Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I posted here! I am honestly mostly still trying to wrap my head around an article on dictionary specific vocabulary and the like, but thought I would quickly post a “rough draft” I have made of an article on what I’ll call deep dives into dictionaries. This might be of less interest to all of you as it’s less about monolingual dictionaries specifically than it is on looking deeper into the language, but still, I decided to post it at this point in time because if I didn’t make it now it would probably never get written out. Now, I might shorten / change certain parts, there are still some parts I need to polish because I started this out from a bunch of quick notes and stuff, it is also quite long, so just to make it slightly less monotone I have included some GIFs, feel free to tell me if I used too many, or if you rather have articles without them or anything
Anyway, I will get back on writing out information on the last few dictionaries next weekend probably, if I still haven’t managed to find a (to me personally) satisfying way of writing the article on dictionary specific vocab, but we’ll see ^^
A quick look at the benefits of diving deep in dictionaries
Today we are taking a (not so) quick look at how to go about using monolingual dictionaries to get the most out of your time. There are a few key steps that in my eyes will help pay of the best, and there are a few “adaptations” that I would suggest to someone who is just starting out with monolingual dictionaries to get over the initial hump of difficulty. As with all my posts on this subject (or any other subject for that matter) this is purely my own opinion, and please do take everything you read here with a big grain of salt, but it is what I have found to be the most useful both through making the transition and now that I have gone fully monolingual to get the most out of it all.
NOTE : One important note that I would like to make before we continue is that while I think flashcards and SRS software are absolutely fantastic, and I would highly recommend you to use some form of this software (whether Anki, Jpdb, … ), I myself have stopped using it a while ago, just relying on repeated encounters in the wild, and if a certain turn of phrases captures my attention jotting it down in my notes. Still, throughout this article I will on several occasions mention flashcards and how to potentially set them up, as it’s how I used to do things back when I first got my feet wet with monolingual dictionaries.
1. Making the transition to monolingual dictionaries
1.1 The “Full plunge” option
There is something to be said about just instantly diving head first into monolingual dictionaries and completely ditching any bilingual ones. Relying on your own inference, lots and lots of looking things up as well as a healthy dose of confusion. Is it the way I would personally advice people to go? And if so, should you start immediately, or at what level would this option make sense?
This is an option I wouldn’t advice to most people, especially those relatively new to the Japanese language. However, if you are somewhat of a veteran of the language, have already mastered let’s say all N3 grammar and working your way up to N2 grammar, you know thousands upon thousands of Japanese words, and you can feel out the meaning of any random sentence quite well, this method would be perfect for you. That is because you DO NOT need the “training wheels” that I will be discussing in 1.2, you know your way around the Japanese language well enough that this step won’t leave you too confused. Sure, there will probably still be some confusion, and especially some time getting used to dictionary language and the different flow of the language, but these problems will resolve themselves quite quickly. You will probably not need to dive deeper than maybe two or three levels in a definition to get the gist anytime, and there will be relatively few word lookups that you need to make just to make sense of the definitions.
However, if you aren’t a “veteran” of the language, this is not an option I would recommend. Instead of that I would advice the following :
1.2 The “Gentle dip” option
It works like this. Whenever you encounter a word that you do not understand in the wild, I want you to look up the definition in a Japanese monolingual dictionary first. However, the chances are quite big that there will be multiple other words that you do not understand in the definition of the word. If you have to look those up too (with potentially more unknown words in their definitions) you will be going bonkers before the day is done, digging too deep!
Instead, the option I would suggest for you to take is that any words you encounter that you do not know, you allow yourself to still look up in a J→E dictionary. The goal here is to understand the Japanese definition of the original target word completely, but you do not need to bother with any definitions of sub-target words (yet).
If you are using any type of SRS software to keep all words you encounter I would suggest you to keep two decks. One with all your new target words, with a detailed Japanese monolingual definition. You can add a ton of interesting information here if you are so inclined, but I would suggest just sticking to the definition. The second deck would be a simple translation deck of any words you encounter in the definitions. This could (and probably will) be a lot of dictionary specific vocabulary, so the chances of you encountering a lot of these words in the wild are relatively scarce. But you will potentially come across them time and time again while using your dictionaries, so they will still pay off greatly.
2. General tips
2.1 Make your notes and / or context memorable
If you do decide to still use flashcards (or notes of another type), the same way that Wanikani uses mnemonics is always a good idea. Whether you can relate this to other vocabulary you encountered, an important moment in the show you are watching, a book, … The more memorable the word association is, the better the word will stick in your brain. The way I do this myself is with what I call “deep dives” (term definitely trademarked ) to built a deep context for the new words. The downside to this method can be that it will take you more time with each word, and you probably just want to get on with whatever you are doing, so I would advice you to only do this when you have the time and if you are in the mood to do it. Otherwise it’s fine to just understand the word and move on, Later encounters will help cement the word in your brain either way!
2.2 Sometimes it’s better to just understand and move on
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE drilling down deeper in words, I can lose hours just looking up use-cases, synonyms, antonyms, situations to avoid using it, alternative meanings, related terms, example sentences, definitions in other dictionaries, …
And if you are in the mood to do that sort of thing, please take your time and enjoy every minute of this aspect of the language But be aware of the trap that this can pose if you are trying to work your way through a certain text. I can’t begin to count the number of times I have felt demotivated because I didn’t reach my page goal in a certain text to keep up with a bookclub or hit my arbitrary goal, heck, I’ve managed to get stuck for days on a single page of a text, just because I kept putting off reading further for more dictionary look-ups. And sadly I have to admit that I have dropped books before, because I just felt too demotivated in reading them, as I seemingly got nowhere and because I spent 90% or more of my time just looking through dictionaries, I couldn’t even really remember most of the story.
So, this is a simple little caution. Look-ups are great, and whenever you just want to dive deeper into certain words and the like, please go ahead and spent as much time as you want in them, however, keep in mind that when you are working your way through a text, the book is the more important thing, enjoy reading, make sure you understand the sentence and move on, the “studying” can wait until you are finished reading for the day!
3. Dictionary deep-dives
So, I mentioned previously in the article about dictionary deep dives as I like to call them. But what does this really mean? How do you go about it? What can they help you to achieve, and why I think you too should do them?
To put it simple, a dictionary deep dive is just a (way) more thorough look-up of whatever word you encounter. In 3.1 I will run you all through an example of how I go about it (though a bit more detailed and well written out than I normally do, I normally jot down barely any notes )
There are several different ways in which you can do a deep dive, and you are free to focus on just one part, or combine several together. There also isn’t a need to stick exclusively to monolingual dictionaries for this, as often times there are some interesting discussions, mentions, … on language learning threads about it if it involves a particular turn of phrase or the likes. The main deep dive “strategies” that I consider are :
- Looking up the definition in multiple dictionaries
- Related terms
- Compound words / variations
- Different use-cases
- The history of the term
- Key phrases and interesting items of vocabulary
- Synonyms, antonyms and the like
I quite like to combine a variety of these together, you can also enrich the context of the word further by looking up any articles from for example Wikipedia, reading news articles or whatever Google throws up in relation to the term for example, but you can go as deep or shallow as you personally want. In doing these deep dives the chances are that (especially in the beginning, but it’s true for me even now) you will come across A LOT of unknown vocabulary. As I stated before, there is never anything wrong with just looking up the english translation of those words and getting on with the task at hand. In the past whenever I didn’t understand a text that I felt might have been important to provide some context I would often throw it through ichi.moe, or even DeepL or Google Translate, before trying to re-read it and see if I could understand it now. The most important thing is that you get it, and can expose yourself to more different contexts to strengthen your reading ability. So, use whatever tools you must, but do try to lessen your reliance on them over time
3.1 An example of a deep-dive
Warning : This section turned out to be quite a bit longer than I initially expected it to be, feel free to skip around (or even skip entirely if you want), you can get the gist with just a brief look!
As an example we will be looking into the word 三畳紀 that I came across on the 恐竜 wikipedia page for dinosaurs in relation to a question I saw posted. Now, it’s not all that hard to infer that the meaning of this word would be the Triassic period from context (see below), but I wanted to do a bit of a deep dive about dinosaurs and that period of history anyway, and I had just started on this article, so might as well
However, I find it quite important to make the following point. This word is quite a simple vocabulary word. I know what the Jurassic Period is, so there is no reason to dive deep as I did in this example for the following word. I am however using it as a bit of a showcase of ways to unlock deeper meanings and contexts, as well as a jumping off point for me to look up related vocabulary. The target doesn’t always need to be a difficult word, you can just start looking up related terms (whether by reading up on the Wikipedia entries, dictionary entries, … )
Context from Wikipedia :
恐竜の進化に関する正確な起源と時期は不明であるが、2億4330万年から2億3323万年前の 三畳紀 中期に出現したものが起源とされている。恐竜は2億130万年前に発生した三畳紀〜ジュラ紀間における大量絶滅で生き残り、その後のジュラ紀と白亜紀を通して陸生脊椎動物の頂点に立ったが、白亜紀～新生代古第三紀間における大量絶滅により、鳥類を除くすべての種が絶滅した。
There are already a lot of context clues that we can get from here to get that it is talking about the triassic period, whether it’s the period of time given, or the use of 期 at the end of 三畳紀中期, so in normal cases there would be no need to look it up unless we were translating to know the exact word, but for this exercise let us just pretend!
The first step I would always take is to turn to our trusty friend, the dictionary to look stuff up! So, let’s do just that. The first interesting thing is that it didn’t appear in too many dictionaries, which is one of the reasons I would always suggest to get your hands on as many dictionaries as humanly possible, as the words they cover can differ quite a lot! (And the benefit of a thesaurus will also become apparent quite quickly )
If we look at the entry in the 「精選版 日本国語大辞典」we get :
The 「大辞林４」gives us :
さんじょう きさんでふ—【三畳紀】〔Triassic period〕
In the 「大辞泉」(more specifically the デジタル大辞泉) we find :
And in the 「三省堂国語辞典 第八版」we find a more general mention of the Mesozoic era (interestingly enough this entry got added in the 8th edition, as it didn’t show up in the 7th ^^)
ちゅうせ い だい［中生代］｟名｠
Now, has this given us more than enough to figure out it is talking about the triassic period? Heck yes, after all, it even spells it out for us in several entries in English But this is a deep dive! So, will we settle for this? I don’t think so
The first interesting clue has already been seen in the 「三省堂国語辞典 第八版」as it didn’t mention the Triassic by itself, but it showed an entry for the Mesozoic. So, we might need to look up some related terms to get the most information on this subject. For that, we have (among other things) our trusty friend the Thesaurus. Now, the thing I LOVE deeply about thesauruses when using the Monokakido app is that They make these types of related look ups SUPER easy, I must admit that there would be quite a big chance that I wouldn’t bother with this type of side lookup if they didn’t make it as simple as it is.
When looking at the entries I can see that there is an entry for 三畳紀 in the 「日本語シソーラス 類語検索辞典 第2版」(Roget’s thesaurus). When I click on it, this is the line I am interested in :
So, what we see here is that while 三畳紀 is one term (with its own results in the dictionaries), we can actually click on these other terms and see what they bring up. Let’s do that right now!
Back at the 大辞典 we get :
〘名〙 （トリアスは ドイツ・英Trias） 地質時代における中生代の最初の時代。三畳紀。
大辞林 just has a reference to the entry for :
トリアス き【—紀】〔Triassic period〕
Same for the 大辞泉
Of note should be another nifty feature that I didn’t mention before anywhere. If you are looking at a specific headword, you can easily switch between all dictionaries with that headword by clicking the drop-down menu in the middle and switching between the dictionaries like this :
Super handy feature! Now, lets look at what the term ジュラ紀 throws up!
〘名〙 （ジュラは Jura この時代の地層がよく発達しているフランスとスイスの国境にあるジュラ山脈から） 中生代を構成する三つの紀の第二の地質時代。約二億一二〇〇万～一億四三〇〇万年前までの約六九〇〇万年間。巨大な爬虫類、アンモナイト類、イチョウ・ソテツなどの裸子植物が繁栄し、鳥類・被子植物が初めて現われた。ユラ紀。〔英和和英地学字彙（1914）〕
Of note should be that while 三畳紀 also had an entry in “The Wisdom” JP→En dictionary, ジュラ紀 is the first one that is in both the Wisdom and the Genius, as well as having entries in 4 other dictionaries. It might not seem like an important detail, but it is often a good idea to at least make a mental note when looking at synonyms of which term has more (or more detailed) entries, as this is often the more important of the terms.
The term ユラ紀 doesn’t have a single dictionary entry, so I know that it probably isn’t even worth my time to learn. But it’s an easy term to keep in the back of the mind anyway
The last term is 白亜紀 which, as soon as we look at the definitions is talking about the Cretaceous period. While also interesting, to keep this article from being too long (too little too late ) I’ll abstain from adding a look at this in the article (though I did read up on it as well as a few unfamiliar terms I encountered throughout the definitions, and I would advice you to follow your interests too on these matters!)
So, now that we have read A LOT of definitions (more than this specific word deserves, really) we can always get a bit more context by looking it up on Wikipedia and / or Google. I won’t be going into that here either due to length (and choice of word), but it can always pay of to do this.
But let’s look at some other fun things we can do in these deep dives. The first thing I like to do is break the words apart in smaller bits and see if we can learn anything interesting. Now, while 三畳紀 doesn’t offer any truly interesting things when breaking it down to its components (though I find it quite amusing that the second Kanji used is also a counter for Tatami mats ) there are some interesting and noteworthy expressions and the like that came to the foreground looking around. I will just briefly mention some that interested me personally (by clicking through to related things, looking stuff up in expressions, example sentences, whatever, GO WILD!) to give you an idea of what kind of interesting stuff can be hidden just behind those “dry” dictionary entries
畳の上の水練 = To practise swimming on a Tatami mat. An expression that means that you know the theory but are unable to put it into action
折りたたみ自転車 = One of those folding bikes (also 折りたたみ is used for a lot of foldable / telescopic appliances like 折りたたみ傘 , 折りたたみ机 and the like)
白亜紀 = Cretaceous period, not noteworthy, but find it great that they too use Chalk (白亜) to “mark” (pun intended) this period. As in Dutch, my native language, we also call this period “het Krijt” (the chalk).
Just wanted to give the full definition I encountered for 白璧 (don’t even ask me how I got here through my dive… Think it was when I looked up chalk…)
I adore the entry under ㊀! (actually added 白壁白璧の微瑕ビカ to my notes ^^)
Anyway, those points are just to showcase how many fun and interesting things you can encounter when you just take the time to dive deeper and look up anything that strikes your fancy. Maybe you are interested in a synonym at one point, or a related term (maybe you just want to click over to the next “alphabetical” entry in the dictionary to take a look), there is an endless rabbit hole that can be found in dictionaries, whether monolingual or bilingual. So as closing remarks I would just say this : Go out, enjoy, discover, but most importantly