Bilingual vs Monolingual Dictionaries – Which is Best?

Today I’m going to share with you my views on using monolingual vs bilingual dictionaries for learning English, or any other language. Which is better?

Well, just to be clear on what we’re talking about here, a bilingual dictionary has two languages. For example, it might have Japanese and English. If you look up a word in Japanese, it will give you one or more English versions (or equivalents), depending on the word. A monolingual dictionary has just one language, and when you look up the word, you get the definition or definitions, as well as other information about the word, depending on the dictionary you’re using.

Now, obviously, if you’re thinking of a word, phrase or idiom in your own language, and you want to know how to say or write it in English, well, you’re going to use a bilingual dictionary, regardless of your level. But if you’re reading or listening in English, and you want to know the meaning or a particular word, phrase, or idiom that you see or hear, should you use a bilingual dictionary or a monolingual dictionary?

I think it’s pretty common for language teachers to recommend that you start using a monolingual dictionary as soon as you can, which is usually when you become an intermediate learner of English. There are many advantages to using a monolingual dictionary. One common belief is that you’ll stop translating so much, and start thinking more in English. But this is more theory than fact, and it may or may not be true in your case. Using a monolingual dictionary will definitely be more challenging for you, because there’ll be more cognitive load (meaning more of your working memory will be used). You’ll have to read the definitions in a language that is not your own, and figure out through context (by reading the example sentences given), which of the definitions is the one you’re looking for. Yes, this requires a lot more mental energy than simply looking at the translation into your own language.

Monolingual dictionaries also tend to offer a lot of useful information – they have definitions, example sentences, pronunciation guidance, parts of speech, derivative words, collocations, idioms and proverbs, synonyms and antonyms, and even historical notes, among other things. Monolingual dictionaries are definitely useful tools beyond just definitions.

But there are disadvantages, as well. The first one is that it will take more time to find the meaning, even if you use an online or electronic monolingual dictionary. Second, the definitions might be as difficult or even more difficult than the words themselves. This could send you down the path of having to look up even more words, which takes more time. Some dictionaries might end up sending you on a circular path right back to the word you first looked up! You might want to try a different dictionary if this happens to you. If your English language skills are not high enough, using a monolingual dictionary can end up confusing you even more! Finally, for some specialty vocabulary, it just doesn’t make sense to use a monolingual dictionary.

For example, say I see the word chrysanthemum and I want to know what it means. I look it up in an English-English dictionary, and I get this: a plant that has brightly colored flowers and that is often grown in gardens. Well, that’s nice. I know it’s a flower now, but I still don’t know what kind of flower it is. If I use an English-Japanese dictionary, however, I will get this: 菊、キクの花.  If I am a Japanese learner of English, I immediately know what that is, especially since knowledge of flowers tends to be strong in Japanese culture. In the case of specialty language, bilingual dictionaries are better.

And here is an extra tip: when you’re looking up a specialty or technical word, try Google Images! If I type chrysanthemum into the Google search bar, and you will get many images of this flower. Now, even if you have no knowledge of flowers, you’ll have a good idea of what a chrysanthemum is!

I have experience learning several languages. I’m still a beginner in most, and somewhat advanced in a couple. And even with languages in which I have a higher proficiency, I still prefer a bilingual dictionary to a monolingual dictionary most of the time. Considering all the advantages of a monolingual dictionary, why might that be?

Well, the main reason is speed. I simply want to know the meaning quickly, and a bilingual dictionary is definitely faster. In the case of my Japanese skills, my reading and writing abilities are much lower than my oral communication skills, so I find I have less patience with a monolingual Japanese dictionary. (Oh, and by the way, I try to avoid paper dictionaries because they are too time consuming to consult. I generally use online dictionaries.) While many online dictionaries offer live pronunciation, particularly bilingual dictionaries offer this useful feature, possibly in more than one accent.

Now, if I am still unsure of the meaning after looking the word up in an online bilingual dictionary, I will then move on to a monolingual dictionary. Maybe the bilingual dictionary didn’t list all the possible meanings. Maybe I wanted more example sentences. Maybe the word I saw was used in a strange way. Or maybe I don’t trust the bilingual dictionary. And by the way, you should not automatically trust ANY dictionary. This is because when you learn a second language, you learn word meaning through context. If you look up a word in a dictionary, you have to make sure that the given translation matches the context that you’re thinking of. It’s best to assume that the translation is not correct until you find an example sentence that is very close to the context in which you found it used. This is why I recommend monolingual and bilingual dictionaries with plenty of example sentences.

Personally, I suspect that language learners who use monolingual dictionaries more often than bilingual dictionaries are people who already have very high-level language skills, like translators and interpreters. Or perhaps they are learners whose native language is not widely spoken, so there might not be a lot of good bilingual dictionaries out there. If this is you, don’t worry – just start using a monolingual dictionary once your English skills are good enough. Ultimately, you should use the type of dictionary that best works for you. Remember that there is no correct way to learn a language – everyone has their own style that they develop over time with trial and error. What is more important than why type of dictionary you use, is HOW you use it.

When you hear or read a new word and look it up in a bilingual dictionary, don’t just read the first definition or meaning and accept it as the right meaning. As I’m sure you know, lots of words have several meanings, so again – you need to look at the context.

I don’t think that a monolingual dictionary is better or worse than a bilingual dictionary. However, I do think that not all dictionaries are equally good. Some are better than others. Google Translate, for example, is definitely far from perfect. It’s great if you want to hear how a word is pronounced, or simply to get a rough idea of the meaning. But it’s not ideal for individual words or expressions. Look at this simple translation of “funny” into Japanese. I believe okashi is more commonly translated into English as “weird” or “strange.” “Funny” would be less commonly used meaning, and yet okashi was listed first by Google. You’ll definitely have to make sure you look at all the options when using Google Translate.

If you’re learning English as a second language, you’re really lucky. Why? Well, since English is such a widely-used language and so many people want to learn it, there is a huge market for materials. This is not the case if you are studying a less common language. This means that there’s a larger variety of dictionaries out there for you. If you want to use a monolingual dictionary, you can make use of learner’s English dictionaries. A learner’s dictionary is a monolingual dictionary with simple definitions that are easier to understand for non-native speakers. A free online learner’s dictionary I recommend is from Merriam Webster, and you can find it at learnersdictionary.com.

If you’re still worried that you need to use a monolingual dictionary to keep thinking in English, I don’t think you should worry too much. When we look up a word in a dictionary, we usually don’t look at it for very long, so you’re probably not going to stop thinking in English. And even if you do, it won’t be for very long. The idea that you need to be thinking in English 100% of the time in order to understand it and speak it is probably not true. Just ask a bilingual or multilingual person.

So in conclusion, the best type of dictionaries to use are the ones which suit your learning style. Experiment with a few! And just be mindful of how you use them.

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