Sunday, November 08, 2009

3 Good Reasons to Use a Monolingual Japanese Dictionary

Why Your Monolingual Japanese Dictionary is a Secret Weapon

A friend of mine recently told me that they had been learning Japanese vocabulary the wrong way. They had set up their profile on a popular kanji learning tool so it would display the English word alongside the kanji and an example Japanese sentence.

They found they were getting trained to know what the English word was and the translate that word into Japanese. When they turned off the English translation suddenly they had no idea what any of the readings were, even though they knew the meaning. Now they are using all items in Japanese all of the time and gaining a more natural understanding of the language. In this post I'd like to show you some good reasons to lose your bilingual dictionary and go native with a Japanese monolingual dictionary.

What kind of Japanese dictionary are you using?

I'm working with a couple of students at the moment who are studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and its surprising to see how many still rely on an English to Japanese (EN-JP) or Japanese to English (JP-EN) dictionary for their study.

If you're not using a Japanese to Japanese (JP-JP) dictionary you are missing out on a valuable source of new vocabulary and grammar. There are ways to use a dictionary that encourage the discovery of knowledge and not just the rote memorisation of a glossary of English - Japanese word pairs. In this post I'll show you three good reasons you should be using a Japanese monolingual dictionary to boost your vocabulary and grammar.

Before we get started let's see what my friends on Twitter had to say when I asked if they were using a JP-JP dictionary.

As you can see there are some really good reasons for using a JP-JP dictionary. I covered some of these reasons in my article for eduFire How to Choose the Best Japanese Dictionary, but let's look at them here in more detail.

Why monolingual dictionaries are better than bilingual dictionaries

  1. Monolingual dictionaries contain authentic grammar and vocabulary

    In monolingual Japanese dictionaries words are not translated, but they are defined or explained in Japanese. The definitions are authentic Japanese phrases, which if read often enough, will expose you to more authentic grammar and more useful related words. Knowing Japanese definitions for Japanese words has two main benefits; first, using existing knowledge to understand new words reinforces your vocabulary and grammar and second, you'll gain the dictionary-like power of using explanatory phrases to describe something you don't know the name of.

  2. Monolingual dictionaries reinforce vocabulary and make it easy to discover more

    You will often look up a word because it was part of the definition for another word. For example, if you look up the word 島 (しま | shima) in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, you will read something like this: 四方を水で囲まれた比較的狭い陸地. There may be a lot of kanji there, but looking more closely there is kanji that you already know, some that you're not sure of, and some that you don't know yet. Seeing these words has a reinforcing effect on memory and provides new pathways for discovering knowledge.

  3. Monolingual dictionaries give clearer clues to context

    Often a bilingual dictionary will contain a fair amount of ambiguity, and numerous synonyms which make it hard to understand how words are used naturally. Using a monolingual dictionary will make things a lot clearer and the examples provided will give the the right context with common expressions. Many monolingual Japanese dictionaries even contain simple definitions and examples aimed at learners of Japanese as a second language.

How do you use a Japanese - Japanese dictionary?

It's not enough to merely know that a monolingual dictionary is better, you really need to know how to use one to get the most benefit from it. In the next post I'd like to show you how to throw away the crutch of English definitions for Japanese words with a practical guide to using a monolingual dictionary.

In the meantime, maybe you can answer this question for me? How do you use a Japanese monolingual dictionary?

Update 13/11/09: The follow-up to this post is now live.

How to Use a Japanese Monolingual Dictionary to Discover Meaning

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