When I first entered university, my aunt, who is a professional translator,
gave me a new English dictionary. I was puzzled to see that it was a monolingual
dictionary, which meant that everything was in English. Although it was
a dictionary intended for learners, none of my classmates had one and,
to be honest, I found it extremely difficult to use at first. I would look
up words in the dictionary and still not fully understand the meanings.
I was used to the familiar bilingual dictionaries, in which the entries
are in English and their equivalents are given in Japanese. I really wondered
why my aunt decided to make things so difficult for me. Now, after studying
English at university for three years, I understand that monolingual dictionaries
play a crucial role in learning a foreign language.
When I started
to learn English at the age of ten, I wanted to pick up as much basic
vocabulary as possible and created what might be called a simple bilingual “dictionary”
for myself. This consisted of English words and their equivalents in Japanese
written on cards. I would put the English word on one side of a card and the
Japanese equivalent on the other. I found this to be a convenient tool for
memorizing basic everyday words.
In high school
I was assigned longer texts which had a larger vocabulary, so I started to use
a standard English-Japanese bilingual dictionary. Such dictionaries contain a
large number of commonly used English words. Each item comes with a
pronunciation guide, its equivalents in Japanese, a note on its grammatical
functions, and examples of how it is used.
working as professional translators and interpreters, there are more
specialized bilingual dictionaries. My aunt often translate articles submitted
to international medical journals, so she uses a bilingual dictionary devoted
to medicine. Such dictionaries, available in various fields, tend to omit words
like “come” or “go” used in an everyday sense; on the other hand, they contain
highly specialized terms not found in standard bilingual dictionaries. For
example, in a bilingual medical dictionary, one can find a term like “basal
body temperature,” which is unfamiliar to most people ― an expression referring to the temperature
when the body is at rest.
Then, if bilingual dictionaries are so useful, why did my aunt give me
a monolingual dictionary? As I found out, there is, in fact, often no perfect
equivalence between words in one language and those in another. My aunt
even goes so far as to claim that a Japanese “equivalent” can never give
you the real meaning of a word in English! Therefore she insisted that
I read the definition of a word in a monolingual dictionary
when I wanted to obtain a better understanding of its meaning. Gradually, I
have come to see what she meant.
monolingual dictionary for learners has benefited me in another important way ― my passive vocabulary (words I can understand) has increasingly become
an active vocabulary (words I actually use). This dictionary uses a limited
number of words, around 2,000, in its definitions. When I read these definitions,
I am repeatedly exposed to basic words and how they are used to explain
objects and concepts. Because of this, I can express myself more easily
Once I got used
to the monolingual dictionary for learners, I discovered another kind of
monolingual dictionary, which is particularly useful when writing essays or
preparing presentations. This is what can be called a “find-the-right-word” dictionary.
This kind of dictionary enables me to come up with an alternative, and
sometimes more precise, expression for a word I am already familiar with. For
example, if I look up “difficult,” I will find a group of related terms such as
“challenging,” “tough,” “hard,” and “demanding.” A word like “important” will
lead me to “significant,” “crucial,” “essential,” “influential,” and “major.”
What I realize now is that both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries
have particular uses, and your choice of dictionary depends on your aims.
If you wish to understand the general meaning of texts in a foreign language
and have no need to express your own ideas in the language, you may find
a bilingual dictionary sufficient. If you work as a professional translator,
you will find it necessary to use specialized bilingual dictionaries. However,
if your ultimate goals are to understand a foreign language clearly and
to speak or write the language using a variety of words, I strongly recommend
that you obtain a monolingual dictionary once you have command of a basic
vocabulary. I feel I owe the progress I have made in English to the wisdom
of my aunt.