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Cessen's Ramblings

2020 - 07 - 27

Foreign Language Dictionaries

In this post I'm going to make the case that foreign language dictionaries (e.g. Japanese-English dictionaries) are actually thesauruses, not dictionaries, and that this has important implications for how you use them when learning a language.

Native dictionaries vs foreign language dictionaries

When you look up a word in a native English dictionary, you typically get descriptive definitions. For example, the first two definitions of the Wiktionary entry for "bathe" are:

  1. To clean oneself by immersion in water or using water; to take a bath, have a bath.
  2. To immerse oneself, or part of the body, in water for pleasure or refreshment; to swim.

Foreign language dictionaries, on the other hand, typically provide a list of similar words or short phrases. For example, this is the entry for "やっぱり" from a popular Japanese-English dictionary:

  1. too; also; likewise; either​
  2. still; as before​
  3. even so; either way; after all; nonetheless; in any event; all the same​
  4. as expected​

This is much closer to the behavior of a thesaurus than it is to a dictionary. Thesauruses provide a list of words that are similar to the word you're looking up, and that's pretty much what's happening here.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it's not what's advertised on the cover. They aren't called "foreign language thesauruses", after all. I'm also not saying that words should always be defined descriptively. On the contrary, there are many cases where providing a simple translation is absolutely the best approach. For example, defining "猫" as "cat" is far more succinct—and probably less confusing—than "a domesticated subspecies of feline animal, commonly kept as a house pet."

But the problem is that simple precise translations often don't exist. And in those cases you're left with a list of loosely related words that only provide a vague sense of the word's actual meaning. An extreme example of that is "やっぱり" above, which is nearly impossible to directly translate into English. Its Japanese-English entry is therefore a confusing mess of words and expressions that at best fail to convey its meaning and at worst are outright misleading. If you're trying to learn Japanese, that entry is close to useless. It really needs a proper descriptive definition.

However, that's not really a representative example. Most words aren't quite so difficult to translate, and the issues that manifest are usually more subtle. So let's look at a more typical example that actually has some close-ish English equivalents.

Here is the Japanese-English dictionary entry for "反省":

  1. reflection; reconsideration; introspection; meditation; contemplation​
  2. regret; repentance; remorse; being sorry

And here is a corresponding native Japanese dictionary entry for the same word:

  1. 自分の言動を振り返って考えること.
    (Rough translation: "Thinking back on one's words and actions.")

(Disclaimer: the translation is mine, so don't trust it too much. Also, this is just one dictionary, and dictionaries can vary. This is for example purposes only!)

One obvious difference is that the Japanese-English dictionary lists two meanings, whereas the native dictionary only lists one. As you might guess, the native dictionary is right: this word only has one meaning.

But the difference I want you to notice—and the one most relevant to this post—is, again, that the native dictionary gives a descriptive definition. Moreover, the Japanese-English dictionary fails to fully capture that definition in its list of words. It hints around it, and some of the words are pretty close. But none of them are quite the same. And it's in cases like this that you really want a descriptive definition, not a list of words that amount to a thesaurus entry.

This is just one example, of course. But this kind of thing happens all the time in Japanese-English dictionaries, and I suspect is common among foreign language dictionaries in general. And it happens because these dictionaries are trying to provide translations rather than definitions, even when precise translations don't exist.

Why does this matter?

In some Japanese language learning circles they talk about making a so-called "monolingual transition", where you switch from using a Japanese-English dictionary to using a native Japanese dictionary. The typical stated benefit of doing this is that from that point onward you are learning Japanese entirely in Japanese, and that this accelerates your progress. I think there is some truth to that: the more time you spend in a language, the faster your progress will be.

But I think there is a far more substantial benefit to using a native dictionary, which is simply that it's a real dictionary rather than a thesaurus. This gives you the enormous advantage of proper definitions, irrespective of what language they're written in. And especially for languages as different as Japanese and English, that will give you a much clearer picture of what words mean.

Of course, even native dictionaries don't provide a complete picture, which is easy to see in any native English dictionary. Things like the feeling of a word, the kinds of contexts it's usually used in, and its various connotations are rarely fully reflected even in native dictionaries. So no matter what, you still need to observe words being used in real contexts to build a complete understanding of them.

But dictionaries nevertheless provide a leg up on getting to that complete understanding faster. And the better the dictionary, the more of a leg up you get. And... thesauruses aren't very good dictionaries.

Advice for language learners

What if you're learning a language? What can you do? After all, especially when you're in the early stages, you can't reasonably use a native dictionary.

From my experience so far (which is admittedly limited—take this with a grain of salt), the most important thing is simply to be aware of this. Whenever you read a "definition" in a foreign language dictionary, keep in mind that it's actually a list of related words. The real meaning of the word is likely a bit different. As long as you're aware of that, you can learn the word's real meaning over time as you encounter it in real usage. And the thesaurus-style definition still gives you a leg up, because you at least have a starting point.

The second thing you can do is to start using a native dictionary as early as possible. That doesn't mean using it exclusively. Just get in the habit of looking up words in both a foreign language dictionary and a native dictionary. If you can't understand the native entry, no worries! But if you can, it will provide a much clearer picture of the word's real meaning. And over time, as your ability in the language grows, you can rely more and more on native dictionaries.

Lastly, I think there's a useful mental shift you can make when learning foreign words: rather than thinking you're learning e.g. the Japanese version of an English word, instead assume that you're learning an entirely new word altogether. Just as if you were learning a new word in your native language. There will certainly be times—especially with basic words—when, in fact, there is an essentially identical word in your native language. But it's nevertheless a useful frame of mind to have, to assume that most words you encounter are entirely new. And especially with languages as different as Japanese and English, that assumption will very often turn out to be right.