Dictionaries In The TEFL Classroom: Bilingual Or Monolingual?

Many EFL teachers are taught that monolingual dictionaries – which feature the English word and an English explanation – are best because they get learners to think in English and also the exact translation strategy often adopted by bilingual dictionaries of manageable size leaves much to be desired.

But when I’m learning a language…I sure do use a bilingual dictionary! Granted, lower level monolingual dictionaries for languages other than English are not very widely available at all, and I wouldn’t insist stubbornly on my beginners using monolingual English dictionaries, but it’s worth considering: when are bilingual dictionaries better?

My feeling is that it’s probably good to emphasize both kinds at lower levels. Sometimes a basic translation is just faster and simpler, and students can find it quickly on their own, and sometimes the feeling that they need a translation is hard to overcome. In the other direction, students may know the word they want in their language and only need the English word and they may not have constant access to a native speaker or the ability to explain the word.

One of the few times I encourage my higher level students to use a dictionary is for crossword puzzles, and the reason is this: the point of the crossword is to get practice explaining words on one side, and moving from an explanation to the word itself on the other. If students use a monolingual dictionary, this is already done for them, whereas if they use a bilingual dictionary, they have to think of how to convey the word on their own, which is exactly what they would need to do in a real life situation where their conversation partner doesn’t share the same language.

If higher level students tend to use bilingual dictionaries, even just on their own, it may be worthwhile to discuss the pros and cons, and in class be even more certain to cover or just check things like usage of vocabulary. I recently asked a high intermediate student which kind of dictionary she used and it had never really even occurred to her to use a monolingual dictionary, so while it may seem intuitive to teachers that a monolingual dictionary is useful, don’t assume it’s second nature to your students.