Free Reference Apps And Sites Are Popular, But Are They Reliable?

The world is getting smaller and there is no shortage of language tools available to help you communicate. The shift to mobile has changed the way we work and learn, with increasing methods of staying productive on the go.

Even the most staid names in publishing are moving digital — with branded applications for use on all mobile devices, your favorite dictionary, thesaurus or encyclopedia can now fit in your pocket. But, with all the free websites and reference applications available, how necessary is it to pay for one of the classics?

Quality you can trust

A primary consideration for anyone in the market for a mobile reference tool should be the quality of the content it contains. Especially important for professional linguists, business professionals and students, the content included in the lexical databases separates the useful dictionaries from the not-so-good.

With so many variations in usage and spelling, officials in Germany have taken steps toward standardizing the national language already in the 19th century. Since 1880, when Konrad Duden’s “Vollständiges orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache” prepared the way towards an official standardization of German spelling and the strenghtening of its position by the German authorities who provided the national spelling standard in 1902, the “Duden” documents and prescribes continuously the development and changings of the German language.

There are many free sources of German reference content on the Internet, but official usage and spelling standards are necessary for scholars and language professionals. User-curated encyclopedia content, like the information available on Wikipedia and other online sources, is acceptable in informal, anecdotal references, but is not yet acceptable as an academic or research-oriented source.

Branded reference applications, on the other hand, like Britannica Concise Encyclopedia for Android and iOS, contain content curated, researched and fact-checked by the publisher — in this case, Encyclopaedia Britannica, one of the most respected names in American reference publishing for over 100 years.

Even though the source is a digital publication, it is fully attributable and quotable in any academic setting, just the same as the paper edition. While many institutions do not accept wiki or other internet sites as research sources, branded applications, due to the fact that the content is verified directly by the publisher, are acceptable in any classroom situation.

Full-text translations

How smart is a dictionary app when it comes to non-standard spellings and irregular word translations? Paragon’s unique programming algorithms allow the English, Spanish, French, German and Russian lexical databases to recognize different word forms, prompting the application to bring up the correct word definition even when the word is written in non-basic form, such as with irregular verbs or plurals.

You simply can’t get this level of technological advancement with the free services like Google Translate. For example, typing the Russian phrase, “Я думаю, что $2 очень мало!” (“I think $2 is very little”) in Google yields the entirely opposite translation of, “I think 2 EUR is enough.”

Google’s automatic machine-driven translation service is adequate for fast full-text translations, but if precise translations are necessary, detailed contextual information, traditionally available only through carefully researched and scholar-vetted content, is key — and is not yet available through the Google technology.

Further, the service’s corpus linguistics technique, allowing Google’s translation engine to “learn” from other professionally translated documents available on the web, is not even savvy enough to distinguish names, like the Russian “Дмитрий Анатольевич” (Dmitry Anatolyevitsch), from titles, translated to “Mr. President,” and relies heavily upon user-indicated suggestions in order to improve translation quality.

English-German translations fare no better with Google. By entering “well done steak” in the English to German Google translator, instead of reading “gut durchgebratenes Steak,” one gets “gut gemacht, Steak.” “To break a tie” Google translates not as “ein Unentschieden abwenden,” but as “brechen eine Krawatte.” The idiom “fed up” is simply not translated at all – Google simply displays the same “fed up” instead of “satthaben.”

Offline accessibility

While many users have reliable mobile Internet access most of the time, there are situations in which the Internet is inaccessible — in closed rooms, while traveling on a subway, airline, or abroad there additional fees are required to access the Internet using a foreign wireless network. Relying on an online service, like Google or Dictionary.com, requires an ongoing, dependable connection to the Internet at all times.

For most users, offline content is a highly reliable and affordable solution, accessible at any time for free. This offline user experience is akin to using a print edition — if you’ve downloaded it and have it at hand, it’s available at any time, anywhere.

With reference works now available as mobile applications with the same trusted content as the print editions and a host of technical features not found in traditional reference sources, learning on the go has never been easier or more convenient. A full range of desktop, web and mobile reference applications is available for any language combination, end use and budget.

Katia Shabanova is director of PR at Paragon Software Group where she handles editorial exposure for the company's mobility and disk utilities divisions. Katia studied linguistics at Moscow State Linguistic University and University of Texas at Austin; English and German philology at Santa Clara University, California; and earned Master of Arts degrees in English and German Philology at Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany.