Using monolingual dictionaries for foreign language learning…

… is it worth the trouble?

I’ve read in a few different places that using a monolingual dictionary which is in your target language is a good way to advance with your studies. I can certainly see the logic in it – if the dictionary is all in your target language, simply looking up a word exposes you to authentic language.

However, while that sounds great, the practicality of it is definitely in question. I can comment on this from personal experience. A few years ago, I was able to get, after much poking around online, a copy of Langenscheidt’s Großwörterbuch: Deutsch als Fremdsprache. (They have since printed a new paperback version, so while the wait is pretty bad – 4 to 6 weeks – you can get a copy of it.)

This dictionary is made specifically for learners of German, hence “Deutsch als Fremdsprache” – “German as (a) foreign language.” I got it with the hopes that I could switch to using it almost exclusively. At the time, I thought my reading level in German was at a high enough level for me to do that, at least with a dictionary that was written for learners. What I got, however, was a pretty big surprise, and what can only be called mixed success.

Book Cover

Certainly, some words that I looked up in my new dictionary, I would read the definition and understand it almost right away. However, with the majority of words that I wanted to look up, I ran into a fairly big problem: I didn’t know quite a few of the words used in the definition! This often led to a humorous “chase down the words” session. I’d start writing down all-German definitions on a piece of paper (or two…), just to figure out the meaning of one word. While I suppose all the reading in German could be seen as beneficial, when you’re trying to read a text and you have to stop for 30-45 minutes to figure out one word, frustration can set in. This problem could be particularly bad with words dealing with concepts instead of physical things or actions.

Of course, my problems were not with the dictionary per se – the dictionary is quite nice! – it was me that was the problem. The monolingual dictionary would have worked great if I’d known all or most of the words used in the definitions, but that just wasn’t the case.

So, the question is: is it worth using a monolingual dictionary to help you learn a foreign language, or is it too much trouble? I think my answer would have to be a yes – with some stipulations. Namely, that you use your monolingual dictionary as a supplement to a bilingual one. Certainly somewhere in your language learning career, you will probably be able to exclusively use the monolingual one. But until you’re at a fairly advanced stage in the language, I think trying to use only a monolingual dictionary is more of a headache than an aid to learning. If your experience ends up being like mine, you’ll find yourself struggling to understand many of the definitions.

Perhaps a balance could be struck, though: try to use your monolingual dictionary first, and if you find that you don’t understand a definition, only then look it up in your bilingual dictionary. Or perhaps even try to figure out the definition in your monolingual dictionary for say, 5, looking up words you don’t understand. If, after that time is up, you’ve not figured it out, whip out your bilingual dictionary.

At any rate, I do recommend getting a monolingual dictionary in your target language at some point or another – just don’t toss out your bilingual one when the monolingual one arrives. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Using monolingual dictionaries for foreign language learning…”

  1. Monolingual dictionaries are great if you already have a lot of vocabulary. However, even if you happen to master the language, a bilingual dictionary will be necessary if you want to find animal’s names and things like that.

  2. Agree with Dani. It’s a good way to review other words you know, and a prep for talking in simple words about more complex concepts. My English teacher actually made me memorise definitions of words, so I practice that. Jesus, those were the days… Anywho, here is an extra take on using dictionaries of all sorts, with pros and cons for each, maybe you’ll find it helpful too: https://www.lingualift.com/blog/how-to-use-foreign-language-dictionary/

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