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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One Response to Monolingual or bilingual dictionaries for language learners?

  1. Steve Kaufmann says:

    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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