How I Broke my Stubborn Dependence on Bilingual Dictionaries

You come across a new Japanese word while watching an anime, reading a manga, etc., and you say “let’s find out what it means!” You put the word into your bilingual dictionary. You get instant gratification and a decent representation of the meaning of the word. But we all know the problems with studying Japanese this way

For a while I’ve been doing J-J sentences, yet up until recently, I’ve still been guilty of doing this. I get stuck on a hard J-J flashcard and say “I’ll just have a quick peek at the English word. No harm, no foul.” I needed to break this addiction and it took a few eye-opening experiences to get there.

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I was with some Japanese friends recently and I used the word 懐かしい (なつかしい). One of them asked, “how do I say that in English?” I replied “you can’t!”

懐かしい is a great example of a word that is hard to translate using a bilingual dictionary. For those that aren’t familiar with the word, I would describe the meaning as a sense of nostalgia derived from doing something or seeing something for the first time in a long time, that also brings back fond memories of the past.

My best bilingual dictionary just says: “dear, desired, missed” (ironically the French meaning is nostalgique, which I feel is closer to the actual meaning…).

This brought the problem with using bilingual dictionaries to my attention. A single keyword often misses the many nuances of the actual meaning of the word. If bilingual dictionaries gave a detailed description that correlated to the meaning in Japanese, it might not be as big an issue. But a simple keyword like “missed” doesn’t convey the true meaning of 懐かしい. By cheating on my J-J flashcards, which always filled me with regret, I was causing confusion for myself by trying to make the English keyword fit in with the Japanese definition.

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In answer to my friend’s question, I told him in English we would usually tell a story.

“Oh I used to play this game all the time when I was a kid!”
“It’s been ages since I watched this movie!”

But in Japanese you can just say 懐かしい. Nowadays, even when I’m with non-Japanese speaking friends or family I still say 懐かしい because it’s a magical Japanese phrase that conveys that simple emotion that I can’t express using just one word in English. I strongly believe it should be introduced into the English lexicon.

It’s an example like this that motivated me to go completely monolingual. However, due to my previous J-E experience, my mind still temporarily goes through the following:

Listen                                                                         Speak   

This is temporary. After making the J-J switch, over time English keywords have started to fade away.

For example, if I hear the word 雨 I don’t have to think ‘rain’ in English. 雨 is 雨. The Japanese portion of your brain grows until one day you can only remember the Japanese word for what you want to say. It has happened to me a few times already and I’m only around level 35.

What about when you don’t know the Japanese word you want to say?

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Sometimes you think you need a bilingual dictionary to translate from English to Japanese when you don’t know the Japanese word for what you want to say. What do you do in this situation? You describe what you’re trying to say with the words you already know. There’s always a way, even if you sound a little stupid. It’s okay.

My favorite example is from an old episode of the Simpsons, where Homer attempts to use a subliminal cassette tape to lose weight, but accidentally continuously listens to a vocabulary-builder tape instead.

He becomes super articulate. But after eventually scrapping the tape, his vocabulary returns to “normal.” When he takes some ice cream from the fridge, and requires a certain utensil that people use to eat that ice cream, he can’t think of the word anymore. His response?

“Marge, where’s that… metal dealy… you use to… dig… food with?”

Conversations where I conveyed the meaning when I didn’t know word

I do regular Skype conversations every week through Cafetalk, and this situation happens often, always resolving itself in a pleasant way.

1. I didn’t know the word for sand.




2. I didn’t know the word for shopping center.




The great thing about these types of conversations is that after going through this “what’s that’s word” back and forth with a Japanese person, it gets firmly ingrained into my memory.


So I’m done cheating on J-J. Not even a little. The power is apparent and I don’t want to miss out on any of the benefits that come from it. While it took me a little while to get here, it was worth it.

Do any of you have any stories that allowed you to finally break your dependence on a bilingual dictionary?

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Been casually studying Japanese for about 2.5 years. Big fan of retro games, anime and manga.


How I Broke my Stubborn Dependence on Bilingual Dictionaries — 9 Comments

  1. I have the same problem when speaking, there is something weird about knowing the right word but not drawing a blank on it when speaking.

    Regarding J-J definitions, looking at the English definitions is okay when branch-cutting (even says so in the guide I believe), but after you made the card there should never a reason to look at the definition in English since you already vetted the Japanese definition during the creation process. If you don’t understand it, you should probably redo the card (find another definition) or suspend it for later.

  2. A massive part of being able to speak fluently is being able to find other ways to express the word you’re trying to say when you can’t remember it (adding in a few 何だっけ when you’re trying to remember will also let the person that you’re talking to know that you could do with some help!). The thing is to stop worrying about forgetting it because it happens to everyone, and just focus on trying to communicate (and then maybe study up afterwards so you don’t forget!) So much of speaking fluently is just believing in yourself, putting yourself out there and not being afraid of making mistakes.

    One of the things that I did after I got to a level where I could speak pretty fluently was listen to myself when I was speaking English, and start noticing all of the mistakes that I make when I’m doing that. It made me feel much better about the mistakes I make when speaking Japanese, hehe. (I make even more mistakes than ever now in my spoken English as I have lived in Japan and been surrounded by Japanese for a bit too long)

    I (unfortunately) end up using a bilingual dictionary a lot these days (I kind of have to as a translator), but even when I’m not translating I will use it for certain things (disease names, plant/animal names, that kind of thing. I do tend to look them up in Japanese first to see if I can guess what they are though!)

    • One trap that I do find myself falling into though (especially when talking to my husband who speaks good English) is Japanesifying the English word that I am trying to say, which works most of the time in that it gets my point across, but probably wouldn’t work with the average Japanese person. So I try not to do that, but when I do I make sure that I find out what the Japanese word was I was trying to say so I can use that next time!

  3. First of all, high five fellow 逆転裁判 fan. Can’t wait for game 6!

    I am kind of eager to get to that point. I’m around 700 cards into my J-E deck.

    I agree there is so much nuance lost with bilingual dictionaries. But as you see the word more often the poor definitions will fall away. Even at my level (10-15?) I have definitely found a good sense of what 悪い actually means vs. the dictionary’s definition: “bad”.

    And yes, circumlocution! Used it all the time when I studied French. I had the privilege to go visit France twice in high school and stay with a friend. I learned so many words just by trying to define them to others. My favorite achievement was when I was able to teach a card game to a group without knowing any card-related vocabulary. We had a lot of fun and learned a whole lot :) I feel that would be the same in Japanese.

  4. Your conversation example is why everyone should read “13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese”. It contains a ton of hints and tips for how to transition to discussing Japanese in Japanese.

  5. It’s all and good, but, don’t mistake an air vent for a window. Or a step ladder for a normal ladder.

  6. Great article! Has anyone ever tried going J-J while they are studying for the JLPT? I am planning on taking the N2 this year and it can get a little confusing trying to do J-J. Does anyone have any tips? I was thinking about taking a break from J-J until I pass the N2 but I’m not sure?

    • I’ve been studying in j-j for n1. It’s fine. There’s no English in the exams and a lot of the main textbooks series (新完全マスター、総まとめ) are entirely in Japanese n2 and up. I’m only doing the grammar aspects of n2 and n1 kanzen master, since I have a solid vocab base. However I will be doing practice exams closer to the date and mining unknown words/grammar as I go. I’d also like to go through some n3 j-j material but that’s proving more difficult to find for obvious reasons. N4 and n5 are pretty straightforward by the looks of things though, not going to study those.

      Nihongomori series on YouTube pushes out a lot of great content in video format. I’ve watched a few n3 videos and they are j-j. I much prefer written resources, too lazy to transcribe from YouTube either…

      I see no reason to quit j-j based on that. Considering the exam is 100 Japanese and n2 materials are in pure Japanese. Though you probably wanna study n3 material, it would be even more likely
      In n2 exam than n1

  7. I do this in english a lot and it’s never been a problem; so you’d think I would realize that it works the same with japanese… but noooo haha. Great post!

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