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Guessing Game December 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Dictionaries, Podcasts.
12 comments

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.

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