Why Monolingual Dictionaries Are Worth Your Time

A lot of you have posted various quite valid concerns about monolingual dictionaries. Perhaps you’re too slow with them. You have to look up words in order to understand the word you looked up in the first place.Et cetera.

To me, all of that only underscores why we need to be using monolingual dictionaries. If you can’t understand it, it means you need to work on it. Now, sometimes the best strategy with something you don’t understand is to skip over it and pick some other low-hanging fruit. But this is not entirely the case with monolingual dictionaries (monodics? can I call them that? monodics?).

If it still hurts your soul, all that extra dictionary time you are spending, just think of it this way: at its core, a monodic is nothing but a book — a book written in the language you are wanting to learn. Since, presumably, you are wanting to learn that language, being able to read books in that language is also something you want (need) to do — the fact that a book is in entirely in Japanese is reason enough for a Japanese learner to own it and be reading it. And guess what else? This book, the monodic, is not like other books: it’s self-referential. A self-referential book that contains many if not most of the secrets of the language you want to learn. Sounds like magic — indeed, in a very real sense, it is.

Dude, you’re getting a monodic.

  24 comments for “Why Monolingual Dictionaries Are Worth Your Time

  1. Tony
    July 20, 2007 at 04:37

    I’ve tried using a Japanese dictionary before but I was absolutely confused. Can you offer any tips on how to go through it? Since there aren’t any spaces how do you know what you’re looking up?

  2. khatzumoto
    July 20, 2007 at 09:18

    Kanji and particles break up the Japanese text. If in doubt, just guess–informed guessing will rarely lead you astray. Also, be sure to be using an electronic/software dictionary, rather than paper, because you’ll need to be making a ton of lookups and paper just won’t cut it.

    Hopefully this answers your question, let me know if it doesn’t.

  3. July 20, 2007 at 16:59

    Khatzumoto, I’m a bit in the dark here.

    Let me make an example: say, I do not understand the words used in the definition of a word. (e.g. The word we’re looking at is ‘to fall’ — the definition is (in Japanese) ‘bla bla bla’.) So I attempt to check out the meanings of those words that had been used in the definition. I unfortunately discover that I cannot understand them. So instead I dive deeper, and try to understand the meanings of the definitions of the words in the definitions of the words (yes, that’s a 3-step process already), but discover that I cannot seem to understand them as well.

    The above illustration leads me to two questions: 1) “How would all of this lead me to comprehension when I cannot understand anything at all in the first place?”, and 2) “Is it supposed to be that much of a recursive process?”

    I have to assume that the monolingual-dictionary method still requires you to possess at least some vocabulary in your head beforehand, right? (Or at least have English-Japanese dictionary by your side?) Is that a correct assumption?

  4. khatzumoto
    July 20, 2007 at 17:21

    1) Start from something you do understand–like step 3. Also, you’d be surprised how much advantage just knowing kanji gives you.
    2) Yes, there is a lot of recursion。But don’t feel compelled to look up absolutely everything. If you understand what a word means from its kanji (as you surely will), then just stop/break/cut off the recursion process. If the recursion keeps going and you still don’t understand what you set out to understand, then skip to something easier.
    へいき 1 [兵器]

    せんそう [戦争]
    〈スル〉 国家間の武力抗争. ∥ 激しい競争. ▼受験~


    ぶりょく  1 [武力]
    軍事力. ▼~衝突

    こうそう [抗争]
    〈スル〉 対立し争うこと.

    たいりつ [対立]
    〈スル〉 互いに反対の立場をとって譲らないこと.
    >I have to assume that the monolingual-dictionary method still requires you to possess at least some vocabulary in your head beforehand, right?
    Yes. BUT…a knowledge of kanji and just common sense (trust your assumptions) might be enough, too. Also, when it doubt, just try a (google) image search.

  5. khatzumoto
    July 20, 2007 at 17:40

    Hey again, Wan.

    Often, we know when we are drowning, and when we are fighting-but-swimming. And when it comes to individual words (especially with kanji on our side), we can make great guesses.

    Feel free to use your judgment. If it really is too much, you can wait a bit. BUT…but…I think most people underestimate themselves when it comes to monolingual dictionaries, and they see the extra time spent as wasted (which it absolutely is not, by the way). Most people could do it if they just tried. So, I encourage you and everyone else to use monodics. I KNOW you can do it.

  6. John
    July 20, 2007 at 17:46

    I totally agree with you khatzumoto-san. I re-started the monodic approach. Like before, it’s taking me loads of time to get through just a few words (four in one hr, for example). I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, though. By the by, although it was four, I learned so many more in the process. There is one drawback, however: I’ve fallen waaaaaay behind on my reviews. I’ve had to make some serious adjustments.

    Question: You mentioned in an earlier post that you got to the point that you were able to read Japanese subtitles. Did that just happen over time with all the studying you were doing or did you made a conscious effort to improve your reading speed? If you did make this effort, do you have any tips that might help?

  7. khatzumoto
    July 20, 2007 at 17:57

    >Did that just happen over time with all the studying you were doing or did you made a conscious effort to improve your reading speed?
    After seeing a banner ad that flashed white kanji on a black background very quickly, I wanted a program that would display Japanese text to me at very high (“near-subliminal”) speed, but I didn’t find one nor did I feel like writing one. In the end, my constant exposure to Japanese got me so used to it that my speed naturally increased. I can even skim text now (there was a time when I could totally read, but I totally could not skim).

    >I’ve fallen waaaaaay behind on my reviews.
    I feel you. Try doing your reviews first; finish them before doing additions. Remember that it matters just as much to maintain old knowledge as to acquire new knowledge.

  8. Tony
    July 21, 2007 at 00:39

    Ok, so let’s say you’re using a paper dictionary or electronic monolingual dictionary and you come across some characters that you can write but you don’t know how to read. How do you look that up? What I don’t get is I can look at it but I don’t know how to get to the point where I can understand the words used in the definition. (Say, for example, that I just completed heisig and can read a certain amount of words, I can probably read about 1500 words in kanji but I don’t know how to look those up in the japanese dictionary even)

  9. khatzumoto
    July 21, 2007 at 01:12

    >you come across some characters that you can write but you don’t know how to read.
    Well, the dictionary gives the reading. To do a lookup, you can just copy and paste the characters, or write them in or whatever. There are definitely ways of looking up words whether or not you know the reading. After all, a lot of native users of Japanese also use the dictionary to look up readings they don’t know.

  10. John
    July 21, 2007 at 19:42

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll keep on working!

  11. July 22, 2007 at 17:51

    As it is, I’m only nearing the end of my second month with Japanese, so there’s still a lot of time (and room) left for growth. I’m giving myself about six months of input before I do any output, and a year until I start reading sites like 2ch. (Which, BTW, are sites I really would like to read.) I think goals like this are really important; they motivate by giving you that ‘push’ to press on, even during slow or busy times, as those reflections of what you want would make you hesitate not even a moment in striving for it.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t quite ‘felt’ the effect of an SRS program on my person yet (though I’ve been using it since after the first month), although I do believe that it would contribute much to my abilities. I will however reflect back on what I’ve gained through it after the year is over though.

    Lastly, I appreciate the encouragement and belief, bro! I really do.

    And thanks for the monolingual-dictionary tip! Will start looking around for an electronic dictionary soon. (I’m thinking of a Canon or a Casio. Any recommendations?)


    P/S: I found a pretty good site I thought I’d share with your visitors who’d like to purchase an electronic dictionary: www.bornplaydie.com/japan/dictionary/features.htm

  12. September 3, 2007 at 03:30

    Katsumoto, I have a question!
    I am from Brazil and I am learning English and japanese. I was using J-J dictionary and it is very good, the quality of the study improves a lot. I also noticed that using a monodic your reading speed improve. But, since I am not a english native speaker, sometimes use a J-E dictionary is good. I am doing Heisig and there is lots of words that I dont know. Many time I learn a new kanji and a new english word at the same time, and this is very good for me.

    I just want to know what do you think, should I keep study using J-E dictionaries in order to improve both Japanese and English, or just go to J-J.
    Just to say, I never, never use portuguese… hahahaha..

    See ya

  13. khatzumoto
    September 3, 2007 at 07:58

    Hey Mairo….

    Hmmm…good question. I would say probably do J-J. Just because you stand to benefit a lot in terms of learning and reinforcing kanji readings.

  14. shaydwyrm
    October 17, 2007 at 22:45

    Something that I’m coming to realize is that in dictionaries, just like any other medium or subject (like the news, for example), there is a certain set of words that get used over and over. Unfortunately, I’m finding it quite difficult to define these words in Japanese, as the definitions end up a bit circular. I’m very tempted to just limit myself to one or two tiers of recursion and then cut back to English definitions, in the hope that over time I will have to do this less and less (as I will start requiring less and less recursion). Do you think this is going to handicap me somehow in the long run; i.e., should I just tough it through instead?

  15. shaydwyrm
    October 17, 2007 at 22:51

    Also, right now I’m using Yahoo as my monodic. Are there easier to understand dictionaries out there that I might have better luck with?

  16. viajero
    October 21, 2008 at 05:53


    I agree about the monodic. About for years ago, I entered mexico from the us border with less than 20 words (palabras) in my vocab list. one of the first things a street seller suggested, and I thank him to this day, was to buy an elementary level spanish to spanish dictionary. So I found a high school spanish to spanish dictionary, and I gave away the bilingual dictionary to a younger street seller wanting to learn english. So I started looking up the words I already knew, and soon I was learning new words, jumping from page to page.

    anyways, in general, I really like your work. it is inspired, and inspiring. it is very systematic, yet not boring. I think as well learner you are, a good teacher as well you prove. keep it on.

    and where am I know? well, I am far away from south america, but after 1 year and 8 months of travels, I was speaking spanish so fluently, that my english sounded hispanic, even my mother language (which is different from both). And I could sometimes trick natives into believing that I was from the next latin country – hence the slight different accent:)

    sorry this comment is getting long. a very intuitional rule of thumb was to avoid english at all costs, never stay at any “together planet” hostels, never go to touristic sites, and only make friends with mexicans who do not understand a word of english.

  17. January 15, 2009 at 10:10

    Does anyone know of a good one for the iPod touch?
    I have an English/Jap and vice versa one on iPod, but… yeah.

  18. Metrovino
    January 27, 2009 at 07:16

    Khatzu, do you have any recommended monodics? I’ve looked around but couldn’t find your rec’s. Thanks. Mvino.

  19. mona
    June 23, 2009 at 16:41

    I have been thinking about learning Japanese for a while, but now I feel discouraged. I am just not able to invest $350+ on a dictionary (I am a cheap/poor teenager). Are non-electronic dictionaries a joke? Should I even bother..?

  20. mona
    June 23, 2009 at 16:42

    I have been thinking about learning Japanese for a while, but now I feel discouraged. I am just not able to invest $350+ on a dictionary (I am a cheap/poor teenager). Are non-electronic dictionaries a joke?

  21. バーカ
    December 21, 2009 at 10:53

    Here’s a tip for anyone on a Mac. Turn OS X Japanese then when you browse in Safari if there are any words you don’t understand press ctrl+cmd+d and then move your cursor over them, a dictionary will pop up giving you the Japanese (or English) definition.
    Alternatively you could highlight the word first and then press ctrl+cmd+d but it doesn’t always work as well.
    May be a pointless tip but I use it all the time 😛

  22. August 6, 2010 at 12:46

    haha..the thread is fun to read… learned some japanese phrases today, I need that for my short stay in Japan…thanks by the way…

    bording schools

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *