Is the action of looking stuff up in a dictionary essential in the learning process?

Hi all,

I just had one quick question on the reading process for learning efficiently. I just recently picked up some mangas and started learning through reading, which I believe is the fastest way to assimilate any language.

I know the recommendation is generally looking up words you don’t know in the dictionary as part of the process.

I just wanted to have other people’s opinion on whether the action itself of looking things up is an important part of the learning process. In my case, because my partner is Japanese, I normally ask for the meaning of words/grammar I don’t know, note everything I feel I won’t remember in my study book and read again later for some memorization. I feel like it makes the process much nicer and encourages me to do more reading, but there is no action of looking stuff up (except the occasional difficulty of translating something that doesn’t really exist in English).

I appreciate any thoughts on this!

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Well, I think it depends on the person.
Personally, I have a big problem with concentration, so, when I look things up, I then return and struggle to remember the big picture of what I was reading. So, I prefer to only look things up when they are absolutely crucial to understanding the whole meaning of the sentence.
This, btw, is one of the reasons I love WK so much – it allows me to learn kanji and words without having to look things up often.

Also, this is the method widely used on

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Of course, it’s probably impossible to completely avoid looking things up, but it’s certainly possible to minimize it.

Then again, I know some people who do like to look up every word they see. If it works for them – that’s great, but for me it would be a huge demotivating factor.

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So long as you are getting the meaning, the method by which you got that meaning doesn’t really matter imo. The biggest thing you are missing out on, if I had to say, would actually be on the grammar side of things and nothing dictionary related. Googling grammar and seeing it in a lot of example sentences is very useful imo. It’s just very easy to get a very superficial grasp on grammar from a definition and understand it in one sentence, but get tripped up in a different sentence. Many example sentences helps with building a higher resolution image in your head, I guess. Some words are no different, but it’s a lot more noticable with grammar imo.

You could ask your partner for a handful of sentences too, but that might get to be a bit much.

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In general I would say yes. One has to get the meaning of a word from somewhere and looking for an approximate 1:1 in your language in a dictionary + the context you already have from the manga should be sufficient.

Learning purely from context or from a native speaker has the disadvantage that you might really misunderstand a word and hold onto that misunderstood meaning. Unless you already have a decent command of the language.

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I think the replies you’ve already got show you that people can have rather different approaches to looking things up or, more generally, checking what things mean. Some of us check most things or everything; others are comfortable with working out what they can and moving on.

Personally, I’m more this sort of person:

There are things I don’t bother looking up (stuff that seems obvious from context, or not very important), but I do check almost everything else.

I personally don’t really like the Tadoku approach because I find it unsatisfying and potentially inefficient – I commit to reading something because it catches my interest, and so I want to consume as much of it as I can. Therefore, I dislike the idea of refusing to use a dictionary, especially since it feels a lot like what we all did as children (and it sounds a lot like the Rosetta Stone method, which I once tried and found very slow). However, yes, I recognise that having to look up tons of words can be demotivating, or at the very least tiring. That’s why I work based on a sort of threshold: if looking up becomes too tiring, I decide that continuing my reading session isn’t worthwhile, and move on to something easier. I did, however, use something like Tadoku when I watched anime as a beginner: subtitles allowed me to understand whatever I needed, and I just listened out for words I knew and words that seemed interesting, and looked up just a few of them. I think the main benefit of this approach is that it’s more enjoyable and allows you to pick up words in a relaxed setting, but the rate at which you learn is reduced, and I really don’t think I would have been able to do it without subtitles.

Returning to your question, in my opinion, the most typical benefit of looking something up in a dictionary is that it gives you a better idea of what a word means overall – the set of definitions should point you towards a bigger overarching concept that the word represents. There’s also another huge advantage, but you’ll only get it from rather detailed dictionaries: the best dictionaries give you a good idea of how a word can be used by identifying typical structures and providing examples. The unfortunate fact is that you basically only really see this in commercial dictionaries (e.g. the Wisdom JP-EN Dictionary that comes with Apple devices), not the free ones you can get online, so you’ll often have to make do if you’re not planning to buy a dictionary. (By the way, monolingual dictionaries are typically the most detailed, and even the free ones do a great job of it, but you don’t have to jump into those if you’re not ready.)

My suggestion to you is to use https://ejje.weblio.jp as a supplement to Jisho.org so that you’ll get to see lots of translated example sentences. The examples aren’t all perfect, but at least they’ll give you a good idea of how the word you’re looking up is used in Japanese. Like Vanilla said, examples help, because they give you a concrete idea of how you can employ a word in a sentence to express yourself.

On the other hand, the advantage of asking a native speaker is that they’ll probably be able to summarise how a word works in an intuitive manner, which should also reflect how they use it. The risk though, is that the explanation might be lopsided (it might only work in the context being discussed, for example) or too vague: not all native speakers are equally good at explaining things, and the informal, intuitive understanding we each have of our own language sometimes (ironically) limits our ability to put its functioning into words.

To sum up, I prefer using a dictionary for greater detail, but if you just need to do a quick check in the moment and you’re comfortable with gradually picking up information about a word and evolving your understanding of it over time, continuing to ask your partner is fine. Honestly, these options shouldn’t be mutually exclusive – I definitely ask my Japanese friends for help once in a while – and can even be complementary, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t use both.

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while in early levels here on WK I would never try to read manga and look up words, I would forget them 5min later.

Now that I have a solid base for vocab I would try that.

Even today when I watch anime with jp subtitles I only stop the video to check yomichan meaning for 1 or 2 words per episode for words that are repeating several times so I realize that it might be important for the plot. More than this is overwhelming for me.

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Not necessarily, but it can speed things up depending on where you are in your journey. If every word is new then it’s gonna slow you down and be a chore. If it’s 1 word per sentence or less, then it’s essential. Comprehendible input is the name of the game.

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The other risk is that if you overdo it they might start to get fed up with being used as a walking dictionary and grammar reference :slight_smile:

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I think it’s less of how much you know and more of how curious are you to find out.

I find it helpful and desirable most of the times, but it can also be too distracting as I use my phone to look things up quickly. So I also have reading times where I ban the use of phones.

Having multiple approaches to reading is something that can be trained given time.

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To me, it is.

If you tell me what a word means, or I get it through context, then it helps me understand the message.

I might remember the word later depending on how common or important or maybe even weird it is, but it kind of skips the learning portion in favor of understanding for me.

When I have to pause and search a word in the dictionary, be it via a different reading of the kanji, just hiragana (uncommon since it’s usually words with kanji I don’t particularly remember that I have to look up), or radicals, I’m focusing on several aspects of the word. How it sounds, how it looks, what it means. I usually check other meanings and readings of the kanji, and maybe even stroke order if I’m feeling adventurous.

That makes it so I’m studying.

While studying by itself is usually kind of boring (to me, ofc), studying in context and puzzling a sentence out one by one makes it fun.

If I don’t enter study-mode, I’m not as focused, imo.

It also shouldn’t take too long to look a word up, and having to look up every other word would become annoying as well if what I care about is the message.

It all comes down to what works best for you.

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