JLPT BC 52 | Using Japanese-English Dictionaries

Using Japanese English DictionariesI recently went through teaching an intensive program with some students. It involved a few 12 hour days with me being in the classroom for about 10 hours. Needless to say it was exhausting and I didn’t get that much studying done during that time. I did, however, get a lot of Game of Thrones reading done. Unfortunately that does nothing to improve my Japanese skills.

I did manage to recover from all that mess though. I slowly eased myself back on schedule and I’m back at it. It was definitely a bit hard at first to get myself started again, but after I did my routine for a few days it all came back to me, thank goodness.

Lately, I’ve still been busying myself with the old Kanzen Master N2 grammar. I just finished it and now I’ll probably do a practice test next weekend and see where am at. I hope to be able to do an old pre-2010 practice test and a new post-2010 practice test to see how big of a difference there is in levels. A suspect there will be a bit of a contrast.

Using Dictionaries

Using a language dictionary is a fact-of-life for those learning a language. No matter what you do when learning a language you will inevitably have to look a word up. You will probably have to look up several hundred or even thousands of words over the course of your language learning.

So language dictionaries are a vital tool for language learning. You may probably think that you already have the fine art of dictionary looking-up down pat, but there are a few things to keep in mind when you look a word up in the dictionary – things that totally slipped by me my first couple of years of language study.

Make Sure the Word you Look Up is the Word you Think it is

Usually, over the course of natural language studying, you come across words you don’t know. They might be in some reading you are doing or something that you are listening to. You may also want to express something, but don’t have the words to do so yet, and want to know how to say something in Japanese.

In all of these cases you need a language dictionary. And, typically, you look up the words in the dictionary, take a few brief moments to read the word in English and then go about your day. It’s a fairly straight-forward process, or at least I used to think it was.

Now, for common words, like ‘blue’ and ‘car’, this is a perfectly fine way of doing things. But, if you look up something with a slightly more abstract meaning you are going to start to run into trouble.

Take a word like ‘demand’ for example. The noun form of ‘demand’ has at least 3 common words in Japanese: 要請 (yousei), a request or demand, 要求 (youkyuu), a strong demand, and 需要 (jyuyou), economic demand. That’s just for the nouns. There are other words used for the verbs.

How to Combat the Problem

First, be sure to check out the sample sentences if your dictionary has them. If you are still using a paper dictionary you are a bit out of luck here, but almost any kind of electronic dictionary (on the web or otherwise) have a plethora of example sentences for you to read through. Reading through these example sentences briefly can help you see how it is used.

You may also want to do a reverse look up of the word. You can do this by looking the word up in reverse to see what other meanings that same word has. For example, if you don’t know the word for blue you can look it up and discover that blue in Japanese is 青い. But, if you look up 青い you’ll find that it means both green and blue. So, the next time someone says 青い in conversation you know that they might either mean green or blue (but nowadays it usually just has the meaning of blue).

Lastly, you can ask a native speaker about it. You can try out a few sentences using the word and see if you are using it correctly. Usage is important when you learn a word. To truly know a word you must know its meaning and usage. Also, the vocabulary usage section of the JLPT is one of the more difficult sections of the test, so it pays to be prepared for it.

What has tripped you up?

Is there a word that is one word in English, but actually several in Japanese? Let me know in the comments below.

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Music by Kevin MacLeod Photo by CLF

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Corey Lee November 3, 2011, 2:22 am

    Having a dictionary on a mobile device is invaluable. I use the “Japanese” app for iPhone(it’s like a paid version of Kotoba) and I learn many words just by overhearing conversations and looking up the definition. I agree when looking up words English-> Japanese you should always find an example sentence before attempting to use the word.

    • Mac November 6, 2011, 3:07 pm

      I’ve always found that to be true. There are no direct translations, so many words have different shades of meaning when you are dealing with different languages.

  • Ytter January 3, 2014, 9:16 pm

    What is the difference between the “green” of “ao” and “midori”?

    • Clayton MacKnight January 7, 2014, 3:22 pm

      That always use to drive me nuts, too. But, you can SEE the difference with a quick Google image search:


      As you can see, ao is generally more of a sea green or deep blue whereas midori is the green we usually think of.

      • Ytter January 7, 2014, 7:20 pm

        Thanks for the response. I got a bit cautious about using Google Images after I learned that the searches go through English translations, although it’s probably better for Japanese than Arabic, where anything manufactured in China is shown under the Arabic name some Chinese translator picked out of a list in a dictionary. I wonder whether native Japanese speakers are unanimous in agreeing on what color a given item is called? Something to keep my eyes open for.

  • Lockie January 30, 2019, 3:47 am

    Hi there
    What dictionary would you recommend from the apple apple store or online?

    • Clayton MacKnight February 1, 2019, 6:15 am

      I would recommend “imiwa?” in the Apple store. It’s free and an excellent app. jisho.org is a great site as well.

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