Bilingual vs Monolingual Dictionaries

When I was in high school, I started studying English more intensively. I chose the department ‘Foreign Languages’ and I had English courses for almost 20 hours a week. Until that time, I had been using only bilingual dictionaries. However, at the first class of the term, my English teacher told me that I should buy a big English- English monolingual dictionary (Oxford or Cambridge). Well, I had to buy it you see 🙂 For almost one year, this dictionary was a nigtmare for me. I did not want to even look at it because I had a limited time and looking up in the dictionary was taking ages. While I was looking up a word, I was coming across another unknown word in the explanation. This was how it went, I was looking up at least three words to get the meaning of one word. After all these years, I can say that both bilingual and monolingual dictionaries are useful.

1. Monolingual Dictionaries

Those who are in a business related to languages have one of these dictionaries: Oxford, Cambridge or Collins. Monolingual dictionaries (MD) leaves you space to interpret a word in your own language. You see many different meanings and their use in English. You can understand in which contexts you can use the word you are looking up. MDs also help in improving your English. By reading the meaning, you always see the English grammer structure and syntax. Without noticing, you expose yourself to English all the time.

2. Bilingual Dictionaries

I admit that bilingual dictionaries (BD) make you a little bit lazy because you just choose one of the meanings which you think is the most suitable according to the context. However, as translators, we use them a lot. If I have difficulty while translating a sentence, I ask the opinion of my friends. Looking up a bilingual dictionary is the same thing. You check the translations of the same word and get an idea. Sometimes, even if you know the meaning of ‘X’, you look it up to confirm and see how other people interpret the meaning.

These are my humble ideas about dictionaries. When I come across an unknown word, first I look up a bilingual dictionary. If I am not satisfied with the alternatives I have, I consult a monolingual dictionary and try to come up with my own translation.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. One of the more useful MD is my native language dictionary.
    Many times I know exactly what I want to ‘say’ but the target words which come to my mind are just ‘not righjt’!
    That’s when I open my MD and search for that exact word to mean exactly what I want to say.


  2. As an English native speaker, I must admit I have at times found my Spanish monolingual dictionary, a four-volume set published by RAE (Real Academia Española), quite handy. I can recall a challenging translation coursework assignment or two in which I had tough words to look up but failed to find them in my Oxford bilingual dictionary. I then turned to my RAE monolingual dictionary and — lo and behold — my word was there.

    Cindy C.
    translation services: Spanish & Swedish > English


  3. Posted by Marcel on October 15, 2011 at 17:41

    Yes, Cindy. Same exactly in my case, though exactly reversed -I am a native Spaniard.

    Hjärtliga hälsningar



  4. Posted by angy ortiz on August 17, 2012 at 16:48

    I think you have to use a bilingual dictionary when you are a beginner and then when you have some level shift to a monolingual. Monolingual dictionaries are like a wife, for example , if your mother tongue is english and you marry a dominican woman and move to her country, you must know that you will not know the meanings of many words you will hear, so when that happens you will ask your wife who is going to give you a definition in spanish. that is my humble comment.


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