The labyrinthine dictionary survival guide

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


No, this post is not related to anything written by Jorge Luis Borges, but it is related to both dictionaries and labyrinths anyhow.Although there are hard-line radicals who advocate using only the target language when studying foreign tongues, I think most people agree that using knowledge from one’s native language is good or indeed necessary. When I started studying Chinese, if I encountered a word I didn’t know what it meant, I looked it up in a Chinese-English dictionary. Of course, this comes with it’s own problems, since the words in Chinese and English overlap only to a certain degree (much, much less than between Swedish, English or French for instance), but it’s often good enough, at least for understanding. Using a dictionary in a language you know is like using a bad map, which will allow you to find your way around, but will occasionally lead you astray.

Sooner or later, however, every student needs to start using a native dictionary. I almost never use English-Swedish dictionaries (I do sometimes for plants and animals) and I don’t need to, because I understand 99,9% of all definitions in a normal English-English dictionary. That’s not true in Chinese, but during the past six months or so, I’ve been trying to shift from Chinese-English to Chinese-Chinese dictionaries. I think that this situation can be much likened to entering a labyrinths, trying to explore and map unknown territories. This a post about this adventure and also a guide to how to survive in these convoluted corridors.

Entering the labyrinth

The first time I used a Chinese dictionary, I gave up immediately. Even explanations of simple words I knew well contained many words I had never even seen before. In other words, I stepped into the labyrinth and saw the path ahead of me fork off in numerous directions. Picking one at random, I found that the next intersection was equally unfamiliar. However long I walked in this labyrinth, I would never reach the middle and I would never return to the position where I started. The few points in the maze I knew (words I had studied) were close to useless, because they were too sparse and not connected. This is why I think it’s a waste of time to try to learn Chinese in Chinese for a beginner, you need at least a rough map to refer to in order to survive.

However, through the years, I’ve kept eying the labyrinth sideways, when it isn’t looking, and I’ve found some things out that make it more interesting. I have tried to enter it many times, using different approaches. I think that I’m now well enough equipped to enter it properly and survive in it’s winding corridors. I’ve been doing this for around six months now and I’m still sane enough to write about it!

Different kinds of labyrinths

To start with, it’s not true that all dictionaries are the same, and thus there are many different labyrinths with many different properties. Using a highly specialised dictionary¬† is considerably more difficult than using a more accessible one. Let’s consider these examples if you’re studyng English. Let’s look at the word “labyrinth” as defined in two dictionaries, first Merriam-Webster:

1a : a place constructed of or full of intricate passageways and blind alleys
1b : a maze (as in a garden) formed by paths separated by high hedges
2: something extremely complex or tortuous in structure, arrangement, or character : intricacy, perplexity
3: a tortuous anatomical structure; especially : the internal ear or its bony or membranous part
1: a large network of paths or passages which cross each other, making it very difficult to find your way [= maze]
2: something that is very complicated and difficult to understand

I don’t mean to say that either of these entries are extremely hard, but there is a considerable difference in required reading ability between these two dictionaries. To start with, the Merriam-Webster entry contains 38 different words and the Longman only 26. To understand the first entry, you need to already master words such as “intricate”, “blind alley”, “maze”, “tortuous”, “intricacy”, “perplexity” and “membranous”, whereas the second entry require a lot less. An interesting point here is that many of the words I just listed are considerably more difficult than the word we are currently looking up.

Thus, before you even think about entering the labyrinth, try to find out something about it, preferably by asking an advanced learner or a native speaker who can easily judge which dictionary is the most suitable for you. I would never ever recommend Merriam-Webster to a beginner (or even fairly advanced students), because the Longman dictionary is good enough for almost all situations. However, sometimes Merriam-Webster is a lot more complete and accurate, making it the preferred choice. It all depends on what knowledge and tools you carry with you into the labyrinth.

This is what we’re going to talk about now.

Surviving gear you will need in the labyrinth

Since I’m studying Chinese and that’s the kind of labyrinth I’m exploring at the moment, I will take examples from my own travels, even though most of what I say should be relevant in any language. I had three things that helped me a lot:

  • A broad vocabulary of around 9000 words. This enabled me to piece together most sentences and identify the words I didn’t know. Without basic vocabulary, finding you way will be like entering a normal maze blindfolded.
  • Knowledge of a high number of individual characters (parts of words would be applicable for other languages). I went through the 3000 most common Chinese characters before starting. This turned out to be incredibly useful since I usually only need to combine things I know rather than learn something completely from scratch.
  • I have an electronic dictionary which allows me to just tap a screen to go to the next intersection in the labyrinth. Using a browser-based dictionary is a good substitute, but it’s very practical to have a physical device.

I don’t mean to say that you have to have so and so many words, I’m just saying that’s where I started and I still find it quite difficult to only use Chinese-Chinese dictionaries even if I get the point most of the time. I have hard time understanding those teachers who recommend using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries from the start, except if the dictionary is written for preschool kids, but that’s quite unlikely because they can’t read.

Shortcuts and cheats

Yes, it’s possible to cheat and there are shortcuts. You can study some basic labyrinth architecture, bring your shoddy, native-language map, you can skip some corridors that end up in places you’ve already been and you can try to avoid the less trodden parts of the labyrinth.

  • There are many words which are commonly used in dictionaries but not otherwise, such as “signify”, “indicate”, “describe”, “contrast” and so on. Make sure you take time to learn these words, because they occur so frequently that you can’t really hope to survive without them. In Chinese, it’s sometimes hard because the words also exist in contracted forms (i.e. using only one character instead of two).
  • Decide that after a number of intersections, you always resort to Chinese-English dictionary instead. This means that if you look up a word, you always try to understand that entry in the dictionary in Chinese, but if there are words in that entry that you don’t understand, you look them up in your native tongue. Or you go one step further and only do that for words you don’t understand in the definition of the definition.
  • Skip parallel paths when you encounter them, i.e. don’t learn too many near-synonyms. In the labyrinth, they are only similar paths leading to roughly the same location. You will need to explore these parallel paths later, but if you’re trying to find your way around, don’t bother with them. If you know the component parts of these words, you will often enough be able to guess their meaning.
  • Avoid straying off the illuminated paths in the labyrinth. If you’re using a fairly advanced dictionary, you might leave the more commonly used parts of the language and enter the more dangerous areas where few people go and hideous monsters abound. Here there be Thesauruses! Don’t be stubborn. If you’ve decided to follow advice one above, it’s okay to stop if you peer into a dark corridor and two yellow eyes the size of your fists stare back at you.

Entering the labyrinth with the goal to map everything (i.e. not heeding any of the above advice ) is probably stupid and definitely impossible. A language is simply too big to ever grasp fully (you don’t mean to say that you know everything about your native language, do you?). How you choose to limit exploration is up to you, though.

Wild adventures and treasure hunts

Still, you can go on a rampage now and then if you like. This might be even more fun if you do it with a friend:

  • See how long it will take you to follow the definitions of a certain word until you arrive at an intersection where you know all the paths (i.e., keep looking up words until you find a definition you fully understand without having to look anything up).
  • Name two words and see if you can find a path between the two words. If you pick to very different words, it will be quite hard, but this can of course be made easier by choosing related words.
  • I sometimes just walk randomly, noting down words I find interesting and skipping the rest. This is probably not very good from a learning perspective, but you do stumble upon pretty cool words sometimes.

During these adventures, it’s up to you how detailed a map you want to draw. I’m currently writing recording almost every unknown passage and intersection, storing and reviewing everything with Anki, but you definitely don’t have to do that. If you encounter words more than once on separate journeys, it’s usually a good idea to look them up, though. A problem is that most dictionaries won’t tell you how commonly used a word is.

Some closing remarks

So, what do you choose, using a badly drawn and inaccurate map, or entering a strange and perhaps dangerous labyrinth, trying to understand how it has evolved? I think that the answer depends much on how much you have studied (i.e. how strange the labyrinth is) and what your goal is. If you’re short of time, running around in labyrinths all day is usually not a good idea, although you might have to do that sooner or later anyway.

I personally prefer to have a rough map that contains errors, but lets me find my way to whatever place I’m going, rather than having a patchy, incomplete map with weird symbols on it that I don’t even understand myself. Neither of these situations is ideal, but for my three first years of studying Chinese, the rough map has been a formidable guide. I write this post because I’ve now taken the step into the Chinese-Chinese dictionary and I feel that I can survive in there, I even relish the thought of yet another adventure. I hope I have been able to shed some light on this subject, as well as provided you with the tools you need to survive in the dictionary labyrinth!

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