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Translating or native dictionaries?

15 Nov 2011

Which is better? A dictionary which translates into your native language or a dictionary which gives the definition in the native language itself?

This is an often discussed and frequently controversial topic. Both students and teachers have strong opinions on both sides of the issue. But I suspect it comes to more to personal preference than anything else.

In this article I'll tell you which I prefer and why, then open it up to your comments. Which do you prefer?

Read more to join the discussion!

My preference

I love dictionaries and own a great many of them. That might make me a little strange. :-)

Just for Polish, I have several Polish-English translating dictionaries of various sizes, a large, pink Polish-Polish dictionary (PWN) and a small Polish-Polish dictionary for children. I also use a number of online dictionaries, including: Portal Wiedzy, the Polish Wiktionary and

One of my favorite parts of working on BiblioBird is that I get to edit the dictionary!

Even at the advanced level I'm at with Polish, I overwhelmingly prefer translating dictionaries.

Let me tell you why...

Translations are fast

I frequently look words up in the dictionary while I'm reading. I just want to know what the word means so I can move on. If I'm using a Polish-Polish dictionary, I might not know all the words in the definition. Then I'll have to look up those words too! It could take a long time before I return to my reading.

This is partly because monolingual dictionaries must use rare or technical words to describe simple words. For example, table: "an article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports." :-)

A translation is much faster.

Connecting definitions to concepts

Even for a language that I know very well, for example, English (my native language), I frequently have trouble guessing what a word is from the definition.

For example, here is a definition for an English word (hint: it's a transitive verb):

  1. to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence,
  2. to believe, desire, or trust

Can you guess what the word is in English?

Is it expect? Want? Wish? No, it's hope. While all those words are very similar, they all represent slightly different concepts (at least for me).

A similar thing happens when I look up a word in a Polish-Polish dictionary. I understand what the definition means, but I can't necessarily connect it to a concept I already know. But a translation would have allowed me to make that connection immediately.

mieć nadzieję, że ... = to hope. I understand hope! Done.

Here's another one for you to try! Can you guess what word this is in English (hint: it's a noun)?

  1. profound dedication; consecration
  2. earnest attachment to a cause, person, etc.
  3. an assignment or appropriation to any purpose, cause, etc.

Click here to find out!

Translations are easy to memorize

I use flashcards extensively when learning languages. Memorizing a single word answer to the flashcard is easier than a full definition.

And it's easier to do the cards in reverse for reasons already mentioned above.


I prefer translating dictionaries. But I know many other people prefer native dictionaries.

Please write a comment below explaining which you prefer and why!

Anonymous's picture

Hi David :-)

For English I prefer native dictionaries. Why? Because Polish-English dictionaries don't have many example of sentences and they don't have a pronunciation of words. Pronunciation and examples how to use words are very important in English. When definition is hard to understand I look it up in translating dictionary.

But, I'm starting to learn Spanish and I'll use bilingual dictionaries because I'm at the beginning of the journey :-). Then I probably switch to monolingual but I'm not sure yet.

When I use English-English dictionaries (I use Longman series) I often memorize definition (written in simple language using about 2000 words) and train how to explain unknown word in English. It's sometimes useful when I've forgotten word I can explain with remembered definition or use own definition.

All the best

David Snopek's picture

Ah, yeah, with English pronunciation is absolutely essential. But I bet there are some translating dictionaries with it! I'm not at home so I can't check my dictionaries to see if they do.

Learning how to explain words is definitely a good exercise. When I don't know a word in Polish I usually just explain what it is that I want to say. Like when we were trying to buy a dehumidifier in Poland. :-)

Thanks for the comment!

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 15:36
Anonymous's picture

I recommend "Wielki słownik PWN-OXFORD". There is everything you probably need - example sentences, pronunciations, contexts etc.

Posted by: Anonymous (not verified) | Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - 06:56
Anonymous's picture


Few years ago I was convinced that native dictionaries are more "pro" - but now I see it's a kind of snobbery. Simple translations are pretty good just because their simple. As you've said - it helps you connect the concepts easily instead of figuring it out. Though sometimes there is no clear equivalent in your language (God, how I LOVE these moments; I think it's what makes learning languages immensely interesting - discovering how languages can look like, what ideas people convey with it) - in these situations more elaborate explanation is helpful.
Other irritating thing about native dictionaries is that they can really make meaning incomprehensible.

Let's take for example this devotion. Definition you posted states that it's 1. strong dedication and something more (therefore different): 2. kind of attachment to the cause.

I didn't (and I still don't) really see the difference between devotion and dedications so I googled it. And I've found such definition of dedication:
"Dedication means the act of binding yourself (intellectually or emotionally) to a course of action; "his long commitment to public service"; "they felt no loyalty to a losing team". Dedication means working for a cuase."

Guess what - it's exactly part 2.
Either you can deduct that dedication IS devotion or that strong dedication is not dedication. In both cases dictionaries are self-contradictory.

Basically - if you don't reach the conclusion that it's better to assume dedication and devotion (or any other pair of words which may act like that) are the same you would stay confused, fruitlessly trying to understand what can devotion be, if it's not simply dedication.

Myself, I think the best thing would be direct translation (by these I mean from "their" language to "yours") with couple of example uses of the word, helping you to understand, z czym się je jada.

Posted by: Noqa (not verified) | Thursday, November 17, 2011 - 18:39
David Snopek's picture

Thanks for the comment!

I totally agree. I love how in some languages, they use 2 words to describe something that has only 1 word in your native language or vice-versa. And once you get used to, it's hard to imagine how you managed so long with only the 1 word. :-)

I think there is a difference between dedication and devotion but I don't think I could define it. Devotion is a little stronger than dedication, definitely, but it might just be that some things get one and other things get the other.

For example, I could say both "I am dedicated to my work" or "I am devoted to my work" but I can only say "I am devoted to my wife." For some reason, "dedicated" it too small of a word, she deserves more than "dedication." ;-)

Hope that helps!

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, November 18, 2011 - 19:37
Anonymous's picture

I've thought oddanie = dedication, poświęcenie = devotion. But of course there will be differences.

Posted by: Anonymous (not verified) | Monday, November 21, 2011 - 14:44
David Snopek's picture

You're probably right! I'm terrible at translating in general, but particularly bad when translating into Polish. Thanks!

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, November 21, 2011 - 15:10
Anonymous's picture

Bingo, devotion implies an emotional or spiritual commitment (devoted to my wife). Dedicated is devotion without the emotions. I love my job vs I am devoted to my job.

Posted by: Oldman (not verified) | Saturday, December 31, 2011 - 09:49
David Snopek's picture

Aha, thanks! That makes a lot of sense. :-) Best regards, David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Saturday, December 31, 2011 - 10:39
Anonymous's picture

Yet still: I don't see much difference between "oddanie" and "poświęcenie" ;-) I mean: if I make myself I can tell that, but I fell like if I'm making it up.

(Doesn't the last phrase sound ominously in English?)

Posted by: Noqa (not verified) | Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - 17:51
Anonymous's picture

In the case of Japanese a dictionary which gives the definition in the native language itself. I found that this really helped my understanding of Japanese.

There are many words in Japanese that simply cannot be translated accurately. Being able to define words really helped me express myself when I could remember particular words.

Posted by: Nick (not verified) | Saturday, November 26, 2011 - 20:26
David Snopek's picture

That's a really good point! Some words aren't translatable and so you'd need a definition/explanation no matter what language it was in.

Thanks for the comment!

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | Monday, November 28, 2011 - 09:44
Anonymous's picture

'Devotion'? What, the heck, is this :) ? I have to check in dictionary Polish-English.

Posted by: Maciej (not verified) | Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 17:32
Anonymous's picture

Oh, 'oddanie'. Just as like a thought.

Posted by: Maciej (not verified) | Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 17:33
David Snopek's picture

It's a good word. :-)

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, December 14, 2012 - 10:10

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