to at any time.  It gets better – you can export all your notes as a text file, or to twitter / facebook etc to share what you’ve been learning.  

But wait …there’s more – Now, if you’re reading one of Amazon’s books on it, you can read OTHER people’s comments on the same book and learn from their learning.

Multiple bookmarksBookmarking is quick and easy
Quick Cross-referencing☺☹Cross referencing while a little more cumbersome that flicking to that section in a physical book, is not too much of a hassle.  

If I’m really intending on getting into a particular language book, I will go through the sections in the PDF file and mark bookmarks before I start.  This makes it easier to jump around later on.

Books that have been published in E-Book format will often have their contents sections already set up.  I am yet to see a good language learning e-book properly indexed on the Kindle though.  I guess it’s still only early days.

Glossary / Index Search☺☹See above.
Long-lastingThis is one of the most amazing things about the Kindle.  Because there is no electricity being drained out of the battery while a given page is static on the screen, it means that the device will stay charged for months. I went on a month-long trip without one charge and the device was still going strong by the time I arrived home.

Enter – The iPad

People were still telling me that I was crazy not to have just paid a little bit more and get an iPad.  Other members of my family were also nagging me to get an iPad.  A couple of months after the iPad 2 came out, I finally gave in and bought the iPad.

I have no regrets.

The iPad is an amazing little piece of technology.  The title of this post might be a little misleading, as I have mainly been comparing the e-book functionality of both the Kindle and iPad.  While the Kindle can browse the internet, do email etc, it’s not really designed for it and isn’t a very pleasant experience.  It’s there in case of emergencies.  I chose the WiFi only version of the Kindle so that when I was out, there again was no temptation to go and play with other stuff on the internet.

First I will cover the iPad’s e-book experience.

The iPad’s E-Book Experience

PortabilityThey iPad has loads of memory and can store tens of thousands of ebooks.
Easy to hold☺☹The iPad is very portable, but is a lot heavier than the Kindle.  You can’t just sit there in bed and hold it in one hand for hours on end without your hand getting sore.  Reading a book on the iPad must be a ‘two hand’ experience.  
Easy on the eyes☺☹The iPad wins out when it comes to font size.  The Kindle’s ‘resizing’ of PDF files is not the easiest thing to use and in the end, it’s easier to reformat full PDF files to minimize font problems with the Kindle.  

With the iPad on the other hand, you can re-size with a flick of a finger until your heart’s content.  The fonts remain crisp even when their magnified 100’s of times from their original size.

The down-side with the iPad is that your eyes get tired / sore after reading for a while from the backlit screen – especially if you’re in a dark room.

Tables and ChartsBecause of the much nicer reading experience of PDF’s on the iPad, Tables and charts are a breeze.  You can zoom in, zoom out, flip them around etc.  
Foreign Scripts☺☹Foreign scripts in PDF are ok.  Other formats may experience the same difficulties as the Kindle.
Note-taking☺☹Note taking on the iPad isn’t as nice an experience as on the Kindle.  I haven’t used the note taking facility on it that much as I do most of my reading on the Kindle.  
Multiple bookmarks☺☹Bookmarking can be done – but not as nice as the Kindle’s bookmarking function.
Quick Cross-referencingThe thing I love about the iPad’s eBook reader is the ability to have the entire book at the bottom of the page to sweep into at anytime.  You can quickly jump to any section of the book just by ‘touching’ that part of the book.  Something that the Kindle lacks.  The reason Kindle can’t do this is because of the nature of the e-Ink screen – it’s not a touch screen.
Glossary / Index SearchSee above.
Long-lasting☺☹While the files in the device will last a long time and not fade or pages fall out, the battery life on the iPad is its downfall.  

While the Kindle will last for months on one charge, the iPad will only last for a few hours if you’re using it constantly – not even long enough to keep a charge for an 10 hr flight (let alone the waiting times in transit lounges etc).


My family ended up using the iPad more than me.  The kids play educational games (and some not so educational ones), they watch youtube and my wife keeps all the Thai TV stations streaming in and keeps up to date with Thai news from the many Thai sites designed for the iPad / iPhone.

So What’s better for Language Learning – The Kindle or the iPad?

My conclusion – they’re both amazing tools for language learning that will serve different purposes and even complement each other.

I find that I am now using the iPad in tandem with the Kindle.  I use the Kindle as the eBook base reference and then use the iPad to google things on grammar, scripts etc.  What’s more, there are hundreds of apps out there for the iPad that have really helped me hone my skills in different areas of language for different languages that I speak.

In my next post, I will talk about what apps are out there that I have been using and show you some amazing stuff that you can do with the iPad to help ‘lock’ new languages away in your body.

I look forward to your comments and to hear your experiences of using e-book readers / iPads / Android devices etc for learning language.

Stu Jay Raj.



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Written by

Stuart Jay Raj