Using a Monolingual Dictionary

Although I originally heard about using a monolingual dictionary from AJATT, the idea to break things up when making cards for the SRS came from this post on Japanese Level Up. What I am doing is almost the same thing, but I have added in some of my own touches. Also, all of the examples use monolingual English sentences and definitions to make them easier to understand regardless of what language you are learning.

First off, just in case you’re new to this whole monolingual thing:

What is a monolingual dictionary?

A monolingual dictionary is a dictionary that has both the words and definitions in the same language. For example, something like dictionary.com.

Using a monolingual dictionary was one of the most important steps for me in moving forward with Japanese, but it was also the cause (several times) of me taking a break from learning the language completely. This was mainly due to the fact that I had convinced myself I would not progress if I did not use a monolingual dictionary, so I got too frustrated when it didn’t seem to go well. Let me state up front that this is absolutely not the case. There are very accomplished polyglots out there (like Steve Kaufmann) who don’t use monolingual dictionaries at all. So it is definitely possible to progress perfectly fine without a monolingual dictionary, but personally I have found it to be helpful now that I have been using it for awhile.

Why use one?

There are three main reasons why I have stuck with it:

#1 – It helps you build up connections between words

Getting words to stick in your brain (particularly ones that are from a very unfamiliar language) can be extremely difficult. For me, one of the most helpful things for making words more sticky has been the way that using a monolingual dictionary builds up connections between words.

Using a monolingual dictionary does this in a very cool way by consistently forcing you to read the description of one word through the use of other words. The constant repetition of this process (look up word, read words describing it) helps organize the language as a cohesive body, which in turn makes its elements more sticky. And when I say this I am of course referencing the very trustworthy source of “what it feels like when I do it, and stuff.” For this reason I would recommend giving it a shot and seeing if you experience the same thing.

#2 – It forces you to read much more actively

Using a monolingual dictionary forces you to read in a different way than we normally read. We generally scan things without focusing intensely on each word and why or how it is used. Although we have to focus more when learning a foreign language, oftentimes we still only read as much detail as necessary and without much noticing of how things are structured (or at least this has been the case for me).

With monolingual definitions, being uncertain about a word will lead you to dive deeper into the structure of the definition of that word and any other clues you can get from context, which in turn forces you to be aware of how everything is put together to get every possible nuance. Speaking of Steve Kaufmann earlier, he is constantly talking about how this ability to actively notice how things are put together is a very important part of learning a language. And if you’re curious about active reading, here’s a great article on Antimoon.

#3 – It forces you to learn the meaning of a word from the ground up

Using a monolingual dictionary forces you to look at words differently. It is hard at first to fully understand the definition of a word so you are left with a more ambiguous idea of the word’s meaning. This actually ends up not being a bad thing because as you read through the definitions you start attaching feelings (good, bad, happy, sad, machine, vehicle, related to such and such, etc.) to the words you come across. For me this is another thing that helps make words stickier when compared to bilingual cards because remembering a definition isn’t so black and white. I might not get the meaning of the word perfectly right away, but some form of it starts to take root in my brain. It then naturally develops through continued exposure to the word through reading, listening, and reviewing it in the SRS.

How to make monolingual cards in the SRS

What follows is the way I have been making monolingual cards in the SRS for Japanese and, more recently, Spanish. It’s certainly not the only way to do it, but this is the one that finally ended up clicking for me and made it possible to stick with monolingual definitions long enough to get through the initial frustration.

The general idea is to make a card for a single word you want to understand. You place an example sentence on the front of the card and the monolingual definition on the back of the card. You then make cards for the words in that word’s definition or example sentence that you don’t understand. Generally what I have done is not necessarily make cards for all of the unknown words, but just enough to get a general meaning of the word on the front of the card. This makes it a little easier to transition into monolingual cards because you don’t get trapped in an infinite string of unknown words as easily.

As an example, let’s assume that you came across the word “clap” while reading a book or website in your target language. You can either mark this word somehow in the material you are reading and come back later, or you can quickly look up the word in your monolingual dictionary (such as on your phone) and save the word in the dictionary for later.

The dictionary.com definition of the word clap is:

to strike the palms of (one’s hands) against one another resoundingly, and usually repeatedly, especially to express approval: [example] She clapped her hands in appreciation.

So in this case our card would look like this:

She clapped her hands in appreciation.

_____________________________________________

clap [klap]
to strike the palms of (one’s hands) against one another resoundingly, and usually repeatedly, especially to express approval: She clapped her hands in appreciation.

First, notice that the sentence on the front of the card came from the example provided in the definition. Generally I have found it easier to use example sentences when making monolingual cards instead of saving the sentence that I originally found the word in.

Second, notice how I bolded the word “clapped” on the front of the card. As I described in my post on MCBs, this is to help reviews go more smoothly by only focusing on one unknown piece of information on each card.

Okay, now let’s assume that we don’t know the meaning of “resoundingly” or “express” in the definition. When making the above card we would read over the definition of this new word (clap) and notice that we don’t understand these two words. To make our lives easier we are going to copy the definitions for these two words under clap. This will give us this:

She clapped her hands in appreciation.
_____________________________________________

clap [klap]
1. to strike the palms of (one’s hands) against one another resoundingly, and usually repeatedly, especially to express approval: [example] She clapped her hands in appreciation.

ex·press [ik-spres]
to put (thought) into words; utter or state: to express an idea clearly.

re·sound·ing [ri-zoun-ding]
1. making an echoing sound: a resounding thud.

In order to keep working through the words that we looked up most recently, the new definition goes directly under the top definition. So in this case, we looked up “resounding” first and put the definition directly below “clap” and then looked up “express” and put that definition directly below “clap” as well.

So now we have a card for “clap” with three definitions on the back of the card. Highlight the back of the card and copy the three definitions. Then add the completed card to the deck. After that, paste the three definitions onto the back of a new card and delete the top definition that we just made a card for (in this case the word “clap”). This brings “express” to the top so we have a card that looks like this:

to express one’s anger

_____________________________________________

ex·press [ik-spres]
1. to put (thought) into words; utter or state: to express an idea clearly.
2. to show, manifest, or reveal: to express one’s anger.

re·sound·ing [ri-zoun-ding]
1. making an echoing sound: a resounding thud.

As you can see, I made the relevant definition bold to make the review process easier. Another option is to only include the relevant definition when you are making new cards. But in case you are making a new card for multiple definitions of the same word, bolding it makes this a little easier.

In this definition let’s assume we don’t understand the word “reveal.” We would then have a card that looks like this:

to express one’s anger

_____________________________________________

ex·press [ik-spres]
1. to put (thought) into words; utter or state: to express an idea clearly.
2. to show, manifest, or reveal: to express one’s anger.

re·veal [ri-veel]
1. to make known; disclose; divulge: to reveal a secret.
2. to lay open to view; display; exhibit.

re·sound·ing [ri-zoun-ding]
1. making an echoing sound: a resounding thud.

Our next card would look like this:

to reveal a secret

_____________________________________________

re·veal [ri-veel]
1. to make known; disclose; divulge: to reveal a secret.
2. to lay open to view; display; exhibit.

re·sound·ing [ri-zoun-ding]
1. making an echoing sound: a resounding thud.

This one doesn’t have any words we don’t understand so we’re left with the following as our last card in the tree:

a resounding thud

_____________________________________________

re·sound·ing [ri-zoun-ding]
1. making an echoing sound: a resounding thud.

This might seem complicated but it makes more sense as you go along. The true beauty here compared to just leafing through a monolingual dictionary and looking up all the words you don’t understand, or packing all of this information onto one card in the SRS, is that we are left with a card for each word. This way they are in bite-sized chunks and spaced repetition has the chance to take over and space out reviews in the most efficient way possible.

So that’s the basic idea behind how I have been making monolingual cards. I would love to hear what you think and please let me know if anything is unclear. Good luck!

9 Comments

  • MaxX on Oct 04, 2012 Reply

    Wow, I have to say, I really love your card formats! I your MBC post about a week before reading this one and it was just what I needed after feeling burnt out from MCDs. I’ve been monodic for a number of months as well and I feel that it, along with MCDs really boosted my reading ability from well below N3 level to close too if not already above N2. And now that I have the power of MBCs, remembering words has gotten easier than ever! The one thing I would like to mention to anything thinking of trying MBCs (and all post this on that entry as well) is that the bold font may not show up on your phone, so it would be smart to use a different color to highlight the word as well. Also, don’t be afraid to only study words one kanji at a time, as I have found this to be helpful as well, especially for remembering the pronunciation.

    • MaxX on Oct 04, 2012

      MCBs, my mistake (I’ve been calling the MBCs f(Massive Bold Cards) with myself lol)

    • Jeff on Oct 04, 2012

      Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m so happy to hear they have been working for you.

      Just curious, what kind of phone are you using? For me I fixed the bold problem with Japanese (on my iPhone) by switching the font to MS Shell Dlg 2. Also, switching the font to Microsoft YaHei for Mandarin helped a little, but apparently there’s a weird thing on the iPhone that favors Japanese text so characters that are also Japanese kanji end up being bolder.

      Definitely a nice fix though to just highlight the words in a color instead of bold.

      And actually I have been experimenting with the idea of only highlighting one character for new Chinese words and really like it so far. :P

  • MaxX on Oct 04, 2012 Reply

    I have a Droid Incredible and that’s probably why I have this problem with the bold text. Since it only has one font (Simplified Chinese) available, I remember having problems recognizing Kanji back when I was doing RTK because of how different they would look on my phone compared to the computer lol.

    I’m glad you’ve had luck with highlighting one character at a time for Chinese! Breaking words down into their smallest components makes the most sense. Awesome Blog BTW! Can’t wait to see more :D

  • Lily on May 26, 2013 Reply

    Great explanation! However, I’m wondering why you leave “resounding” on the second card where you are learning “to reveal” (seeing that “resounding” is used in the explanation of “clap” and not of “express”?), as opposed to just making two cards straight away, one for “to express”, and one for “resounding”… I really appreciate you having taken the time to explain this by using other languages to illustrate your point besides Japanese.

    • Jeff on May 26, 2013

      No problem! I hope it is helpful. :) I mainly left the definitions on the the cards like this because it helps you organize things as you add new cards. For example, if you went directly into making cards for “to express” and “resounding”, you might start breaking off into chains in all different directions, which would make it very difficult to keep track of which cards are still left to be created.

      By continuing to just paste and leave the definitions like this, it gives you a running list of which cards you still have left to make. You could just cut “resounding” from “to reveal” before adding it, but I didn’t find it too distracting to just leave the additional definitions.

      If there is an extremely simple way of managing this that I just didn’t think of, please let me know. :P I kept running into this problem when making cards, but never saw it explained anywhere, so I always had the nagging feeling that there was a simple solution I didn’t come up with.

  • Lily on Jul 12, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for that thorough explanation, Jeff, and sorry for getting back to you so late. Have you tried doing this with sentences that have more than one word that you want to learn, or do you think this would become too confusing?

    • Jeff on Jul 12, 2013

      Hi Lily, no worries! I pretty much always tried to keep it to one new word per card. So in the case of a sentence with multiple new words, I would make a different card for each unknown word and bold it (i.e., same sentence on the front of each card, but a different word bolded). I talked about that here in my post on MCBs. Just let me know if you have any other questions!

  • Lily on Jul 12, 2013 Reply

    Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you for clarifying!

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