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 a bilingual dictionary. 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 content, interesting content. I want to read and listen, as much as possible, to content of interest. The more exposure I get the faster I will learn. That is essentially how I learn languages.

The dictionary, or before the days of the online dictionary, a glossary, is a necessary distraction from any text that I am reading in a language that I am learning until I reach an advanced level. It is necessary in order to give me an idea of what the word 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. The more abstract the concept, the less likely that the meaning from the dictionary will be accurate for my particular context. It will probably be a hint, enough to help me decipher what I am reading, and a start to getting to know the full scope of meaning of this new word. I will have to see the word in many more contexts before I get a grasp on how it is used.

So I want a quick “hint”, or choice of “hints”,not a lengthy explanation. (That is why we call our dictionary meanings “Hints” at LingQ).I want to get back to my content. 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.

Trying to decipher a dictionary explanation in the foreign language means leaving my interesting content, to struggle with an irrelevant and unconnected content. What is more, this explanation from the monolingual dictionary is often unclear to me. It is just not as clear and useful a “hint” as something in my own language. This is obviously the case when I am a beginner, but it continues to be the case even when I am advanced.

It is sometimes argued that a good monolingual dictionary provides great examples of the word in use. However, a bilingual dictionary can do the same. However, honestly, I am not interested in irrelevant and unconnected examples, I just want to quickly get back to the content that I am trying to understand.

The problem with monolingual dictionaries is that they 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.

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17 thoughts on “Monolingual or bilingual dictionaries for language learners?

  1. When a monolingual dictionary slows you down at an advanced level, it’s pretty safe to say you’re not at an advanced level.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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?

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

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