How to Use a Japanese Dictionary to Learn Japanese: 3 Ways!

There are some tools that every Japanese learning student should have at the ready, and a Japanese dictionary is one of them. But are you using it to its full effectiveness, or can you get more out of it?

Today I want to show you how to use a Japanese dictionary to learn Japanese by using it in three different ways.

We’ll start with how a beginner can get some value out of it, and then progress to the harder stuff as a student’s skills would improve to intermediate and then advanced levels.

Method #1 – How Do Most People Use Japanese Dictionaries?

Usually when someone is beginning to learn Japanese, they pick up a good English-Japanese dictionary so that they can look up the Japanese equivalent to English words they already know, or look up an unknown Japanese word that they’ve encountered, and see the English translation.

This works really well when it’s a single word, be it a noun, adjective, verb, and so on.

Where this method starts to fall apart is when students are either translating an entire sentence, or looking up a bunch of different words in order to construct their own new sentences.

The former is tough because most dictionaries for people learning Japanese are bare-bones and only have words in their simplest form. That means when you encounter a word that has been inflected in some way, the dictionary will only kind of help you understand what the sentence is saying.

The latter is something that you should avoid doing all together when you’re at a beginner-intermediate Japanese level, because the Japanese language expresses things very differently from the English language.

So what’s the solution?

I feel that the best way to use these basic dictionaries is just that: Keep it basic. Only use them to look up individual words, and don’t expect to get too much more out of them.

Perhaps they are most useful when you hear a Japanese homophone (different words that have identical pronunciations), and you look it up in the dictionary to see all of it possible choices. It’s also nice to see the different kanji each one uses.

When you’re a beginner in the language, the above is probably all you will really want to do anyway. It’s not until you get into the gray area known as “intermediate” that you will want more out of a dictionary, and can then more on to this next technique.

Method #2 – How Can You Learn a Lot of Japanese with a Dictionary?

In a word: Example sentences.

OK, that was two words!

Basically what you need to do once you’ve gotten a handle on the elemental parts of Japanese, like the sounds and some basic grammar knowledge, is to start practicing the language in the form of complete sentences.

Now here’s the thing, they don’t have to be long and complicated! You can start with short ones and then move on to longer stuff later when you’re better able to comprehend it all.

There are lots of reasons why learning Japanese this way is (perhaps) the best way to learn the language. This article isn’t really about that, so I will leave the particulars for another time.

What you do need to know is that you can find lots of these example sentences in certain Japanese dictionaries.

Let’s say for example that you want to learn the Japanese word for guitar. You could simply look it up in a dictionary (Method #1) and see that it is ギター (gitaa).

But if you were to look it up in, you could type in the word “guitar” into the search bar followed by the word “#sentences” and you would see the word used in a phrase that you could learn, memorize, and then use yourself in the real world.

Here’s an example:

What’s great about this is that you learn words that naturally appear together. For example, you can see that 弾く is the correct Japanese word that is used when you “play” a guitar.

If you had only looked up the word “play” by itself (Method #1) you might have seen the word 遊ぶ and used it by mistake.

  • 弾く is used to play a guitar.
  • 遊ぶ is used to play a game.

Learning Japanese from sentences makes sure you learn which words are supposed to be used with others. And a wonderful place to find these types of sentences is in dictionaries.

Seeing as how most adults know 25,000 – 35,000 words in their native tongue, you will probably be spending a while using dictionaries this way. At least until you’ve memorized enough Japanese to move on to the final tactic for using dictionaries.

Method #3 – How Can You Immerse Yourself in Japanese with a Dictionary?

Towards the end of your journey through intermediate Japanese, and once you can see the light of advanced Japanese off in the distance, you will probably want to get yourself a Japanese-Japanese dictionary.

In other words, a dictionary that native Japanese people would buy and use for themselves whenever they encounter a Japanese word that they don’t know yet.

When you get one of these bad boys, how should you use it to continue learning Japanese? I think there are two parts to Method #3, and you can use one or both of them:

  1. Look up words you already know.
  2. Look up words you don’t already know.

Before you tell me “No duh!” in the comments, let me explain what I mean in detail for each part:

Part 1 – When you look up words that you already know, you get to read the Japanese description of the word and learn those descriptive words.

This is great since you will already know the context these new words are being used in (to describe the particular Japanese word) which will help you understand them when you encounter them.

It’s also great because you will gain a deeper understanding of the word you looked up. When you use Method #1 to look up a word, you just get the English equivalent. You don’t actually get an explanation of what the word truly means, especially from a Japanese person’s perspective.

Even when you look up a word using Method #2, you gain a working knowledge of the word (how to use it) but not necessarily a comprehensive understanding of it.

But when you use Method #3 (Part 1) you can finally get a complete understanding of the Japanese word, from a Japanese person’s point of view, and you can also learn the words that are used to describe it.

It’s a great way to turn a Japanese-only dictionary into an amazing learning resource.

Part 2 – The other way that you can use a Japanese monolingual dictionary is how the people of Japan use it: You learn a new word from the description of it.

This is (probably) how you use an English dictionary in your life right now, so you just have to do the same thing, but in Japanese.

This way might be the hardest out of them all since it requires the highest level of understanding of Japanese already in order to really get the most out of it.

Basically because it assumes you know all the words in the description, and the looked-up word is the only one that is new for you.

Start With Method #1, and Work Towards Method #3 – Part 2

I laid out this post in the same chronological order that most students will want to follow as they get better at the language.

Obviously if you are brand new, then Method #3 is way to hard of a challenge. But if you only ever stick with Method #1, then you will eventually stagnate due to a lack of increasing difficulty.

So start with Method #1 if you need to, and then move on to Method #2 where you will no doubt spend a lot of time.

I like to take the example sentences from dictionaries and put them into my Anki deck so that I can review them in the future and lock the information into my long-term memory.

You might want to do the same. Just sayin’.

After a while, you’ll graduate to the level that most people never reach: Advanced Japanese!

The biggest problem with getting into this level is that there are very few materials for students to use. But now that you’ve learned both parts of Method #3, you can continue to improve you Japanese without having to rely on someone else to make learning materials for you.

Just get a 国語辞典!

Thanks for reading!

Let me know your thoughts with a comment below!

4 thoughts on “How to Use a Japanese Dictionary to Learn Japanese: 3 Ways!”

  1. Hello Nick, thanks for the wonderful article on how to learn Japanese in 3 ways. All of my life, I have been coming across Japanese literature, whether it was in movies, video games, anime, ads, you name it. I have been interested in learning the Japanese language, and starting off with method 1 would be a fresh start for me. I would stick with method 1 for a little while, and then move on to methods 2 and 3. Thanks again, and continue to do what you do!!!

    • Yeah, exactly! When you’re brand new, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself since you will then associate learning Japanese with a negative feeling. It’s best to just stay at the level 1 section until you’ve got a solid foundation created and you are ready to move on to something a bit more challenging. 

      I also have been seeing more and more Japanese things all around me as time has pass over the passed several years. I’ve got a feeling that we are only going to see more and more as the world continues to fall in love with the products and people of Japan. Exciting times!

  2. Hi nick,

    thanks for your insight. Just a question if i may, would a corpus help to contextualise words (I have in mind the website linguee for instance), as within particular contexts the same words mean different things? is there a method that you would recommend to help contextualise words? this of course is for the one grounded in the language. Many thanks for your great contribution.

    • Yeah, absolutely. So let’s take an example of this using Linguee.

      Generally speaking, a single English word can have many different Japanese counterparts depending on the context of how it’s used. If you search Linguee for the word “Girl” (click here to see it) then you will notice how in one context the word “girl” is translated as 美少女, but then in a different context the word girl is translated as 女の子.

      This is something that is actually pretty common in Japanese, as it is a very precise language.

      But then let’s also take a look at how a single word can change within a single language depending on the context. I’ll use English for the language as this this the first example that is coming to mind:

      Let’s take the English word “bow”.

      Just from that one word, you can’t actually be sure if I’m talking about a weapon, or a type of movement of the body.

      But if we add some words before and after “bow” then it becomes clear what that one word means:

      (1) – I always take a bow after a performance.
      (2) – I grabbed my bow before I left the house to go hunting.

      This is something that happens in all languages, and you really just have to pay attention to the whole context in order to know what the one word means.

      Now you also asked me what method I would recommend to help contextualize words. The best way is simply to practicing reading (or speaking) in the target language a lot. After a while you begin to get a “feel” for the correct meaning of the word by how it’s used.

      Or if you want a quick way that you can used immediately, you can “try out” several interpretations on a phrase and see which one makes the most sense for the one word. Let me give you a Japanese example:

      In Japanese, the word 聞く (kiku) can mean either “to hear” or it can mean “to ask”. So if you came across the phrase 「講義を聞いていましたか?」 You can interpret 聞いて both ways and see which makes more sense, like so:

      1. Did you hear the lecture?
      2. Did you ask the lecture?

      Now, it’s probably pretty obvious that #1 is correct since you don’t “ask” lectures.

      What do you think? Are those suggestions helpful? I realize my response was kind of a mouthful!


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