Many learners when they start out with a language will use only a bilingual dictionary if one is readily available between Spanish (in this case) and their native language. But if you've reached a medium to advanced level of study, then sooner or later, it will be time to start thinking about buying a monolingual dictionary in the language you're studying. In this review, I'm going to address two main questions:
The basic answer is that the monolingual dictionary gives you its editors' view of the "mental picture" that native speakers have of their language. In a bilingual dictionary, the editor is essentially trying to break words down into submeanings that map to particular translations; in a monolingual dictionary, the editor is simply attempting to identify submeanings as native speakers envisage them. The two types of categorisation can be quite different. In some cases, what looks like a word with a complex set of meanings in a bilingual dictionary can turn out to have a much simpler, all-encompassing meaning from the point of view of native speakers. The monolingual definition lets us "see the wood for the trees" rather than getting lost in a translation issue. Of course, at times this can also be a problem (see below: pitfalls of using a monolingual dictionary).
Another way of looking at things is this. Monolingual dictionaries form part of the material used by compilers of bilingual dictionaries (along with other material, such as electronic corpora, polling of native speakers etc). By going straight to the monolingual dictionary you are in effect "cutting out the middle man".
A monolingual dictionary will typically include various "meta" information about the vocabulary which isn't always a concern of bilingual dictionaries: synonyms and antonyms, dates of first attestation, conjectured origin of the word etc.
As to the question of when, the answer is partly "when you feel the time is right", bearing in mind:
For most users, the Pequeño Larousse offers a suitable compromise between comprehensiveness (60,000 headwords covers various fairly rare names of plants, animals, regionalisms etc) and compactness. It also follows the Larousse tradition of being an illustrated, encyclopedic dictionary. This means that:
For learners that have reached an intermediate to advanced level of learning, a monolingual dictionary such as the Pequeño Larousse is an excellent resource.
The main pitfall of using a monolingual dictionary versus a bilingual dictionary comes in what the editors "take for granted". Because they are not seeing things from the "outsider's" point of view, the editors of a monolingual dictionary will tend assume certain relationships between words and their derived forms that are not necessarily obvious to a foreign learner. And in some cases, a single definition may hide a translation problem. As an example that encapsulates both problems, let's consider the case of the verb aburrir and in particular, the adjective aburrido. Early on in pretty much any traditional Spanish course aimed at English learners, it will be hammered home how the word aburrido can have "two meanings": bored and boring. It will probably also be stated that one meaning tends to be associated with the use of this adjective with estar, and the other with ser. Although arguably simplistic, the explanation generally makes sense to English learners and will allow them to select the correct verb and interpret the word correctly most of the time. So how does the Pequeño Larousse define the word aburrido? Well, it doesn't even list the word!1 The editors (presumably) assume that the meaning of aburrido is clear to its readers from the definition of the verb aburrir, which is given as follows:
Every dictionary has its own quirks in terms of editorial style and the way certain aspects of usage are signalled. Some features to watch out for include:
1. N.B. This review was based on the 2007 edition.
Review written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2009. All information in this review is provided in good faith and believed to be correct and representative of the work under review.