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Guessing Game December 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Dictionaries, Podcasts.

Some people promote the use monolingual dictionaries in language learning. Some others, like me, would tell you that it is a waste of time. I am not trying to be rude, but I hate seeing my fellow language learners wasting their time and effort. They could be more productive!

There is a popular party guessing game (I don’t know the official name) in which someone would be randomly assigned a topic, which could be an object, a phrase, a concept, or anything. Other people have to guess what it is. The person who knows the answer can say or do anything except mentioning any of the words in the answer. The game might sound easy at first. But if you have played it before, you would know how hard it could get to guess the answer sometimes.

In my opinion, using a monolingual dictionary is exactly like playing this guessing game. You have a foreign word you don’t understand, so you look up the dictionary in the same foreign language. The dictionary tries to explain to you what that word means, only that it cannot use the same word in the explanation.

Adding on top of this complication is the fact that you might come across other unknown words in the explanation, and you end up recursively looking up their meanings. For example, Dictionary.com defines ‘Sun‘ as “the star that is the central body of the solar system, around which the planets revolve and from which they receive light and heat”. It thens defines the “Solar System” as “the Sun together with all the planets and other bodies that revolve around it”. Next, I will need to look up the meanings of ‘planet‘ and ‘revolve‘. If I just want to know the meaning of the word ‘Sun‘, why not directly look it up in my own language?

One common misconception is that it works well for advanced learners. In fact, the unknown words advanced learners encounter are usually more complicated that they need more complicated explanations. Their exact meanings could be difficult to capture by merely a few sentences.

Then the monolingual dictionary advocates would tell you that reading a monolingual dictionary is like reading a book in your target language only. Your language skills will improve this way. If this is the case, why don’t I just pick a book in my target language and read it? It is more fun than reading a dictionary. Why would I want to torture myself?

Another reason they give you is that using a monolingual dictionary ‘by-passes’ your own language, and therefore you can think in the target language only. First of all, I can tell you that you won’t. You will still be thinking in your native language subconsciously. Secondly, what is wrong with thinking in my native language? I have a knowledge of an adult. I learn faster than a child because I don’t need to learn the words and the concepts at the same time. I don’t want to rebuild my knowledge I have gained over the years. I know what the ‘Sun‘ is. I don’t need detailed explanation again.

This brings me to another related subject, which I find equally interesting. Occasionally, I would discover language learning podcasts in which the hosts would try to explain foreign words in the same foreign language. I do appreciate their efforts. But then if I can understand the explanations, I would probably understand the original words in the first place!

Unless you enjoy reading dictionaries, my recommendation is to get something interesting to read. If you encounter some unknown words, look it up in a language you can understand, then move on. You will save a lot of time and effort down the road.



1. chris(mandarin_student) - December 23, 2007

Edwin I suspect you are correct about the dictionaries but maybe not the podcasts, it depends how it is done.

Generally I rate the Chinesepod podcasts as very useful but the podcasts at imandarinpod (although less professionally produced) often hit a sweet spot and have an uncanny knack sometimes of explaining new works and concepts in Chinese (via simpler words and example sentances) every now and again they realise this is not possible and one or two English words creep in.
Somebody there either has a natural talent for this kind of thing or a lot of experiance becasue overtime I have managed to pick up many new words and even grammar just from their Chinese explanations.

The Chinesepod intermediate level on the other hand is too much on the easyside now and has too much English for me, but their advanced shows throw in too many chengyu which often are too laborious to pick up from a simple Chinese explanation (unless it is the entire story behind the chengyu which would be a complete podcast on imandarinpod).

I think if your target audience is at lower intermediate level or above then you can probably explain new words entirely in the language they are studying but it must take some skill to do it. Also the verbal exaplanations are probably considerably longer than the usual dictionary definitions and crucially, tailored for foreign language learners, not native speakers.

2. Edwin - December 23, 2007

I think the monolingual approach would work somehow, but what I am in doubt is its efficiency. It does consume the learners a lot of time and most often give them a sense of frustration. It won’t benefit them more when compared with reading or listening to other materials in the target language.

I now listen to the ChinesePod advanced-level lessons less often than in the past. I only listen to the 2 hosts discussing the meanings of words during most of the 20 minutes or more of each lesson.

Of course, those who like listening to or reading explanations of words would enjoy doing so. But others should pick materials that interest them more.

3. GeoffB - December 25, 2007

When I arrived in France, I bought a Larousse de poche. Soon after, I looked up “figuier” – fig tree. It said it was “un arbre qui produit les figues” – a tree that bears figs. I looked up “figue” and learned that it was “le fruit d’un figuier” – the fruit of a fig tree. Very helpful my monolingual dictionary was there.

A few years back, I tried a Spanish monolingual dictionary and had even worse luck.

That said, I usually read complex French books with Le Petit Robert at my side. That’s because if I look up, say, “surréalisme” in a French-English dictionary, it’s just going to say “surrealism”. This is something I could guess. What I need is a short explanation of the term is some language, any language, that I’m familiar with. And I would have to have a French-English and an English-English dictionary at hand to do the two-way dictionary thing at that point.

Language learners, I think, should stick to the two-way dictionaries. But once you’re sufficiently schooled in and immersed in a language, you cease to be a language learner and become just another speaker of that language, albeit a poor one. This is when you get your monoglot dictionary, but probably not before.

4. chris(mandarin_student) - December 26, 2007

Edwin, I see your point, but I think there is still a place for monolingual audio even at low levels, some of the imandarin.com podcasts really hit a sweetspot for me at a particular time. There is a huge sense of acheivement for the learner to decipher something entirely in the target language, even if it takes a few listens.

As GeoffB says though eventually you are just a speaker of the language and I guess then monolingualy is easiest (possible even finding some of the bilingual explanations don’t quite hit the mark at that stage).

5. chris(mandarin_student) - December 26, 2007

Sorry too much Christmas cheer, yes I did write “monolingualy” above and I do write comments etc. too fast (I am a native English speaker, really I am).

6. Edwin - December 26, 2007

I think monolingual podcasts are ok. In fact, I prefer listening to monolingual podcasts, but with transcripts if possible.

The only think I find frustrated is to listen to the hosts trying to explain the new vocabulary using their own languages. I would rather spend the same amount of time listening to them talking about something else.

At the level Geoff describes, the same problem would appear in either dictionary. But then in the learner’s language, there is a chance to find an equivalent word or phrase, but in the target language, you have to playing the “guessing game”.

But then the dictionary is not the best place to learn words. The best way to learn words are through contexts.

7. Josh - December 28, 2007

Edwin: I must say, I agree – and I’m someone who has, in the past, tried to work extensively (a few times exclusively) with monolingual dictionaries. Granted, sometimes the monolingual definitions have worked, but I’ve often gotten more from the example sentences coupled with a word rather than the definition itself.

I think there is a place for monolingual dictionaries in learning a language, but it is *very* far down the line. Until that point, it’s easier and more efficient to use a bilingual dictionary. Why struggle through the definition for unerträglich, “so unangenehm oder schlimm, dass man es kaum ertragen kann”, when all I need to see in a different dictionary is that the word basically means “unbearable”? I know what unbearable needs; I don’t have to relearn the basic idea behind the German word, because the idea is the same.

8. Josh - December 28, 2007

*what unbearable means, not needs. 🙂

9. Edwin - December 28, 2007

Josh, I am glad that you have the same point of view. Thanks for your comment.

10. Steve Kaufmann - January 16, 2008

When starting up the bilingual dictionary is much more useful. At some point it becomes possible to use a monolingual dictionary, but that is when you are already well along in the language, and even there I always prefer the bilingual dictionary.

11. Edwin - January 16, 2008

I guess a reasonable rule of thumb is that if you still have to look up words in the dictionary explanations, then you are not ready to use a mono dict.

12. olivz - January 19, 2008

I find monolingual dictionaries useful only at the advanced level. At this point, my experience has been that the bilingual dictionaries a lot of times don’t even have the words I’m looking for or, similar to GeoffB’s experience, have useless explanations.

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