7 False beliefs about using bilingual dictionaries

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Bilingual dictionaries are traditional reference works for learners whereas monolingual learners’ dictionaries are relatively new developments. They provide the translation mappings and equivalent of each word in two languages.

There’s a considerable dispute against using bilingual dictionaries in a teaching environment and the translation equivalents are considered unnecessary information in a context where everything should happen in the target language; Most teachers try to avoid using translation in the classroom as much as possible. Most of them banned using bilingual dictionaries in the classroom, but that does not mean the students stop seeking out the information available in these resources.

Based on some studies, whether one likes it or not, language learners do rely on their mother tongue to quite a considerable extent and a great majority of dictionary users prefer bilingual dictionaries. English teachers should know that despite some deficiencies, bilingual dictionaries could be of great use, especially for young learners.

Here we will try to present some of the drawbacks of bilingual dictionaries which are mentioned in different studies and explain why all are based on wrong presumptions:(source)

1 – Bilingual dictionaries  may reinforce the tendency of learners to translate from their native language

Actually, this claim is merely a speculation and there’s no systematic evidence for it; besides, It’s not obvious what’s the disadvantage of the tendency of learners to translate? Some scholars (e.g. Cook,2010) believe that “ translation has an important role to play in language learning – that develops both language awareness and use, that it is pedagogically effective and educationally desirable and that it answers student needs in the contemporary globalized and multicultural world.’ these scholars consider translation as a bridge between the native language and foreign language; human learns new knowledge based on existing knowledge if the connection between these two areas of knowledge is ignored, it won’t have any use in teaching or learning a new language.

2 – Using bilingual dictionaries hinders thinking in the target language

 From the psycholinguistic point of view, the process of thinking is the manipulation of concepts, and concepts are believed to be shared by the mother tongue and target language. This view is supported by broad experimental studies, so if it’s accepted then “thinking in the foreign language” is a sheer marketing slogan for language institutes. Languages are not stored separately in mind and “meanings do not exist separately from first language” (Cook,2001). So it seems that the reasons behind excessive reliance on monolingual dictionaries are more commercial and political rather than scientific. Research in the field of language learning and teaching simply ignored the possible usefulness of translation in teaching and learning foreign languages.

3 – Using bilingual dictionaries reinforce the belief that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between words of two languages

Actually, the existence of such asymmetries between two languages is a common problem in language learning which is called anisomorphism in linguistics: the differences between two given languages that create mismatches in a translation dictionary. The truth is that in this case, monolingual dictionaries do not offer any solution to this problem, but lexicographers involved in designing bilingual dictionaries focus precisely on these kinds of asymmetries between languages (Lotman,2011). Bilingual dictionaries try to demonstrate the sameness and the differences which are the causes of interference.

4 – By using bilingual dictionaries, users can not be able to develop defining skills

The problem related to this wrong belief is that the definitions provided by monolingual dictionaries are not natural language and are actually a special metalanguage with a limited number of defining words; So the monolingual dictionaries will not offer learners any special paraphrasing and defining ability, so using a bilingual dictionary will not hinder developing such skills.

5 – For some words, there may be no equivalent word in the target language to provide

This is a common problem for bilingual dictionaries; In such cases, the bilingual dictionary can use definitions (like definitions found in monolingual dictionaries), except that these definitions will be provided in the native language of dictionary users; So this problem can be easily overcome by upgrading the bilingual dictionaries and including some well-defined statements for such words.

6 – The equivalent word in a bilingual dictionary may differ from the word in the native language in terms of some parameters such as denotation or style

As mentioned above, no two words from two different languages are totally identical in meaning except for some specialist terminology. Although it is absolutely a shortcoming, it does not represent a disadvantage of the bilingual dictionary versus any other dictionary type; no definition in learners’ dictionaries can perfectly define any lexical items of a foreign language too.

7 – Translation hinders second language acquisition

It’s believed that because of the problem of interference, the translation equivalences of words are barriers to successful vocabulary acquisition, but we should know that there’s no research confirming this claim. Cook (2010) believes that translation never ‘considered, assessed, and rejected, with reasons given for that rejection, but rather it was simply ignored’.

Translation, A bridge between your native language and English

Learning, in general, is all about the connection between already existing knowledge and new knowledge. Learning a new language, and its lexical system is no exception. Teaching vocabulary while referring to their native counterparts is an effective way to enhance comprehension. In this regard, we should mention some advantages of using bilingual dictionaries:

  1. The bilingual dictionary is culture-specific

Monolingual dictionaries are written without any first language in mind, so they can never cover the needs of native speakers, but bilingual dictionaries cover all culture-specific vocabulary of the native language of learners

  1. There is a comparison between concepts and words of mother tongue and foreign language in bilingual dictionaries 
  1. The coverage of interlanguage contrast is possible in bilingual dictionaries
  1. The majority of dictionary users prefer to use bilingual dictionaries, so they must find some value in using these dictionaries
  2. Translation develops both language awareness and use

In the age of modern technologies, learners access online dictionaries and translations tools almost anywhere, anytime. If learners are left to choose, they will definitely choose some translation tools in their vocabulary learning experiences.

WordUp and its bilingualized dictionary

More recent developments in lexicography are hybrid (semi-bilingual, bilingualized) dictionaries. These kinds of dictionaries benefit from a combination of foreign language definitions and native-language equivalents. In this way, the dictionary includes useful features of both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries while avoiding their drawbacks. WordUp uses a dictionary in which you can find English definitions of any word with active support from the native language; So you can immerse in English whereas the translation equivalence will serve to provide phycological reassurance to reinforce understanding and to correct misunderstanding.