Foreign Dictionaries are Your Friend

One of the most important tools in learning a language is a good dictionary. Everyone knows this but people prefer to use dictionaries in their native language. I did this for years while preparing for the JLPT.

But then I realized that the translations were not always clear or accurate. Some words are easy to translate. But others are very difficult to explain.

Early this year I started experimenting with using Japanese dictionaries online, not English ones. I decided to use the online dictionary provided by Goo, and use the kokugo (国語) section only, since kokugo is just another word for Japanese in Japanese (lit. “national language”).1 It was hard at first because dictionary entries in Japanese have a certain style and format. It takes some getting used. But, I started to notice that the entries make a lot more sense in Japanese than in English.

For example, look at the adverb しっかり. If you look in a good online English-Japanese dictionary, is says is means firmly; tightly; reliable; level-headed; steady. Well, that kind of makes sense. But when do Japanese people use it, and in what way?

When I look up the word in the Japanese dictionary, I get a much more thorough and clearer answer. You get 6 different explanations in this case, all of them with example sentences written by native speakers for native speakers.

But what if you can’t read the definition? This happens to me a lot. For example, when i looked up the word above, I didn’t know what 堅固 meant. So what do I do? I look up that word too! The truth is, you may not understand the definition 100%, but often times you get a pretty good idea what it means as well as the context. If you are really stuck you can certainly use an English dictionary. There’s no shame in that. But I found that using Japanese dictionaries helped a lot in terms of quality of the explanations.

Now, in the case of Korean, which I started learning, I still can’t really read anything yet (simple Korean reading material is something I really struggle to find right now), so I can’t do this just yet, but the sooner I start, the better. 🙂 When I’m ready, there are good dictionaries in Korean that I can readily use such as Naver and Daum.

If you’re studying a language, and can at least read some of it, definitely give a native-language online dictionary a try. It might be hard at first, but you’ll be glad you did.

P.S. Inspired by an old post by the awesome folks at Antimoon.

1 In Korean, they use an almost identical term: gugeo (국어), by the way.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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