Some excerpts from "The Art and Science of Learning Languages" by Amorey Gethin (AG) and Erik V. Gunnemark (EVG). The book is worth checking out (available on Amazon). The excerpts were edited by the author Amorey Gethin. I suppose I'm doing this because his ideas reflect very much my own. One thing I find objectionable is the frequent use of "never".
"However; you should beware of monolingual dictionaries that claim to be the latest in scientific lexicography because they are based on a huge 'corpus' of millions of words scanned by computer. (A well-known example is the Cobuild English dictionary.) These computer collections are almost entirely of sentences and phrases found in written texts. The result is that not only are many of the examples quoted in the dictionary completely untypical of the real everyday use of the words, which is mainly found in speech; they have also been taken out of their broader context in newspaper articles, novels etc., which makes it even harder for the dictionary user to understand how the words are used.
Dictionaries - which way round?
When I first became interested in foreign languages I often heard people say that it is perfectly all right for English-speakers to use French-English dictionaries as much as they like, but that they should be very wary of using English-French dictionaries. In other words, it was all right to use dictionaries from the foreign language into one's own, but not dictionaries the other way round. I entirely accepted this principle. The grounds for it were that when one uses an 'own-to-foreign' dictionary, the chances are that one will not know how to use the foreign words one finds."
The only times I use a 'foreign-to-own' dictionary a lot are when I am doing translation work. I do not use the dictionary to find out what the foreign words mean. I do not consider people have any business to be translating if they have to use a dictionary more than very occasionally in order to understand. I use the dictionary to remind myself of the possible words in my own language. For a competent translator (into his own language) it is always and only his own language that presents the real problems. He understands the sense of the original perfectly - but how should he express it in the language he is translating into?
Monolingual or bilingual dictionaries?
It has been the orthodox view for a very long time now that more advanced students of foreign languages should only use monolingual dictionaries in the language concerned (i.e. if you study English you should use an English-English dictionary, if Russian, a Russian-Russian dictionary, and so on). Indeed, it is customary in language teaching circles to go even further and insist that one should begin to use monolingual dictionaries as soon as possible; from then on they are preferable to bilingual dictionaries. Thus, for example, according to this view, a dictionary which contains only French is better than a one- or two-volume dictionary with French-English and English-French.
It seems to be a principle that many, perhaps most, language teachers take for granted, something that is beyond question, so much so that there is virtually no debate on the issue. On the rare occasions when anybody bothers to explain why monolingual dictionaries are so superior; the argument seems to be that they make students think in the foreign language instead of immediately turning the foreign words into equivalents in their own language.
There are very few true synonyms
It has already been explained why it is a bad idea to think in terms of equivalents in your own language. But what is an even worse idea is to translate a word into another word in the same language. The whole 'point' of a word is that it does not mean anything but itself. Practically every word is unique.
So never try to find out how words are the same. Find out how they are different! Never try to learn alternative words. For example, if we imagine you are learning English, do not think about what the words face, confront and oppose might have in common, never attempt to connect them to each other in your mind. Connect each one, instead, to the ideas to which it naturally belongs; one builds up understanding of how words are used from being alert to the contexts they fit into.
He must face-his-problems-alone.
She will oppose-the-motion.
Then, when you feel you really need an alternative, you will be able to judge which word is the right one from your knowledge of how the words are truly used, and where they fit naturally. If you learn like that, you are unlikely to think of replacing the three words above with each other.
How monolingual dictionaries mislead
Monolingual dictionaries give the impression that the opposite of all this is true. They give definitions (see below, Section 59), and describe words in terms of each other; tell us that this word means the same as that word. Over the years I has noted down examples of mistakes and misunderstandings that have resulted from using one of the most well-known monolingual English dictionaries produced for foreign students. Here are just a few of them. The words in brackets are what the writers really meant. I was able to establish exactly what was happening because in each case the writers were reporting on something they had read in English.
She died after a long disease (illness).
If people criticize our handling of our children, we bubble over (seethe).
My wife said nothing, in spite of my incompetence, until lastly (finally) I dropped the spare wheel on her foot.
They considered (thought of) a genuinely British solution to the problem.
18th century furniture is rather breakable (fragile).
Luckily things could be worse. The monolingual dictionary often turned up in rows on the desks in front of a new group of my students, but I noticed, even if I hadn't had the heart to tell them they had wasted their money, that at the end of the term most of these thick tomes still had their pristine, unfingered shine.
The temptation to resist new words
Unfortunately, though, it is what one might call the 'monolingual' philosophy that does so much harm, even when monolingual dictionaries are not actually used. It not only encourages a completely false idea of the nature of language, and misleads students about the meaning of thousands of words; it also encourages the great reluctance of so many students to adopt new words.
Naturally if one accuses them of such an attitude, most will deny it. Of course they want to learn new words, they assure us with complete sincerity. But their actions belie their protestations. Led to believe - and only too willing to believe - that the new word means the same as a good old safe familiar word, students will stick to the familiar one, and won't bother with the new one. It will often be as if they had never read or heard it, and they will persevere with the old one in all sorts of contexts where it won't do at all.
The trap of thesauruses
The only thing worse than a monolingual dictionary is a thesaurus. The native speaker sifts the 'synonyms' she finds in a thesaurus, and discards most - or even all - of them. She is able to do this precisely because she already knows exactly what they mean and can accept or reject accordingly. If she is not sure of the meaning and use of a word, she does not dream of using it. A foreign student cannot possibly discriminate in this way.
To try to learn foreign words by learning definitions (in the foreign language) is as big a mistake as to try to learn them by learning 'synonyms'. We do not in effect learn the words of our own or any other language through explanations and definitions. We understand a word and master its use when we can make a direct association with the 'reality' it refers to, whether that reality is a thing or action or quality or an abstract idea or anything else. In a sense the word is the association; there is no interpreting link between the word and what it means.
When we hear a word in our own language we do not stop and ask ourselves what the definition of that word is, in order to understand it. Nor; when we want to use a word, do we find the right one by deciding on a definition and then remembering the word attached to that definition.
It is worth considering here that when we judge that a definition of a word, in a dictionary or elsewhere, is a good one, we can only do so because we already know the meaning in a quite different, precise way that has nothing to do with definition. We do not tell ourselves that a definition is a good one because it is similar to a definition we have heard before. Equally, one can only produce one's own definition of a word if one first knows it in some other way.
But a foreign student cannot possibly be led by a definition to a proper apprehension of a word she does not know. A definition, far from being a quick path to mastery of a word, is a barrier between the word and the reality it belongs to. It is an extra and misleading burden on the memory, and goes right against the psychology of the way we experience words in practice. Mastery of a word is a matter of apprehending it - directly, in a flash.
The false logic of monolingual dictionaries
What exactly is this 'thinking' we are supposed to do in the foreign language when we use a monolingual dictionary? It is very unclear. At best it can only be thinking about the words of the definition, which is not what we need to be thinking about at all. The definition is in a foreign language, too, which can only increase the student's confusion, conscious or unconscious. Nor is there anything to stop an English-speaker, say, 'thinking in English' about a French definition in a French monolingual dictionary.
Whatever the thinking is, it is certainly not the sole kind of 'thinking in the foreign language' that is either possible or relevant: that linking of a word directly to a reality. And what sort of definitions are we talking about? Here are three examples taken from the same dictionary that I mentioned above that bring out the failure of the monolingual approach particularly clearly:
blast - strong, sudden rush of wind
gust - sudden, violent rush of wind
dangle - hang or swing loosely
floppy - hanging down loosely
sarcasm - bitter remarks intended to wound the feelings
taunt - remark intended to hurt sb's feelings
Let us also look at a monolingual dictionary compiled in accordance with the recommendations on vocabulary of the Council of Europe, namely the New basic dictionary, published by Macmillan-Lensing. There we find among other definitions:
packet = a small container [a bottle?]
language = a way in which we communicate [a telephone conversation perhaps?]
tax = money paid to the government [what for?]
In an English-French dictionary, on the other hand, we get a direct and far more exact answer:
How to use bilingual dictionaries
If you are studying a foreign language, you need a way of arriving in your mind at the reality the foreign words refer to as directly, quickly and accurately as possible. If you have to use a dictionary, you should always therefore use a bilingual dictionary. The word in your own language will immediately summon up the idea of a particular reality; there will be no barriers in the way.
But there are two things you must always do, two fundamental principles for using a bilingual dictionary. (Let us assume you are reading, not listening, although the principles remain the same.)
In the dictionary you will nearly always find several meanings in your own language for the one word you are looking up. You should go straight back to the foreign text and first see which meaning fits into the reality the text describes. Note 6
Then you should forget the word in your own language. Instead you should concentrate solely on the context of the foreign language. You have now discovered the reality which that language is talking about; observe - consciously or unconsciously - how it expresses it. In this way you will learn the exact meaning of the foreign words, just as the native speakers have done.
Perhaps to understand the principle better, imagine you come to a little river, a stream. The bank you are standing on is a sentence in the foreign language. You want to cross to the opposite bank, which is the meaning of the sentence. The stream is too wide to step across - an unknown word. But in the middle of the stream there is a stepping stone, the dictionary translation of the troublesome word. With the help of the stepping stone you step over to the other side. Now you are where you wanted to be - you understand the whole sentence, including the use of the new word. That is all you need. At this point you do not lean back to pick the stepping stone out of the stream and carry its weight around with you for the rest of your life. It has served its purpose and you can ignore it.
You should never forget that basic truth, that languages are not translations of each other. This means quite often that although the dictionary suggests many words in your own language as an equivalent of the foreign word you have looked up, none of them would be suitable as a translation for the context you have before you. But unless you are making a formal translation for someone, that does not matter at all. What is important is that you should understand the reality which the foreign language is referring to. The dictionary will usually give enough indications for you to be able to do that.
But finally, never forget that the dictionary should always be a last resort. Don't let it dominate you and steal from you the precious time you should be spending with the language itself.
(a) Never spend money and time listening to teachers talking about words. Instead, spend that time reading and listening and finding out directly what words mean and how they are used.
(b) Never waste money on books about vocabulary. Instead, again, read and listen and find out directly what words mean and how they are used.
(c) Never make lists of one-word equivalents. (If you need such a list for the most basic words, try to find one that has been made by a linguist who has studied the problem carefully.)
(d) Never translate into your own language "to be sure you really understand". If you don't already understand you cannot translate.
(e)Never think that a word means the same as another word.
(f)Never believe that a definition tells you what a word really means.
(g)Never use a dictionary more than you absolutely have to – and "absolutely having to" is much less often than you think."