It’s been a while since I’ve written something about language learning, but this is worth saying.
Why Avoid the Dictionary?
So you might be confused right about now. Isn’t the purpose of a dictionary to help you understand words you don’t understand? Possibly. Why did someone write the first dictionary? Was it to catalogue all the words and definitions and word origins, or was it to teach others those same words and definitions and origins? Both, I suppose.
But a dictionary is slightly academic in the same way that flashcards are. They present a slice, and because there the pie is so big, the slice has to be tiny. While a dictionary has good features (pronunciation, example sentences, sometimes synonyms and antonyms), the result of using one is similar to missing the forest for the trees (missing the pie for the slices?).
A dictionary is a false god. It gives a definition (in the case of a J-J dictionary) or it gives a similar word in another language (in a J-E dictionary). The problem is that dictionaries are dry. Their example sentences are missing from a larger context. There’s nothing emotional. People use it to learn words rather than hear stories, and that’s all well and good, in small doses.
But language learning is all about dealing with ambiguity and finding your own meanings in words. We all have a brother or friend or sentient dog that uses words ‘incorrectly’ (which is already such a loaded term). Yet that’s all part of the process of learning. Even wrong uses of words mean that the word is somehow in your head. It’s being used. And once it’s in your head, you can compare it against the new uses you come across.
Isn’t it interesting that people complain about how they “studied a word hundreds of times” or “looked a word up every day for the past year” and they “still don’t know it”?
To be clear: Using a dictionary isn’t bad. But only use it when necessary. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.
Note for Beginners
What I’m saying applies more to people who have a few hundred words under their belt. The kind of person who can read something like 「私の母は病院に勤めています。仕事がとっても好きです。」. The kind of person who has the basics of Japanese down.
The reason being: basic words have basic meanings. You can learn a lot by seeing that 食べる（たべる） means “to eat” and 犬（いぬ） means “dog”. There’s not a lot of difference. Yes, there are subtle differences. 飲む（のむ） can be about ingesting a variety of things, including medicine, and 早い（はやい） can be confusingly both “fast” and “early”. But they’re not the kind of words where the meaning is subtle, and the use is poetic.
Compare those words to something like おかしい (and, 面白い(おもしろおい)). The meaning being both “strange” and “funny”, and the subtlety being harder to parse. This is a case where no amount of dictionary definitions and sample sentences will help. This is a word that needs to be used in context, many times, before the feeling is cemented.
All that said, if you’re delving into native materials, beginner or not, I’d consider following this advice.
The Power of Dictionary Avoidance
So, the time has come. You’ve decided that a dictionary is, because someone on the internet spouted off about it, worth avoiding.
What does this mean?
- The elephant in the room: you won’t understand everything. In fact, you might be reading for pages, not understanding things (although if that’s happening, consider changing your book, if possible).
- You’ll start spotting patterns more. The act of reading faster and pausing less to look elsewhere means that patterns become more noticeable.
- You’ll guess at words instead of relying on a god to tell you. You’ll make meanings that, although they may be incorrect, will have a semblance of truth to them. They’ll also have emotional weight for you.
- You’ll notice words that are used constantly. You’ll notice the words that are used rarely. If you do use a dictionary, this will point you in the direction of the words with most value.
- You’ll find that sometimes the writer made something confusing only to have it be explained later. If you tried and tried to understand a sentence with a dictionary, only to be left bewildered, perhaps it was intentional. Sometimes the following sentences explain what’s going on.
- Most importantly: you’ll read faster, which will let you progress through something at a normal-ish pace. This helps keep things interesting and flowing, even when some of the meaning is lost. Even better: it’ll bring you to the “emotional” and “memorable” scenes faster, thereby giving you more memorable scenes (and memories) to ground your Japanese.
The combined effect of all this is that Japanese will start moving fast enough that your brain has to go into “reaction mode”. This reaction mode is what we’re looking for. As language is a set of interactions—not segments in a void—we’ll be able to hone our ability to react quickly to things.
Just as playing tennis at 20x slower than normal wouldn’t be helpful for your tennis (beyond practicing very specific techniques), practicing Japanese at 20x slower isn’t very helpful. It doesn’t prepare us for the real thing. More importantly, it doesn’t hone the part of the brain that makes language automatic. If you’ve ever played tennis, table tennis, or badminton (or almost any other sport), you know that sometimes your body moves without telling it to. This is what we’re trying to achieve with our Japanese. Only by bringing it up to speed can we attempt it.
When the Time is Right to Use a Dictionary
So, I’d be lying if I said that dictionary use should be utterly frowned upon in all cases. In fact, I use one pretty regularly. You should too, if you like it.
The key is to be using it when it’s effective, rather than all the time. And when is it effective?
- You’re not reading something long.
Say you’re reading a sign that you see on the street. There’re not many words on it. You understand most of them, but you’re confused about one or two of them. Go look ‘em up. There’s not really a better way (although, asking someone rather than using a dictionary might be better).
- You “feel compelled” to look up a word.
You’re reading a book. Or playing a video game. Or listening to a song or TV or what-have-you. Something dramatic happens. There’s a lone sentence in a void. You’re super interested in what this sentence means, but you have no idea. Go look it up. You’re in the right mood to absorb something as dry as a dictionary.
- You really do learn from reading slowly and looking everything up.
I don’t know you. I do know myself. I do know that I’ve looked up words in dictionaries hundreds of times with little effect. I know that looking up fewer words in dictionaries has benefitted my Japanese. It’s why I’m urging you to do the same.
As With All Things
Just give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Go back to your dictionaries and textbooks and flashcards.
A warning: dictionaries seem more effective than they are. When you look up a word, it feels like we’re learning. So don’t look at the short term. Compare a month of using this. Do you feel like you’re understanding Japanese more?
Because a weird thing might happen: You might feel like you’re learning fewer words. But your Japanese might be getting better, faster.