May 13

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Should you use a Japanese-English or Japanese-Japanese dictionary?

By Charles Hoshino

May 13, 2021

Japanese learning

A common question serious Japanese learners ask is, “Should I use a Japanese-Japanese dictionary or a Japanese-English dictionary?” When I was learning Japanese, the “elite” language-learning community argued that a native language Japanese-Japanese dictionary was better than a Japanese-English one.

At the time, their arguments seemed sensible to me, but now I disagree. Even as an advanced Japanese learner (listen to our walk and talk video for an idea of my Japanese level), I never use Japanese-Japanese dictionaries. Two reasons people give for why Japanese-Japanese dictionaries are better:

  • Reading definitions in Japanese gives you more practice than reading definitions in English
  • The Japanese definitions are in some way ‘closer’ to the true meanings

I think neither of these reasons are convincing. And, my advice to most learners is, “Just use a J-E dictionary.”

Japanese-English or Japanese-Japanese dictionary definitions?

Let’s first look at the first reason: that Japanese-Japanese dictionaries give you more practice.

This argument is part of the “get as much Japanese exposure as possible” framework, popularized by such methods as AJATT (“all Japanese all the time”). While I have some disagreements with AJATT—do you really want me to listen to Japanese while sleeping?—I am a fan of the general ethos: Japanese acquisition is ultimately about the amount of quality time you put in.

However, I do not think dictionary definitions are the best way to put in quality Japanese practice time. People who push this view are ignoring trade-offs.

Here is my view: Reading definitions in English will give you more quality Japanese practice in the long run. This may seem like a paradox, but let me explain.

Yes, in a simple world, reading a definition in Japanese makes you better off than if you did not. But, as one learns in a basic economics course, all the choices we make come with trade-offs and longer-term consequences.

Here are my main points:

  • Japanese definitions are difficult. In my book I argue that we should immerse ourselves in Japanese that is neither too hard nor too easy. Unfortunately, Japanese definitions (it depends on the dictionary) tend to be too difficult. This means that J-J dictionaries are not good for learners.
  • Japanese definitions disturb flow. When reading a book or a manga comic, I want to get into a enjoyable flow state. One learns better and can focus for longer when in a flow state. The more ‘friction’ there is when looking up words, the more likely I am to get frustrated, lose motivation, and be “bumped out” of my flow state. In other words, J-J dictionaries make learning less enjoyable, and less enjoyable learning means less time learning.

You chose whatever book or comic or article you are reading because it is well-suited for your current level of Japanese. Why waste time on a dictionary definition that is not well-suited for your level? Look it up in English and get it over with!

In other words, I think you should look up words in your native language and then return to studying Japanese.

However, you may be worried that the English definition doesn’t teach you the ‘right’ meaning of a Japanese word. Let us look at that next.

Are Japanese-Japanese dictionary definitions ‘better’ or ‘truer’?

Translations of Japanese works—say, the novels of Kawabata, Oe, or Murakami—into other languages are rarely as good as the originals (though some argue that translations can make the original even better!). Something is always lost, or changed, in translation.

Does this mean that Japanese-English dictionaries also miss something in translation? Will you learn the incorrect meaning if you use them? The short answer is, “Yes and no.” The slightly longer answer is, “This is a bad question.”

I also mention this in my book, but most of the meaning of a word is outside of the definition. The meaning of a word is too complex. A dictionary is always a simplification, a shortcut.

A definition only provides a crude approximation. It is like a block of marble. The sculptor has a lot of work to do before he or she can produce a work of art. True learning comes from reading example sentences, seeing how others use (and do not use) the word, and cultivating an instinctual familiarity with it.

So my point is that it doesn’t matter much if you start with English or Japanese definitions: Both are crude approximations of the ‘true’ meaning of a word. And, if both definitions are equally crude, then I’d rather use the easier-to-read-and-digest ones. In my case, these are English definitions. In your case, it is probably your native language.

So how to really learn the meaning?

So if a dictionary only gives crude meanings, how do we really learn about a word’s meaning? A good first approximation is to be exposed to lots of example sentences (and a nice counterpoint one could make is that J-J dictionaries can be a good source of example sentences). But I have already written about this elsewhere!

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