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.


Monolingual vs Bilingual Dictionaries: What I Prefer

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.

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.

Exposure to Different Contexts is Key

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.

What I need while reading and listening is just a quick “hint”, or choice of “hints” like what is offered in LingQ lessons (image below), 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.

Bilingual dictionary at LingQ


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.