Monolingual or Bilingual Dictionaries for Language Learners?

Which is better for language learners, monolingual or bilingual dictionaries? This question often comes up.

 

A monolingual dictionary explains the meaning of a word in the language that you are learning. A bilingual dictionary provides a translation or explanation using another language, a language you are very familiar with, usually your native language.

 

Let me say up front that I always prefer bilingual dictionaries. I find it hard to believe that some learners prefer monolingual dictionaries but have come to accept that this is so, since this choice is defended so strongly by the proponents of this approach.

 

When I learn a language, regardless of my level in the language, I like to learn from meaningful contexts. This can be simple stories at first, and then, as soon as possible, content of interest to me. I want to read and listen, as much as possible, in order to allow my brain to get used to the new language through massive meaningful exposure. The more exposure I get the faster I will learn. That is essentially how I learn languages.

 

Monolingual or Bilingual Dictionaries for Language Learners?

Today this means that when I am learning a new language,  I do all my reading in the new language electronically, online or on my iPad. I use online dictionaries, as I fight my way through content that for a long time has a lot of unknown words. Dealing with a lot of unknown words makes it slow going at first, but ensures that I acquire a lot of new vocabulary at a good clip.

 

Before the age of e-texts and online dictionaries, I relied on special “readers” in the new language, which had glossaries or word lists behind every lesson in the book. This was less than ideal, since the glossaries were on a separate page in the book, and often didn’t match my needs. In any case, I have always avoided using conventional paper dictionaries because they are too time consuming to consult, given that I quickly forget whatever I look up, almost immediately.

 

But some kind of dictionary or translation of new words is necessary. It used to be glossaries, and now it is the online dictionary. I need them as I discover a new language through listening and reading, until I reach an advanced level.  It is necessary in order to give me at least some idea of what a word or phrase means, and how it functions in the context I am reading. I do not expect the dictionary definition to fully explain the meaning of the word. Often the dictionary definition is misleading, but with enough reading and listening, the scope of meaning of different words and phrases starts to become clear.

 

Often the more abstract the concept, the less likely that the meaning from the dictionary will be accurate for any particular context. It is often just a hint, enough to help me decipher what I am reading, to allow me to continue trying to make meaning out of what I am reading. I will have to see the word in many more contexts before I get a grasp on its full scope.

Monolingual or Bilingual Dictionaries for Language Learners?What I need while reading and listening is just a quick “hint”, or choice of “hints”, not a lengthy explanation. I want to stay focused on my content. I know that it is the exposure to massive amounts of interesting content that will help me learn the language and learn the words that I need. The detailed explanations and examples from the dictionary will be quickly forgotten, in my experience.

 

If the the explanation is from a monolingual dictionary, in the language I am learning, there is a good chance that it will be unclear to me. There is a good chance that the explanation contains other words in my target language that I don’t yet know. It is just not as clear and useful a “hint” in my own language. This is obviously the case when I am a beginner, but I find that it continues to be the case even when I am advanced.

 

Monolingual dictionaries slow me down in my reading of new content. The bilingual “hint” is faster and clearer, even if a certain percentage of them are wrong or inappropriate. I can quickly get back to working out the meaning of what I am reading, to my meaningful content. Monolingual dictionaries take up too much time, slow me down in my reading, and therefore, in the long run,  reduce the amount of exposure I have to meaningful content. They are less efficient and the net effect on language learning has to be negative, in my view.

 

That is my take on this. It often appears that I am in a minority on this, but confess to having a hard time believing that working with a monolingual dictionary really helps a person learn a language faster.

 

I look forward to hearing your views.

Want to learn a language from content you love?

 

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25 comments on “Monolingual or Bilingual Dictionaries for Language Learners?

I actually just wrote a post about this topic. I believe at the beginning of learning a language, one should use bilingual dictionaries/translations because one simply doesn’t have enough words to make looking at monolingual dictionaries efficient and it can be bothersome.However, I proposed a certain threshold (determined by the learner’s comfort) that one should switch to monolingual dictionaries. I think it’s very important that one knows how to explain definitions of words in their language of choice so they get their point across and get the needed word from the native speaker.

Steve Kaufmann

Tyler, I guess this depends on your definition of advanced. I am quite advanced in at least five languages and always find the bilingual definition much clearer.

Steve Kaufmann

amassing words, I do not see why learners "should" switch to monolingual dictionaries nor do I see any need to explain words in the target language, if the goal is to maximize exposure to the target language through meaningful content.

Tyler O'Guinn

I think this is where our language-learning philosophies meet heads. The overall goal of mine, and I assume most of my community, is to -become- the language. Exposure is necessary, yes, but this is not the end but a portion of the means. Our job as language-learners is not only to be exposed to the language, but to expose the language to ourselves. We have to become "one" with the language, and that means being proficient in using the language to become even more proficient in the language.

Steve Kaufmann

Tyler, which languages are you most fluent in? How well could you speak in front of a large audience and answer questions from the audience? I often do this in Mandarin, Japanese, and French and have done so in Spanish and Swedish. I prefer bilingual dictionaries when reading in these languages, although admittedly I rarely use a dictionary in French. So our differences are not the goals, but the means, I would say.

Arbiter

Dear Steve, I’m sorry my previous message was difficult to understand. One would have that a polyglot such as yourself would have mastered ebonics as well. But fear not, I have found bilingual ebonics dictionaries for you! http://bit.ly/i3Gw3D http://bit.ly/2nR9Q When you feel more confident I do suggest you start using monolingual dictionaries such as this http://bit.ly/3dQ2seIm sure you’ll master ebonics in no time!

Steve Kaufmann

Thanks, but,I have no interest in learning ebonics, and my use of bilingual dictionaries is not a matter of confidence, but of preference.

Arbiter

Dear Steve, I would have never thought you were a racist. If I have in anyway offended you by suggesting you learn such a thing please forgive me. I wish you the best of luck on your learning of European and Asian languages.

Messo

Steve, just out of curiosity do you ever use bilingual dictionaries that include your target language + a language besides English. For example Mandarin to German? I think Glossika on YouTube is the only person that I’ve seen talk about this, but it sounds like a good idea to utilize another language you are fluent with besides English. What do you think?

Steve Kaufmann

Please explain why not being interested in ebonics makes me a racist. I am sure there are many afro-americans who have no interest in ebonics. Furthermore ebonics is a dialect of English, therefore a European language. Language is not in the DNA. If I have no interest in learning the slang of London or Glasgow does that make me a racist?Tell me, out of curiosity, are you a student?

Steve Kaufmann

Messo, yes I do sometimes use bilingual dictionaries into other languages, and if the User Hint at LingQ comes up some other language, I just use it. I do not spend a lot of time with dictionaries,though. I do not treat them as learning media. They are just utilitarian tools to get me through my content. I find that whenever I have tried to learn from a dictionary not much sticks. I am a content learner.

Steve Kaufmann

Arbiter, where did you go? I would like to know why you feel that a lack of interest in a dialect of a European language, namely ebonics, is a sign of racism on my part. I want to understand what makes you think that way?

Makacenko

In my view bilingual dictionary is dangerous for language learning. I have been learning English at LingQ for about 3 months. I’m lucky that hints aren’t in my native language (Czech). If so, I haven’t seen them yet. Why lucky? In my experience bilingual dictionaries have made a lot of built-in mistakes in my brain. Now it’s hard to get rid of them. I have only made breakthrough with monolingual dictionary. However, that’s just my experience. Have a great day.

Steve Kaufmann

Mackacenko, I have not found that using bilingual dictionaries has created any "built-in mistakes" for me. I do not remember the dictionary definitions. They are such a small part of the slow process of learning words, what they mean, and how they are used. But to each his or her own!

D-Pac

From the point of view of a 2nd language learner, I want to be immersed in the language I’m learning. I don’t want keep jumping back and forth. (I will admit that I have met other ESL instructors who say that they prefer learn a 2nd, or 3rd, language with the support of their native tongue. I guess I think of learning another language more like acquiring a skill and not studying a subject.)
From the point of view of one who teaches, I think of myself as a language coach. My teaching partner and I have our leaners put their smartphones and translators away, and use “English-English” dictionaries. Over time, they do as well or better than learners in other classes who are addicted to Google Translate.

GrahamCooke

Great Article. I need help with this too! I mostly use http://goo.gl/M2aAk3 to edit my PDFs. I think it also allows you to to create fillable pdfs and esign them.

Name *Caleb Santos

Hi there! I am from Brazil, and I think the same, I agree with you, by the way, I´ve been following your tips and my language learning has been a successful, thaks a lot, you are my reference in the language learning! Muito Obrigado, Muchas Gracias, Thanks a lot,

lin

Whatever your preference, bilingual and monolingual dictionaries are both language learning tools. Go with what works for you. Some people prefer Windows while others prefer Mac. Android vs IOS, etc.. There is no right or wrong, only whatever works best for you.

That said, for more abstract or complicated definitions, I typically find the monolingual dictionary to be much more concise and clear with its explanation.

Esteban Amurrio

I can’t even imagine how frustrating must have been to learn a new language without Internet. Context helps me a lot to form meaning, when there’s a word I don’t know, usually I can guess, with the help of the whole sentence, what the word should at least be close to, looking it up in a translator is fast and lets you check what that word is actually equivalent to. Yes, sometimes it’s like, yep got it right, and sometimes is ops not what I was thinking of. Thats why I also do prefer bilingual dictionaries.

Occasionally, I use a monolingual dictionary (but not in the targeted language) for looking up the meaning. Since I’m learning german through english, and my mother tongue is spanish, sometimes I do encounter a word that I am not sure what it means in english, and I either search for the definition in english or look for the translation in spanish.

As online translator I use deepl.com (which I belive it uses Linguee as word data base), I promise this coment is not advertised by them nor do I work there, but I do recomend it a lot. I find it much more accurate than google translate when translating sentences or expresions that lose there meaning when translated word by word. And I find it very usefull when translating a word with lots of posible meanings, because it gives you a list of all posible meanings with example sentences in both languages.

Dear Steve, I am a devoted user of LingQ for Russian. I am not so extreme. I recently started using a monolingual dictionary, specifically, I am addicted to synonyms. However, I continue to use the LingQ hints in English. I like to have the English in my mind while I read the Russian definition. My goal is to write the definition in Russian or, occasionally, emojis. I want to not break from Russian while I am reading the second time through. If I forget a word, I can see the definition in Russian, which I made, instantly. My definitions are not perfect, but they will grow with me. Just like a toddler’s definitions are not perfect. Since doing this, I find I think more in Russian and I can hold Russian words in my mind more and more. Now, my hands start typing the Russian definition before I can even consider the English fully. I need English because I read adult texts and my vocabulary is small, but I approach reading as a young child would. I want to think monolingually and grow with my reading in that language. Yes, it does slow me down, but I remember the words better and I mature more. My main complaint with bilingual dictionaries is that I translate the sentence in my mind. I have to juggle all the English and all the Russian at once, reading two texts in my mind at once! When I listen to Russian, there is no time for English translations, so why should there be in reading? My English should gradually lessen, but I must help it by challenging myself with a monolingual dictionary with the training-wheels support of English hints.

Translation agency

Whatever your preference, bilingual and monolingual dictionaries are both language learning tools. Nevertheless, I typically find the monolingual dictionary to be much more concise and clear with its explanation.

stephanie

thank you for making youtube videos on language learning. It has really opened up my eyes. My stance on monolingual dictionaries is that I don’t limit myself to monolingual or target language/english dictionary. I use both because they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Especially for Japanese there are some amazing pop-up dictionaries (like rikai-sama with epwing plugin) that provide japanese definitions or english definitions with just a hover and with a press of a button you can switch between the dictionaries.

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