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It’s not the dictionary, stupid!

A lot of people say “don’t use the dictionary at all when learning a language”. This is bollocks to the nth degree. For one thing, how are you supposed to find out what words actually mean?

The problem isn’t whether you use a dictionary, but how. If you use it for looking up words one by one as you attempt to write a document, then you’re going to be in a world of hurt. You’ll end up with things like “Apparence was given me that he had proceeded too great a distance”, rather than “It was obvious that he’d gone too far”…or worse.

As far as the learner of a language is concerned, the purpose of a dictionary is not merely to throw a word or two back in your face (that’s like giving a baby a firearm; it may end well, but more likely than not, there will be injuries), but to give you some direction as to how to use that word. The way it does that is through usage examples and any other guidance (like “this word is usually used in a negative form or followed by a negated verb”; “this word usually carries a bad connotation”, and so on). In the absence of a native speaker with oodles of time on her hands and an encyplopedic knowledge of her language, a good dictionary will take you far, far, far.

So, use a dictionary. But use it properly; use it to make progress; use it as a ladder and not a crutch — learn the example sentences in it (memorizing the meaning of the sentence and of the words it contains, such that when presented with the same example sentece again, you can correctly determine its meaning and pronunciation); that is, use the dictionary itself to break your dependence on dictionaries. After all, the more of the dictionary is in your head, the less you’ll need to refer to the dictionary. What will eventually happen is that you’ll be able to figure out the working of words just like you do in your native language — from context. In the past few months preceding this writing, I have finally reached this level in Japanese. Now I mostly look up new words out of curiosity rather than need; it’s become obvious to me what a new word means in a sentence, even without kanji. But it took a lot of dictionary-use to get to this stage. My dictionary became an extension of my skin, just as my headphones were of my ears. Now I leave the old Wordtank at home.

My 2 yen on that debate.


  8 comments for “It’s not the dictionary, stupid!

  1. JDog
    April 29, 2007 at 02:15

    Hey, there’s a great free dictionary called PADict for Palm. I have it on my Z22 and even though the Z22 has pretty bad resolution compared to its more pricey competitors, PADict is the only program I have found that displays kanji big enough to be able to read! Khatzumoto: would you consider it a crutch to have a dictionary that allows you to write in a kanji to look it up? You have to know the exact stroke order or it won’t work, but I think it’s really neat. It’s another great thing about this program. It also has little videos (some impressive programming in this thing) that show the correct stroke order for almost all the kanji in its database. And the whole thing is based off of Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC (I think that’s what it’s called), so it’s pretty comprehensive.

  2. khatzumoto
    April 29, 2007 at 02:35

    >Khatzumoto: would you consider it a crutch to have a dictionary that allows you to write in a kanji to look it up?

    Definitely not, JDog. My dictionary (Canon Wordtank V90) has handwriting recognition. Of course it’s important to “know yer kanjis” in terms of the basic 2000 odd, but a good dictionary is always your friend, and of course there are always new kanji to learn.

  3. james
    April 29, 2007 at 02:54

    Hello, I completely agree with this. I’m listening to the news as I type this and I just heard the sentence ゴールデンウィークの初日の二十八日関東地方は午後になって天気が急変した。I have never heard 急変 before but instantly I knew what it meant.


  4. Potemayo
    October 10, 2007 at 16:11

    Wonderful site! I’ve just started my sentence ripping today, from Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC! ^_^

  5. TheArtofBreath
    April 29, 2009 at 12:33

    Hello, I realize this is probably a very commonly asked (and sometimes bothersome) question, but my birthdays coming up in a few months and I’m therefore beginning my shopping for an electronic dictionary.
    For anyone who owns a Canon Wordtank V90, is this a good dictionary for a native English speaker learning Japanese? I’ve read a few reviews on it and and it seems to me that it might be more geared towards a learner of Chinese, however, I’m not to certain.
    Would anyone have any suggestions for a good E-dic thats both Bi and Monolingual for a native speaker of English?

    Thanks in advance.

  6. TheArtofBreath
    April 29, 2009 at 13:19

    I also wanted to add to my last post that I would prefer a dictionary with hand writing recognition.
    Furthermore, it’s strange how so many of the e-dics I’ve looked at all come with like three different languages. Japanese-English-Russian or Japanese-German-English or something like that. I don’t know about anyone else but the extra language to me is kind of a waste as I don’t intend on a third language at this point.
    Anyways, any finger pointed in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.

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