Going monolingual can be daunting, and just one look at your first definition is enough to send you racing for the hills. I swear it gets easier, but before it does here are some tips that I wish I had known before I got started.
1. Start with a simpler dictionary
This is hands down, the biggest mistake I made when I started making J-J cards. There are a ton of free dictionaries out there, which is totally awesome. But when I started down the monolingual rabbit hole I needed way more hand holding than Yahoo Jisho was willing to give me.
例解学習国語辞典 (Reikai Gakushu Kokugo Jiten or the “Example Study Japanese Dictionary”) was a fucking lifesaver. It’s a dictionary designed for Japanese school children, so the explanations are free from obscure words and stuffy language. Definitions are usually 1-2 sentences long, and common words are even highlighted in red. There are some cute sidebars on word usages, and annotated illustrations for selected words and phrases. There’s also an appendix with kanji stroke order that includes things to pay attention to when writing. While less helpful than any of the rest of the extras, my favorite are the English sentences running along the bottom with their katakana transliterations.
For all of the awesomeness of the Reikai Gakushu Jiten, there are some massive tradeoffs to using it versus an online site. Not only do you have to pay for it, you also have to to type up definitions that you need. I got so fed up of typing out definitions that for a while I was using my phone’s camera to snap a picture of the definitions I needed and attached them to my Anki cards. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. You’ll also need to remember the kana order to look things up, which should be good practice, but some might see this as a downside.
2. Only pick the relevant definition
While it’s useful to know that you can use a word both literally and figuratively (e.g. 浅い川／浅い考え — a deep river or a deep thought) when you’re adding a definition to your Anki cards, only include the section that defines the specific word usage of your sentence. While going through reviews you shouldn’t have to wade through the 17 different definitions of your word to get to the one that’s relevant to your sentence; Anki cards are not a place you want to encourage clutter. And if you really want to remember all of the different meanings for your word, consider making a few extra cards for the additional usages.
3. Pay attention to the example sentences
Some of the easiest words have definitions that are demoralizingly difficult to understand.
One thing that I’ve come to realize is for words that all native speakers would be expected to know, dictionary authors are likely to write complex entries, or explain specific situations when you would use that particular word. These definitions are often in terms far less common than the target word itself, because the universe loves to rub salt in your monolingual aspirations. When I first started out using J-J cards, I found that the sample sentences could often help to infer the definition from context, even in the case of these long and confusing definitions.
Another benefit of reading the example sentences is that they are really helpful when trying to figure out which definition is correct when making cards.
4. Use a thesaurus
Sometimes it’s not a specific word you don’t understand, but a phrase itself. Oftentimes these won’t be included in a dictionary and it’s fucking obnoxious. While a Google search for the phase will sometimes help you out, I’ve found that a thesaurus can usually get the job done quicker.
While both Weblio and goo provide a short description of the word or phrase (what you’re probably after), with a bunch of synonyms (類語), goo often goes a step further in showing cases where each synonym can and cannot be used. This is super duper useful. And it’s exactly the kind of bullshit to crop up on a JLPT test.
5. Use the J-E definition
I know that we’re trying to get away from English definitions, but bear with me. For words with multiple meanings, Yahoo Jisho will often provide a very short Japanese definition of the synonym in the heading, which is usually a million times easier to understand than the regular J-J definition. The drawback here is that a lot of words aren’t in the J-E dictionary (another great reason to dabble in monolingual dictionaries), but it’s a great resource when you can take advantage of it, and for the super monolingual-phobic, a good way to start.
6. When all else fails, use a picture!
The point of monolingual is to get you out of your L1 and into your L2. While abstract concepts are harder to convey, don’t always discount a pictorial representation for your word even if you’re at an intermediate or advanced level. Besides, as we learn in Brain Rules by John Medina, “…the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized— and recalled.” Just be sure to search for the word in Japanese (not the translation), as sometimes there are subtle differences between the words in English and Japanese.
Finally: don’t overdo it!
Some words will be a cinch to understand the definition for. Others will be next to impossible. Cherry pick the easy ones, and continue to use bilingual definitions where you need them. Some people suggest branching monolingual cards, but I actually find that distracting. You often end up with more and more obscure ways to say the same thing, which sounds like a fantastic recipe for mental blocking. What works best for me is to look up the definition of the word I don’t know, and if I can’t get that one either, I just stick the English definition of the target word alongside of the Japanese definition. Even if you only read the English definition at first, the Japanese definition will be waiting for you when you’ve learned enough vocab to tackle it.
Let us know if you have any tips to make monolingual cards less abhorrent.