6 Reasons why Learning Japanese with a Monolingual Dictionary is Amazing
Going monolingual. Going J-J. Banishing the English. It is one of the cornerstones of the Jalup method. Yet as you probably know, Jalup is still in the minority in encouraging and teaching you how to do this. Why is this? If it’s so good, why aren’t more people doing it? Is it really that special?
The majority opinion is still to stick with English. People that do so will be happy to tell you why learning Japanese with a monolingual dictionary is a fruitless effort. It can be tough to hear this if you are in the midst of attempting a J-J only marathon.
Most people keep their J-E habits forever. To be fair, many of these people do also think that once you reach a high enough level, it can benefit you to introduce a J-J dictionary as well. But that’s only an optional, additional tool, to be saved for a later date. Trying to go solely monolingual early on?
You’ll hear things like:
- It takes way more time to use a J-J dictionary
- It will leave you frustrated
- It will leave you with a worse understanding
- There are no proven benefits over sticking with English
I’m sure the list goes on much, much longer.
Despite me being a vocal supporter of J-J on this site, through all of the articles and products, I’m not going on a tirade of why J-J is far superior to J-E. I have no science or studies to back that up, and that would be an irresponsible statement. The anecdotal stories of myself and thousands of people using Jalup may be convincing. However, these people might have done just as well with J-E, and there are plenty of people that gave up J-J here, and did fine with J-E methods.
However, I want to take this article to provide the real deep reasons behind why I think J-J is amazing, and why you need to try it.
6. Going monolingual gets you to go monolingual
Even those against J-J usually agree that it is useful to eventually get your hands on a monolingual dictionary.
The problem is when? You most likely will have used a J-E dictionary for years. What level is good enough? No matter when you start, you are going to go through the initial adjustment phase that the monolingual dictionary requires. I’ve found that most learners who stick with J-E, and think one day they might also use a J-J dictionary, never ending up using a J-J dictionary.
When you go monolingual, you go monolingual.
5. You get the real meanings
I know that for a large pool of words, a monolingual definition seems crazy. Let’s compare the meaning of cat in a J-E and J-J dictionary.
猫: 食肉目ネコ科の哺乳類。体はしなやかで、足裏に肉球があり、爪を鞘に収めることができる。口のまわりや目の上に長いひげがあり、感覚器として重要。舌はとげ状の突起で覆われ、ざらつく。夜行性で、目に反射板状の構造をもち、光って見える。瞳孔は暗所で円形に開き、明所で細く狭くなる。単独で暮らす。家猫はネズミ駆除のためリビアヤマネコやヨーロッパヤマネコなどから馴化 (じゅんか) されたもの。起源はエジプト王朝時代にさかのぼり、さまざまな品種がある。日本ネコは中国から渡来したといわれ、毛色により烏猫・虎猫・三毛猫・斑 (ぶち) 猫などという。ネコ科にはヤマネコ・トラ・ヒョウ・ライオン・チーターなども含まれる。
I chose a bit of an extreme example, but yes, most nouns that can be concretely explained in one English word may take several sentences in Japanese. Then again, if you plan on ever watching or reading something Japanese, you most likely won’t even ever look up these words. Technically you don’t even need a dictionary for words like these. Just do a Google Image search.
However, 100% one-to-one meanings are not the norm. As you go down the following list (in the following order), the J-E dictionary loses it’ accuracy.
- Common Nouns
- Less Common Nouns
- Japanese-Unique Phrases
The order of this list itself can be troubling. For a beginner, a lot of the simpler words are pretty accurate. As you get higher level, that accuracy diverges. But since you were so used to the accurate words earlier on, it can lull you into a false sense of confidence as you get higher level.
4. More Japanese is a good thing
Why waste several minutes on a J-J definition that could be learned in one second with English?
Because you get more Japanese, which is what you are here to study. Working through a definition is incredibly valuable study time and is not wasted. For the programmers out there, do you consider the time spent struggling and figuring out how to write a line of code wasted time?
3. You stop translating to English in your head
When will I stop translating in my head? Everyone wants an answer to this.
The good news is that J-E and J-J learners alike will both make these transitions one day. But with no English in the way, which way do you think is quicker?
2. You learn to think in Japanese
A big complaint of monolingual learners is they don’t feel fully confident with the Japanese definitions they read, and their understanding seems fuzzy.
I always respond the same way: this is completely normal and it would be silly to expect anything else!
You have thought in English your whole life. This is a colossal change. The way Japanese is organized is completely different. Trying to match it all to English is not helping you internalize the language. Deal with these uncertain feelings, and I promise you, they will absolutely go away with time.
1. Going monolingual is hard, and that’s good
A major mentality behind Jalup is to embrace challenge. The alternative is boredom. While J-E is necessary and is challenging itself, after a while you get used to it and it becomes routine. Going on to 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 J-E cards can get really boring.
J-J brings an exciting new game, with new challenges, and most importantly, new rewards.
Go Go Monolingual!
I know that this article is very one-sided, as you probably expected it to be. As I’ve already discussed above, plenty of people continue to succeed never having touched a monolingual dictionary. However… I seriously recommend you giving it a try. Not a low-effort try followed by a self-reassuring “I knew that was stupid and all the people from XYZ forum were right!”
Give it a few months. Even if you decide that J-J truly is the worst, it’s not like you will have wasted those months. At least you’ll know that you made the right choice sticking with J-E and won’t have any regret.
For all the successful monolingual J-J learners out there on the site, do you have anything to add to all of this?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
All I have to add is from experience this is 100% true.
I was expecting a full story from you haha.
First off, I also went monolingual and I plan to continue doing it. (Only 2800 sentences in so far).
But I always had these thoughts in my mind… Japanese is the second language im learning, after english. I know that english is a lot easier to learn since my mothertounge is german and they share at least some similarities. But sometimes when I get a japanese definition and I am not 100% sure what they mean, I think back to how I learned english.
It was solely a byproduct of me reading stuff I was interested in. I read about 40 books or so and never really thought about my english abilities. Since I wasn’t concerned about increasing my english ability I just looked up every word I didnt know in an E-G dictionary.
It has been, I think, 8 years since I started doing this. And I guess (since I never really cared about my english ability) I reached my current level after about 2-3 years or so(Dont mind my output thought, never really wrote or spoke english at all). And I haven’t encountered anything I was unable to understand in a long time. News, movies, science no problem. More often then not I encounter the problem the other way around. I completely understand what is meant, but cant easily translate it into german.
And when I encounter a difficult japanese definition I have to think about this. The german translations also vanished over time, so why shouldn’t the same happen in japanese (given enough time and exposure).
The biggest reason why I wont drop J-J is because of english translations being inaccurate. But still, I have this doubt/thoughts in my head.
As you know from first hand experience, monolingual isn’t the only way to go. It’s just one powerful choice which I encourage here.
The doubts will fade though. That I can promise.
I did a little bit of research during my transition to J-J and from what I saw at least I wouldn’t say going J-J is all that much in the minority. Especially for self-learning. I talked in a few forums and groups, read articles about language learning in general. It seems like it is in vogue right now to learn a language this way. It is the latest trend you could almost say :) It isn’t the only way to do it, but it is a good way for the reasons listed above.
I started trying to go J-J when I hit the intermediate deck as recommended. I struggled for about 500 cards, then once I hit 500 I set a hard rule to never cheat and look at google. Now 1000 cards later (500 into advanced) I feel way way more comfortable in J-J. It is a struggle but I feel like I can think more ‘Japanese’ now. The grammar order and the way words are used are just so different from English. Learning how to read the definitions is its own little hurdle.
Will my transition pay off? I don’t know yet. I do feel much more comfortable with Japanese definitions. I also feel fine if a definition feels a bit vague. I can handle it and move on. It often becomes clearer over time.
For now I will just trust those that have come before me and keep myself J-J!
I think it depends on the type of forum and the people involved in the discussion. I agree that those who self-study probably take up a large part of this number.
Also, by using the word minority, I definitely didn’t mean something ridiculously low like 1%. These days it might be as much as 10-20% of people who go monolingual. It’s increased in the past decade through a lot of different people/sites who support and promote it. I’d be interested to see what percentage of people actually do it.
And it will pay off :)
i would say that in theory going monolingual is a far superior method for those who want to attain what Jalup defines as fluent or higher. The ability to think in Japanese is what I believe really sets learners apart and using J-J helps you get there much earlier. I think a big reason that more sites don’t promote it as much as this site is that without the cards used on this site it makes the transition very difficult. I’ve had friends who are learning other languages ask how I studied Japanese and I always highlight the importance of monolingual learning but most people don’t do it because it is not so clear how to make the switch.
I’ve actually helped other people in the past who had told me they wanted to try to create a monolingual deck for other languages to share/sell to others. I wonder if these decks are out there somewhere.
One thing you mentioned was using an image search to look for nouns. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone wise once said google images is the best language learning dictionary there is. For nouns I couldn’t agree more. There’s even beginner anki decks for other languages I’ve seen that only has images on the answer side and no English at all. I think that method can be powerful as well, but outside of simple verbs, adjectives and regular nouns, images start to get limited quickly.
It’s also especially useful for Japanese things that you’ve never seen before, where even the English (or Japanese) doesn’t help.
I’ve been thinking of having a go at using a monolingual dictionary learning after I am done with Genki (2 and a half chapters left). I think the problem at the start is that your vocabulary might be too small to make sense of most definitions. Having to do a long stretch of branching is no one’s idea of a fun time. I’m thinking one way to avoid this is to start with using a bunch of different dictionaries and see which one gives the easiest to understand definition. For instance, I was looking up the word 輸入 this morning just to test this out, and I got these definitions:
Obviously, the Sanseido definition is the least dense, and I could make sense of the meaning from it (which I interpreted as “importing goods”). If I were using the Goo or Weblio definitions exclusively, I would have to do a ton of branching to get the 4 or 5 words that I don’t really know. Maybe the Sanseido definition is not as precise, but does that really matter much?
However, I think there are also traps to using a monolingual dictionary at first. Another word I came across in the article I was reading was ぶどう. I looked that up and just got another word that I didn’t know (which ended up meaning “martial arts”). In reality, the article was about wine, so ぶどう means “grapes” in this case. Is there any advice not to get tripped up and use the wrong definition, aside from just inferring it from context?
It doesn’t have to be that precise if you can understand it and it gets you to the meaning.
For words with more than one meaning for the same pronunciation, if the word feels completely off you can double check to make sure you are using the right meaning.
Also, if you’ve never looked at it, make sure to check out the solo guide here on Jalup, which includes a lot of articles about how to create your own monolingual deck:
What are some favorite or recommended J-J dictionaries both for on the web and for mobile (android specifically)? I’ve heard of a couple for web but am curious what seem to be the popular options.
Thanks for posting. I’ve heard this advice many, many times but still haven’t fully committed. Maybe hearing it again now is the kick I need.
My favorite web dictionaries are Weblio and Goo.
Thanks! I’ll do my best to break my habit of going to E-J sites and apps first and will give these a look.
＃5 above (accuracy) is a big one, and dovetailing with that, the higher your level of Japanese becomes, the more you run into cases where either the word/phrase itself or the particular definition that you need (e.g. when a word is being used in a way that is definition #2, 3, or 4 in the Japanese definition, not in the most common definition) does not actually exist in J-E dictionaries. In these cases you will definitely get a better understanding from J-J since you can actually find the definition that you need.
Getting used to reading Japanese definitions also helps you know how to explain a word or concept in Japanese when you have forgotten or don’t know what the word is, which all happens to us sometimes in our native languages also. Like, if you don’t know the word for “doorknob” you can say, “that handle you grab to open the door,” and the person you are talking to will understand what you mean and hopefully supply the word you want. This is an important skill for communication in a second language and helps you to keep the conversation in that language.
I do have to confess that when translating J-E for work I am often lazy/in a hurry and use J-E dictionaries or resources like Linguee to figure out how other translators have rendered that word into English (since that’s also my end goal) rather than taking the time to read the definition in Japanese and then figure out on my own how to translate that into English. Sometimes I even understand what the word means but just have trouble thinking of what would be a good way to render it in English. But whenever I am just reading Japanese for myself for leisure/personal edification/etc., I almost always use J-J for all the reasons above.
As a translator, the rules are different, and I think a J-E dictionary is a requirement. Because the focus is on finding the perfect English. Just because you know what the Japanese meaning is, doesn’t mean you instantly know the best English word for the situation.
Indeed J-J opens a new field of possibilities. After 4 months of start adding vocab cards and searching through my monolingual dictionaries I went the same route when watching shows (still a transition though), and japanese with no subs doesn’t seem so daunting as it was 6 months ago. Sure I miss a lot, but I can go through a show and be ok with whatever I might have missed…. I’m still surprised that I can actually be entertain with the show and forget about the whole learning mentality after a while, wasn’t like this at all a year ago.
Now this past mont I was wondering what were all those extra words that were attached to the definition in the dictionary, so I decided to pick up a basic review text of Kokugo (japanese language subject in schools). What a discovery!! the same way I’m able to get definitions in the dictionary I can also read about japanese grammar and get a lot of aditional info that was right there in the dictionary all this time. Besides learning grammar how is taught to japanese kids clarifies lot. Specially since most of my readings is material aimed at kids nowdays.
All those little steps after starting with my monolingual routine. Once you see you can tackle a tiny part of your study routine using japanese alone, well, its easy to believe that you can do the rest as well. And indeed is totally possible.
Reading grammar explanations in Japanese can be rewarding and surprisingly fun.
And yes, it is easier to gain momentum once you get the monolingual ball rolling. It’s all about starting it, and having the strength to stay the course.
So so true. Helped me stop thinking in English incredibly fast. Also it’s so much more satisfying to learn words with J-J definitions.
Recently I’ve been learning words from a vocab book (I know, I know) which has English definitions. I just look up the J-J, branch the definition if needed, and add it to my Anki deck. But it’s actually teaching me some English too since I didn’t know what the “head of a beer” was or “to remit money”. The J-J definitions were very clear though so now I’ve learned them in both languages :)
After this book though my next vocab book is Japanese only, so that will be more fun.
It is hard though! But I’m glad it was. My reading comprehension has improved just from learning J-J and it means that my vocabulary deck is filled with quality. I think it took me at least a year and a half to feel comfortable in J-J but I do feel comfy now.
Nearly eight years into my Japanese language journey, with almost seven years of J-J dictionary usage. This coupled with the branching method of making flashcards (pushing 16000 in total, all self-made) is probably the main reason why I’ve been working as a translator for the past four years. It becomes like a self-sustaining reaction that forces you to learn more in order to learn. It can be tough at first, for realsies, but the final result is more than worth the struggle－kreeb seal of approval!
I’m early in J-J, having only broken into Jalup Intermediate. Hoping to get to Kreeb level some day. But from an “early impressions” perspective, it’s reasons #1 and #2 that really resonate the most: it’s hard…and that’s the point…because we all know what it’s like to do a puzzle that’s too easy — boring. So the little bit of extra work in J-J is what keeps the dopamine firing in my brain, I think. Second, the simple fact that I know I’m getting more and more Japanese feels like a kicker to every minute or hour I study; it isn’t just the one word or piece of grammar up for review as I bash through my Jalup app review monster— it’s all the text around it that’s getting tested and refreshed. Love it.
Citation: “Most people keep their J-E habits forever.”
Why does it have to be so “black and white,” either one choice or the other? I’m currently fluent in two foreign languages, English and German, and frankly speaking, and as I was learning them (first, English, and second, German), I’ve never even thought about having to make a choice between using monolingual or bilingual dictionaries. As I started learning a language I naturally started with bilingual dictionaries, while already keeping monolingual dictionaries at hand and looking into them from time to time. (Sometimes out of pure curiosity.) Eventually I started to use monolingual dictionaries more and more (as it became more and more comfortable), until I finally switched to using monolingual dictionaries at about 98-99%. (The only categories of words I usually look up using bilingual dictionaries are names of food, animals, and plants.) I see this as an absolutely natural way.
Second, I see absolutely no danger in using bilingual flashcards. Let me explain. When learning Japanese, I now have a large combined deck with cards from Jalup Beginner, Genki I-II, Minna no Nihongo, and a few other sources. So most of my cards are J-E. When I look at the card for the first time, I never try to translate to any language (whether to English or my native Russian). I try to understand what it means without translating. When I’m not 100% sure, I then look at the English definition, but just to make sure that I understood it correctly. I never try to memorize the English definition. Even more important is that after reviewing the card for 2-4 times, I usually never look at the English definition again. So it’s basically the same as using a J-J deck.
Citation: “You most likely will have used a J-E dictionary for years. What level is good enough?”
I don’t agree. When you are ready, you will just feel it. As I said above, in my studies I usually start consulting monolingual dictionaries early enough, just to see if I can use them already or not. At first it’s just like a “game,” but then I start using them more and more. There’s no need to make this transition abruptly. Moreover, the more advanced I get in a language, the more I feel inadequacy of bilingual dictionaries, and so I use monolingual ones more often.
Citation: “When will I stop translating in my head? Everyone wants an answer to this.”
As for me, I never translate in my head even at beginner stages. I don’t understand why this is a problem.
Thanks Andrew for sharing your opinions on the subject.
This article is by no means an attack on anyone who sticks with a J-E dictionary long term (or forever). As I mention, there is nothing wrong with that and it is a personal choice.
This is an article to show the excitement and power of a J-J dictionary. Of course it’s going to be leaning towards one side :P
Hi! Not only I can relate to what you’re saying, but also I believe it to be true for any language. English is my second language, and I’ve found E-E dictionaries to give me a far superior insight into the language in itself, as it sometimes forces me to go through many different entries in order to fully grasp the meaning of a new words. Essentially, it’s like learning several words at once! Which is sort of great, actually. It’s like getting the meaning through “building-block entries”. So I think it’s an amazing addition to a self-study process in any language. I even find it useful in my mother tongue (Spanish)! Thanks for the input