Using English Even when in Full Japanese Dictionary Mode

You’ve finally made the long dramatic adjustment from the J-E dictionary to the J-J dictionary.  English is but a faint memory in the vast Japanese world you now dwell in.  You are fully engaged 100% with the Japanese language and no handicap is required.  You are far past wondering, “can I just use English this one time?  I just need it for this one difficult word.”  You’ve overcome the temptations.  All is well and everything is the way it should be.  Or is it?

English will occasionally experience a minor return from banishment.  I believe there are 3 exceptions where English still deserves a home in your Japanese only world.

Exception 1:  You require the exact English word.

Sometimes mere understanding of Japanese isn’t enough.  You need to know what the exact English equivalent is.  The most common occurrence of this is if you ever do any kind of translation or interpretation work.  You can’t just translate the Japanese to a general English meaning, and sometimes you can’t guess the exact required word.  You can’t get around saying “bond’s term to maturity” or “currency futures/swaps” by just generally describing them.  Some words carry very specific meaning and require the exactness that only the J-E dictionary can provide.

Exception 2:  You require the exact Japanese word.

This is the above in reverse.  You want to know how to say something in Japanese.  There are ways to look up a specific Japanese way of saying something by using a Japanese search in Google.  But this doesn’t always achieve the results you want. You want to know how to say “velcro” right now in Japanese, and trying to describe it in a Japanese search just isn’t working out.  The E-J dictionary will satisfy your need.

Exception 3:  You don’t really even know the exact meaning in English.

There are plenty of words in English that you know when you hear them, use them, but couldn’t really explain them well if someone asked you.  If you read an English definition and don’t know what word it would be, reading the Japanese definition won’t help you any more.  This often comes up in science with biology (especially diseases), chemistry, and physics.


Don’t try to convince yourself that the reason you need to use English is because it falls into one of the categories above.  This will lead to nothing worthwhile.  Just because it is a complex or specialized word doesn’t mean you need English.  If you are struggling with the word, try the following:

1) Use pictures with Google images.
2) Search through RTK, use the keywords, and try to piece together the word.
3) Read a lot of sample sentences online.
4) Look up the word on a website like Chiebukuro and put in the search bar “_____ ってどういう意味”, what is the meaning of ______.  Native speakers have trouble with word meanings as well, and people are very good at simplifying difficult concepts on this website.
5) Do anything else that doesn’t involve English.

Remember: J-J is the rule.  English is the rare intruding exception.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Using English Even when in Full Japanese Dictionary Mode — 9 Comments

  1. One thing you should probably add: The more concrete an image is, the better it is.

    The whole ‘image’ method is used exclusively by Rosetta Stone, and we all know where that goes. Images would probably be better for concrete nouns (table, rose) and simple verbs (run) than adjectives (big, resourceful).

    Still, images are a lot better than the alternative (English).

  2. There a couple additional circumstances when I look up words up in English. I am aware I am sacrificing a little of my study quality here, but in these cases it feels like I’m sacrificing only a little quality for a large amount of being able to continue on studying in a more enjoyable manner; that is, reading and srsing things other than dictionary. (Enjoyability and quality are very much intertwined–regardless of which is the primary motivation, quality is important because it increases one’s ability to enjoy Japanese, and enjoyability is important because it increases one’s inclination to focus on studying.)

    ・When the context/definition/picture of my word suggests a particular meaning but I don’t understand enough of the definition to know whether that’s the actual meaning. This means that if I put it in a card it will work fine for reviewing if I’m not actually reinforcing an incorrect guess. I can save a lot of branching by checking whether I’m right and stopping if I am. I try to refrain from “confirming” a definition I really do pretty much understand.

    ・When my branching process has gone in a direction where I don’t even know what the subject matter is anymore. I find my comprehension goes way down when that happens, so looking up a word in English and rereading the definition with this context really helps. In this case I try to still do enough branching that I would be able to understand the definition in the future.

    I’m still experimenting with the best way to progress from struggling with a J-J dictionary to using it comfortably.

    • I agree some of it is personal and you never want to use a valuable tool if it is going to destroy your enjoyment of studying Japanese. Still, just be a little careful because it is so easy to get into bad habits. Please comment again to let us all know how your switch and full adjustment goes!

      • I will post an update when I feel like I have achieved a noticable level of comfort with the J-J dictionary, but it could be a bit because a combination of life and another interest are interfering with my Japanese study more than usual.

        I try to be on the lookout for standard slippage regarding when I look things up in J-E and I really don’t do so terribly often, but I figure that even the rule of never looking a word up in J-E before J-J saves me from the only bad habit that would be completely fatal to learning to use J-J; as long as I’m actually using it my ability will be increasing at some rate.

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