Friday, November 13, 2009

How to Use a Japanese Monolingual Dictionary to Discover Meaning

Use a Monolingual Dictionary to Unlock your Hidden Potential in Japanese

In the previous post I showed you some good reasons to lose your bilingual dictionary and go native with a Japanese monolingual dictionary. In this 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.

I've been through this process hundreds of times in practice, there may be other words for it, and it's probably a technique given enough experience in learning Japanese that most people would be able to discover for themselves. It's nothing new, it's something everyone can do, so you needn't be daunted by the prospect of opening a monolingual dictionary and not knowing anything. Remember, this is a learning process, so forget about what you don't know.

Choosing the right monolingual dictionary.

I covered some of the choices you might need to make in the eduFire article, How to Choose the Best Japanese Dictionary, and I think it's worthwhile looking at them again. Everyone has their favourite type of dictionary, but I'm going to recommend you get a software dictionary.

I'm only going to mention two and only because they are what I use every day. Kanji Sono Mama Rakubiki Jiten for Nintendo DS would have to be one of my favourite Japanese dictionaries and goo jisho which is one of the fastest and most complete online dictionaries for Japanese. Both of them are written in Japanese for Japanese.

Here are some reasons you should get a software dictionary:
  1. You can find things faster. Typing words and using copy and paste is much faster and more accurate than turning pages in a book. If you want greater exposure to vocabulary then you can do this faster with software. You might think you'd miss out on the serendipity of coming across words that you didn't expect, but the same thing happens with these techniques and in a more useful way.

  2. You can save entries. Most software dictionaries have a save to flash card function where you can collect entries for later revision. Even your browser has a history, and if you are using the dictionary in conjunction with a spaced repetition service, then this makes a lot of sense. You would very quickly run out of bookmarks if you were to use a hard copy dictionary with the following technique.

  3. You can listen to recordings. I'm yet to find a dedicated monolingual Japanese dictionary with sound recordings, if you know of one please link it up in the comments. However, If you are using something like in the way you should, each time you find a word you're able to add it as an item to a list often with a sound and sometimes with an example sentence.

  4. You benefit from Hypertext. I imagine you're aware of this already, but the importance of the ability to jump from a section of blue underlined text to a another text entry with more information can not be understated. You're going to rely on this, and your minds propensity to wander to discover more knowledge.

  5. Software is more mobile. The ultimate mobility is the "everywhere" of the internet. I can leave my suburban sanctuary for the big city and log in to a completely different machine and still pick up my repetitions where I left off. On the bus I can flip through flash cards on my phone or my Nintendo DS and then put it away in my pocket. There is no way I'd bother lugging a weighty tome like a dictionary on the daily commute. I want to be able to master Japanese anywhere any time.
A technique of discovery.

The technique I'm about to discuss involves using the JP-JP dictionary in a way you probably wouldn't have thought of before by breaking down each definition into chunks that you can explore further. Let's use goo kokugo jisho, although you could use whatever JP-JP dictionary you like with much the same result.

The example I'll use is learnt in grade three of elementary school in Japan, and is tested in the JLPT 2kyu. It is ranked number 245 of the 2500 most used kanji in newspapers (source: It also appears commonly in place names and, once you know what it represents, it is easy to visualise. I'm not going to give away the answer yet, and if you know it bear with me as I outline the technique for those that don't.


Under the entry for shima しま 【島】 you will find the definition


  1. Concentrate only on what you know. If you have rikai chan enabled avoid the temptation to hover. You may only know hiragana, in which case you will know where the words begin and end. You may know one or two kanji, and possibly only the meaning, but not the pronunciation. That's OK, you're looking for an opening in the wall of kanji.

  2. Allow your mind to wander and create new associations in Japanese. You may recognise the first kanji as a number, 一二三。。。 Count to ten if you need to, cut and paste the kanji //四方 back into the search field and scan the the definitions for other kanji you might know. At the very least you will now have some alternate readings.

  3. Look for similarity and synonym. Come back to the original definition and look again for kanji you already know. Can any others work in the same postions? Can you use the ones you know in different ways? What kind of is it? Which do you think is meant ほう or かた?

  4. Build a mental image. You may be starting to see the bigger picture now, some kanji even has pictographic elements to it. Can you see a well surrounded by a larger enclosure? What kind of word is it? Can you put yourself in the picture?

  5. Infer meaning from context for unknown words. Some parts of the Japanese language were developed to help send the reader on their way with a greater understanding of the structure of each sentence and a sense the intended meaning of each word. Use the hiragana you know to determine what each part of the sentence each kanji is. Is it a verb? An adjective perhaps? What can you leave out without affecting the meaning too much.

  6. Forget what you don't know. It's not worth worrying too much over what you can't work out right away. Studying incrementally you'll have learnt that 四 and are grade 1 kanji, 方 and are grade 2. So reading only kanji that you should know before attempting the grade 3 kanji 島 you may have been able to find a solution.
The answer is of course an island, a relatively small land surrounded in every direction by water. A Japanese sentence parser like jdictionary may be helpful in checking your answer.

Definitions (via jdictionary)
四方 しほう every direction
みず water (cold, fresh)
囲む かこま to surround; to encircle
比較的 ひかくてき comparative; relative
狭い せまい narrow; confined; small
陸地 りくち land

Active learning.

There was really nothing new in this post, active learners do these things all the time. What I'm hoping is that you take these steps consciously. Challenge yourself to uncover meaning in the language around you, without resorting to a prepackaged concept you have words for in the language you already know.

I didn't cover any new grammar, and I didn't introduce a lot of new vocabulary. That would have had you scrambling for a textbook or a translation. It's not important to remember things like a word list, your spaced repetition software can do that for you. The secret lies in using what you know to discover new knowledge.

A challenge for you.

Find kanji that you are studying at the moment, but have trouble remembering the readings of or the meaning for. Make sure it is at the right level for what you'd like to achieve in Japanese, either from your last tested level or the one you are aiming for. Use the technique described above to discover a definition in Japanese for it. Outline the steps you took below in the comments.

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