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How To Really Make the Transition to Monolingual Dictionaries

I know I’ve written on this topic before. FORGET WHAT I SAID. That explanation sucked; it was far too complicated. Just do this. This is all you need to do to smoothly make the transition to monolingual dictionaries. Are you ready? OK. Here it comes:

Look up definitions of words you already know.

You heard me.







In Japanese, that would be super, duper, uber, simple, kantan, remedial words. I refer to:

  • 此処(here)
  • 食べる(eat)
  • 飲む(drink)
  • 男(man)
  • 女(woman)
  • 行く(to go)
  • 来る(to come)
  • 大きい(big)
  • 小さい(small)
  • お前(you)
  • の(“of”)
  • ママ(Mama)
  • は ([topic marker])
  • 氈鹿(goat antelope) — what, you didn’t know this one?
  • だ(is)
  • よ([emphasis marker])
  • ええっ?(huh?)
  • 何?(what?)
  • 殺す(kill)
  • ぞ([emphasis marker])
  • この(this)
  • 野郎(rascal)

I think you get the message. So, all you cats worrying about “goin’ monolingual”, start with words you already know. No chance of misunderstanding there, right? Right. Good. End transmission.

  31 comments for “How To Really Make the Transition to Monolingual Dictionaries

  1. Ceryni
    July 16, 2008 at 13:01

    Wow! I can’t believe i didn’t think of this, It seems so obvious when you think about it! 多谢 卡粗磨头 yea thats a really bad transliteration… think mandarin when you read it.

  2. July 16, 2008 at 14:59

    Oh! That is a good way to transition. I will work on this! Thank you (^-^).

  3. July 16, 2008 at 15:08

    >> 氈鹿(goat antelope) — what, you didn’t know this one?

    That’s funny 🙂

    Anyway, currently I mostly consult 国語辞書 when there are no corresponding entries on 和英辞書, mostly because it has an abundance of example sentences. Guess I should more and more force myself to use the monolingual one…

  4. July 16, 2008 at 16:08

    I stared at 此処 for a second and literally said out loud “That’s not the fucking kanji for ここ…is it?”
    I hope no one at work heard me, haha.

  5. July 16, 2008 at 18:10

    Good idea. You are only acquiring when you understand what you are hearing or reading.

    I might say, at first at least, stick with the concrete/meaning-carrying words you already know. The common words that are function words tend to have very convoluted definitions because the words themselves carry little meaning. So, the “definition” is really more of an explanation of how to use the word which may not be that clear in the first place since there are often many ways to use the word and many exceptions and the best way to acquire those words in the first place is through lots of comprehensible input which, since they are such common function words, will appear in the definitions of the other, meaning-carrying vocabulary.

    And don’t forget the option of using a children’s dictionary. Not necessarily as a stepping stone to eventually using an adult’s dictionary, but in conjunction with. I find that first reading a definition in a kids jisho helps boost my comprehension of a definition in my electronic dictionary. Sometimes, I’m more in the mood to use the kids jisho since i know I’ll have an easier time of understanding the definition without having to look up too many definitions of words in definitions. Sometimes, I’m in a patient mood and I have a lot of time, so I like to stick with my electronic dictionary for the challenge and just jump from definition to definition until I finally understand.

    The important thing is getting input that you understand without having to struggle too much. It should be fun.

  6. Charles A.
    July 16, 2008 at 18:30

    Recently I’ve been throwing together a vocabulary flash card list (on Trinity via the RevTK site). The catch is these are words that are in my sentence pack list. Accomplishes a few things:

    1. I find if I know a word outside the context of a sentence.
    2. I get a rough idea of the size of my current On Yumi, Kun Yumi, and Vocabulary coverage (Trinity tracks all that).
    3. Gives me some short term accomplishment I’ve been missing since finishing RTK1.

    However, this post has given another benefit. Those cards in my 4th stack (remembered at least 4 weeks between reviews) are good candidates to go with this monolingual tip.

  7. July 17, 2008 at 08:22




  8. bubble
    July 18, 2008 at 02:56

    Good idea. I looked up several words yesterday and couldn’t understand the definitions very well (if at all), but today I was pleased to be able to understand (and read) the following:
    (1) 人が住むための建物

  9. Daniel
    July 18, 2008 at 08:07

    I do a variation of this… I look up user reviews on of movies that I have seen

  10. godai
    July 18, 2008 at 10:20

    Hey Katz,

    This one was like your shortest post ever!
    Are you sick, or something like that?

    Thanks for the input, anyway.

  11. Ryan
    July 18, 2008 at 12:17


  12. Chiro-kun
    July 18, 2008 at 20:52


  13. July 19, 2008 at 08:13

    Thanks. Not quite there yet, but I’ll keep it in mind. 🙂

  14. Rokii
    July 19, 2008 at 10:04

    This is a good idea, especially with simple nouns. Also this might be a no brainer for most but it took me a while to figure out: give definitions their own entries! A lot of vocab gets repeated in dictionary entries. Also they’re a nice length, so this definition from the デジタル大辞泉


    yields two entries:


    A nice side effect is you learn the word in question really well.

  15. nacest
    July 19, 2008 at 16:28

    I don’t usually use the definitions because they can be a little boring, except one case: when they’re descriptions of a specific object/thing.
    I’ve created a “Quiz” tag in anki, and when I find a word I want to learn and of which I don’t have a good sentence, I put the definition in the Question Side, and the word in the Answer Side. For example:

    Q: 種から芽が出たばかりの植物:?
    A: 苗(なえ)

    Q: 水が浅くて泥が深く、自然にできた池:?
    A: 沼(ぬま)

    Q: き の かん や えだ の さき:?
    A: 木の幹や枝の先:梢(こずえ)

    Of course one can do it both kanji>reading and the other way around.

  16. July 19, 2008 at 18:31

    cool thing that you put this little article up because it was basically the first way I started experimenting with japanese-only dictionaries. I would just look up words I already know and after a while you realize that the dictionaries, like english ones, have the same grammatical syntax and same words used over and over again to describe things and so far, using a japanese-only dictionary isn’t a problem at all. After a while, it just all builds up until you pretty much know like 80% of the words that the dictionary uses to describe new words….it’s like a big long endless circle of getting smarter.

  17. Rob
    July 23, 2008 at 11:02

    Does anyone know of a good freeware J-J dictionary to install on my computer so I don’t always have to rely on online dictionaries? Thanks in advance.

  18. ジェームズ
    July 26, 2008 at 09:00

    俺; お前のママは氈鹿だよ
    勝元; ええ、殺すぞこの野郎

  19. Mallory
    August 21, 2008 at 13:17

    YAY! I love it!! I understand the definition! ありがとうございます

  20. June 26, 2009 at 11:32

    Look what I found, thanks to that link to 三省度 Web Dictionary:

    Sanseido for iPhone/iPod touch. $16 USD. I’ll be using this <3 Now I don’t have to rely on the one on my computer =/

  21. Spot53
    November 24, 2010 at 12:02

    So after spending tons and tons of hard-earned お金 on Japanese movies, music, books, etc…I found that I still sucked. Having Japanese stuff didn’t instill within me a sense of permanent motivation OR even a decent level of Japanese. I had almost given up, thinking that all of the racist bull-honky about Asian languages was true. In all of that time I had not listened to Japanese without subtitles, or even watched the news. Why didn’t I? I thought subtitles would help a guy out. Nope. Don’t believe the prevailing opinion of anime nerds everywhere. English subtitles make you better at English, not Japanese. All of my オタく friends say “kawaii” and “neh”, but speak no Japanese…

    I found this website after trying every hair-brained thing that people suggested to me (because, ya know, thinking for yourself really sucks). Yeah, I found it but I still worked too hard at Japanese. I punished myself into doing Heisig 1 in about a month while immersing. When I completed that last card…The train stopped, or exploded, or something…anyway I HATED Japanese at that point and could not bring myself to do any no matter how hard I tried. I gave up learning Japanese to pursue a career in songwriting (I’m not kidding) for about 6 months, forgetting almost all of my kanji and much of everything else…After that side-quest I came back and decided to do the Japanese thing sanely (Cause I missed my baby and I was sorry ‘dat we fought)…and its been real smooth, easy, fun…until I had to go monolingual. I had the dictionaries and everything, but could not bring myself to learn without the taint of English on the back of my SRS cards.

    I don’t know how many times I read the monolingual posts here and elsewhere in the interwebs, but I couldn’t understand how to do it. It didn’t work. I looked up words I knew-no good the definitions were gibberish (granted, gibberish that I recognized as writing O:) ). I tried to use the sentences from the QRG-no good. Even those were out of my league. I was getting all down on myself and considering quitting again or never going monolingual, when I had an interesting idea. I read through my dictionary, ignoring key words, until I got to a definition sentence that I aaallmost understood (one word missing).

    Here is that first card:
    よく晴れた空のような色。(I took this from the definition of the word blue)

    青[あお](the place where I got it-i knew this word so I figured it would help me out with the meaning of the sentence)

    晴れ[はれ]。天気[てんき]がよいこと。(I google imaged this mother, but it didn’t help so I looked it up in my monoDICT and googled words from THAT definition until I understood this one.)

    空[そら]。天[てん](I knew this word so I put a synonym in instead of a mile long sentence)

    色[いろ]。赤。青。(I like this definition straight from the dictionary-This simple brevity is one reason that I love Japanese)

    This had me bouncing around the dictionary and I can honestly say its a thrill. I am having a blast knowing that I understand this card in Japanese. The advantage of starting with simple DEFINITIONS is that they come in sentence/phrase form and you don’t have the problem of looking at a word like 青 on the front of the card and saying: “yeah, blue-faiyke! that’s not the Japanese definition at all!” I made a rule for myself: If I can’t comprehend the sentence upon researching it in Japanese only, it is not what Khatzumoto calls “A low hanging fruit.”

    I am very excited! When I get excited I do crazy things like tossing away all of my old sentence decks…This time I will not. I will let those J-E cards continue until I’m bored with them. Now that I have a monolingual deck, though, my criterion for deletion in my J-E has just gotten much, much stricter.

    Moral of my story on this AJATT journey: As an individual I have to take responsibility for my learning. If I can see the goal as a mountain in the distance, it is nobody else’s fault that I don’t take the necessary steps toward the mountain. Maybe I walk with a limp, or don’t own a car, so I can’t get to the mountain the same way Khatzumoto did, but as a creative individual I will find my own way to that mountain even if I have to commit metaphorical grand theft auto to make it happen…Has this metaphor spun out? I think so.

    Be Creative. Be you. Succeed on your own terms. WHOO.

  22. Rum
    February 25, 2011 at 06:35

    But how do you figure out the correct reading of a kanji? Dictionaries don’t use furigana in the definitions do they?..

  23. Zach
    April 19, 2011 at 16:23

    @Rum: Monolingual dictionary will not contain furigana, no. There are a couple ways:

    1) Learn the SKIP method for indexing kanji so you can look them up in a kanji dictionary
    2) Install the Microsoft IME in windows and use the handwriting tool to “draw” the kanji with your mouse, then paste it into an online dictionary (e.g.

  24. ライトニング
    August 16, 2011 at 16:44

    I have already gone Monolingual, And I’d like to share some experiences.
    Yes, At it may have been to some of you, it was intimidating to me at first.
    I first tried around 500 sentences. Bad idea, I must have over estimated my ability, look ups took too long. Not that I was too lazy, but I think 8 look ups is just a tad bit high.
    Then around 1200, I fully made the switch, and have not used english since.
    What I did/do is i get a lot of sentences. So If i need to make too many lookups (4+) I just skip it, I’m not ready yet. Luckily, since I get so many, I can skip a decent amount and still finish with a nice amount of sentences.
    It’s great for thinking in Japanese. When I see 立ち入り, I don’t think whatever it means in english, I think of ある場所に入ること. Great for starting to think in Japanese!!

    • 魔法少女☆かなたん
      August 16, 2011 at 21:14

      When I see 立ち入り, I expect 禁止 to come after, and think that maybe I shouldn’t be going into somewhere.

  25. mark95427
    March 4, 2013 at 05:36

    So I thought of something…

    A baby has absolutely nothing to support itself, just a mind, eyes, and ears.
    We have what babies have, and a sophisticated understanding of the world. There’s no need to force ourselves into a monolingual environment where don’t understand anything.

    The only thing we need to learn from kids is their ability to zone in on something and have fun doing it. We need to stop worrying, and start enjoying learning.

    [&gradually transition into monolingualism]

  26. June 5, 2015 at 21:30

    This video says it all:

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