Part 1 problems of using E-C dictionary
Chinese people (herein mainly refer to people of mainland China, the scenarios in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau or overseas may differ) spend much time in learning and using English. However, English is still a difficulty for most of them. Written language, instead of spoken language, is fundamental. Reading is inputs of written language (text) to the brain. It is responsible for building up a linguistic mind. Thus, there must be some problem in (Chinese) people’s reading which is responsible for their difficulty in English. Let’s investigate people’s reading.
Reading is a major way for them to learn. The success of reading of course is comprehension. When people don’t understand English words, they either ask others or look up in dictionary. For most people, this dictionary is absolutely English-Chinese dictionary (in a broad sense, i.e. anything that translates English into Chinese, such as vocabulary and glossary in books, can also be English book and its Chinese version). This 100% certainty and sure of adopting an English-Chinese dictionary is disastrous in improving English, due to the following reasons. Firstly, it limits and disrupts the English inputs. Secondly, a frustrating translation process takes place. Thirdly, it shifts the intention from understanding English to understanding Chinese.
Let’s look at the scenario of using a common E-C dictionary (The analysis of using other broader-sense dictionaries is similar). Usually, multiple Chinese words and phrases are used to translate/explain an English word or phrase. Thus when a person is to look up the dictionary, more Chinese words are being read than English words are, lessening the amount of English inputs. Also, fixating back and forth from English to Chinese leads to abrupt English visual inputs. These abrupt inputs build up in mind and contribute to non-fluency in English of the person in question. He has to choose a suitable one among multiple Chinese words or phrases. And then manipulates the Chinese translations of the words in a sentence or sentences to form Chinese translation of the sentence(s) in his mind. This translation process is frustrating. Even expert translator found difficulty when translating complex text, not to mention non-translators. In fact, except for simple text, most people find hard to translate accurately and have to stay with the inaccurate translation. Difficulty of translation grows with the complexity of English texts. Translation wastes much time and mental effort, and affects comprehension accuracy. After the person finds out the Chinese translation (be it of a word or sentence(s)), she/he starts to try to understand the meaning of the Chinese, by so doing to comprehend the English text. In fact, during and after the translation process, what is being comprehended is the Chinese. Chinese plays main role and is responsible for understanding the text. English plays small role. The role of English is to trigger or initiate the Chinese comprehension process. English is being explained instead of explanatory, thus not functioning as a language in the reader’s mind. The English is considered unimportant because understanding is based on Chinese translation. The E-C dictionary looking-up habits build into memory, then even a person not using E-C dictionary, the translation process occurs in his mind. As a result, improvement of the reader’s English is greatly hampered. Hence, E-C dictionary should be avoided.
The effect of E-C dictionary is immense and exists in China (especially mainland China) almost wherever English is present. The great effect is accumulated from countless and longtime looking-ups, each of them may look trivial. Dictionary takes various forms, such as paper dictionary, electronic dictionary. The prevalence of electronic dictionary makes people getting Chinese translation process and reading English faster than ever. Still, the problem exists. Fluency and understanding of English has not been improved fundamentally. On the contrary, people become more reliance on E-C dictionary. This needs a rudimentary change.
Part 2 to adopt English dictionary – theoretical aspect
The solution for that is adoption of English dictionary (in a broad sense, it could be encyclopedia, books, websites wherever one can find English explanations). With such dictionary, the three problems are resolved. That is, English inputs in continuous streams and is actually being comprehended. This way significantly increases the amount of English visual inputs. Translation process is avoided. More importantly, it builds the reasoning and thinking in English. Explaining things including itself is the way language works. By searching the meaning in English dictionary, English encyclopedia, books for meaning, the English functions as a language by extending beyond and beyond. Dictionary connects all English words and sentences into a coherent network. A network system of interconnected English words and sentences grows in mind. The adoption of English dictionary reflects the concept that English is utilized to explain English and English is directly associated with knowledge. It eliminates English’s dependence on Chinese.
This approach (adopting English dictionary) also helps in doing E-C translation. By directly associating English with knowledge, i.e. comprehending directly via English, people can understand better. A person with better understanding of English can also perform better E-C translations. By understanding via thinking in English, a person knows the meaning. Then he can figure out the Chinese for the meaning. That is meaning-based translation instead of dictionary-based translation, in which people perform translation before understanding. The E-C dictionaries will still help in doing E-C translation as reference for the meaning-based translation. It should be used for translation purpose, whilst English dictionary should be used for improving English.
Two general notions would prevent this approach to be carried out. One is: people think it impossible or hard to understand English without translating it into Chinese. The other is: Chinese is superior to English. The latter is desirability issue. The former is feasibility issue. English is a language they are not familiar with, and is considered not suitable to be used to explain things. To many of them, Chinese is the ultimate representation of meaning. English representation is trivial, unreliable, not rigorous, and not authoritative and of low status. Indeed, it is a general mistake to respect the familiar language and disrespect the unfamiliar one since their knowledge and fluency of the two languages are at different levels. To address such notions, we should know that understanding of and attitude towards a language are shaped by past experiences. Dominant language tends to dominate people’s mind and be favored, because it is prevalent in usage, be it whatever language. For instances, Japanese people favor Japanese and understand Japanese better. Chinese people resort to Chinese when reading English is because Chinese dominates their daily life and mind, not because Chinese itself is better than English. It is reasonable that they can’t understand without translating into Chinese, since much more Chinese resides in mind than English does, people resort to it when thinking. Thus, these two notions should be abandoned. You (“you” refer to a Chinese person in this paper) should experience new things instead of being restricted by the mindset formed from past experiences. The status of English, the attitude towards English and understanding basing on English will go up with your English level rising by experiencing more in English in a proper way. This approach should be adopted when you experiencing more. More English in mind in amount and strength is needed such that people can resort to it and understand English without resorting to Chinese. It is a longtime process to build solid English system base in mind by reading more. The memory of English will build up as time goes by. After a solid base of English is built up in mind, reading English and using English dictionary will become natural.
Part 3 to adopt English dictionary – practical aspect
Now let’s talk about the practical issues of carrying out this approach. Practicality is significant regarding the predominance of E-C dictionary usage in this giant country, and using E-C dictionary being deep-rooted, undoubted and unquestioned behavior of individuals. This approach is simple but sounds very weird. In some places, especially rural areas, English dictionary is even not available in bookstores. Good news is that they are in the internet! They are also available in bookstores in cities. Hence, it is easy to own or access English dictionary in various forms. Action is needed. To adopt English dictionary needs great effort and time, individually and in public scope. It should be kept on doing for years.
For an individual, here are some points. At the beginning it is hard to follow. Apparent effects couldn’t be felt in short time. But it is an essential change from using an E-C dictionary. You will immediately find this approach intrinsically different. This is an effective way and longtime process. You must keep on even though you don’t fully understand without translating. For some people knowing little English, even many words in the explanations/definitions are not understood and need to be looked up in English dictionary. Of course, you don’t try to understand every unknown word and look up dictionaries endlessly. How much effort you take in looking up English dictionary depends on the need and your desire to comprehend. Sometimes you figure out their meaning from the context. Sometimes you search dictionaries and books for meanings of every unknown word. Sometimes you might not look up for unknown words at all. You search the explanations to find suitable one(s) that fit into the context. For common English dictionary, usually it is advised that you don’t look up for unknown words beyond first-hierarchy explanation. First-hierarchy explanation is the explanation for unknown word. Second-hierarchy explanation is explanation for unknown words in first-hierarchy explanation, and so forth. You may not fully comprehend from the explanations each time. However, they integrate into your memory and accumulate into a network of words and explanations. The words in this network will be better comprehended as the network grows. Don’t rush to look up E-C dictionary for quick understanding. At first you may find using English dictionary very slow and inefficient, taking lots of time for you to read and comprehend the English explanations. Applying this approach could be painful, difficult before you get used to it. After some time (in months) English gradually builds up in your mind. Then you will get used to this approach, speed up and have better understanding of the English.
Here is some general advice for reading English. During reading, what you need to do is avoid translation, reason on English words/sentences and associate them directly with knowledge, avoiding E-C translation and look up English dictionary when needed. Due to the logical structure of English, it is easy to be comprehended on its own. A logical and systematic English storage in mind will be built after some time. Such a system is coupled with knowledge and ever-expanding in a logical way. The key is to pay attention to the arrangement of English letters/words in its written form, to focus on their relations, the grammar, to memorize them and build a system in mind, in the mean time, to organize the written symbols/words in mind to represent knowledge.
Since most people are using E-C dictionary, there is a question: when to stop using E-C dictionary and start using English dictionary? The principle behind this approach is to learn English via English. Use explanation in the dictionary to learn unknown words or expressions. If few of the words in explanations are known, how can one use an English dictionary effectively? Is there a prerequisite that one should know enough English before carrying out this approach? There are no absolute prerequisites. By saying that, I mean it should not be considered when is appropriate to start using English dictionary, e.g. after certain grade level in primary school. In China, the E-C translation is prevalent and can hardly be avoided totally in a short time. It is also the major means of knowing English. It is factual that people have to learn some English via Chinese. Therefore, there will be an E-C dictionary to English dictionary shift for most people. This shift should take place as early as possibly, regardless of your English level. Accumulation of English system in mind will lead to your future better understanding even you don’t understand well when looking up English dictionary. At the beginning after the shift, you still translate in mind even you use English dictionary. That will diminish over time.
In public scope, something can be done for this approach. This approach should be instructed and adopted inside and outside of schools. English dictionary of various forms should be adopted nationwide. More English dictionaries should be sold and purchased instead of E-C dictionaries. In the vocabulary section of textbooks, the Chinese explanations should be replaced as English. Just to name a few.
Part 4 fundamentality of this approach for all situations
Having introduced this approach, let’s sum up its essence that should be applied in all situations. It has been clear from the preceding parts that the fundamental of this approach is to build a knowledge-associated, independent-of-Chinese English system in mind via reading. This fundamental is a central concept that guides for all learning situations. It is for people to self-acquire English, for themselves to advance on their own and not relying on environment.
People struggle with English is due to they don’t know exactly in the root what obstruct them and what take effect. Many English-speaking Chinese have switched from E-C dictionary to English dictionary. They may not know that E-C to English dictionary change is the breakthrough in their improvement of English, though. They need to find out the underlying obstacle and fundamental in learning English, as this article reveals. Chinese helps people know English, get high scores in examinations and improve English. People could hardly believe that it is among the biggest, if not the biggest, obstacles in their English advancement. The rudimentary cause behind that struggle is a solid English base has not been built in their mind. They haven’t eliminated English’s dependence on Chinese. That needs to change. They ought to resort to English dictionary or other English material for comprehension. That is, resort to English for English. It is your task to put learning English under your control, for your own understanding instead of being pulled back and forth by various teachings and tasks. The foundation, i.e. an English base in mind, should be built by you yourself. During or after a solid foundation built, all skills, such as those for examinations, oral skills, will be earned quite easily. They will not be headaches any longer. Skills should be developed on foundation and strengthen the foundation.
The overall situation of people’s learning English is complex. Learning objectives vary. The assessment criteria vary. Teaching organizations are countless, such as schools, English corners, training centers, even summer camps to travel abroad. Methods and lessons are countless. Resources are virtually unlimited – now English material is handy in this information age and being globalized world. Besides learning-oriented situations, the other type of situations is use-oriented. English use in increasing, e.g. used by students to do research, in foreign companies, in high tech industry, in contact with foreigners. Also, some people learn/use English for their own interest or in their own way. English has great presence in your daily life, such as those on goods or their packages, manuals of computer software or hardware and the extreme case, on the Web. Sometimes you want/need to understand them. In such complicated English-learning situations, it is important to keep a clear, self-aware and self-controlled mind. This approach and fundamental should be followed to ensure learning on the right track. You should always remember and apply this elementary approach and fundamental whatever learning environment you are in, whenever you learn. You acquire English in everyday life, not merely in designated learning/using situations.
It is true people living in mainland China lack English environment. People don’t have English environment of English-speaking countries. However, they can grasp the essential approach of improving English by adopting English dictionary, and avoid the wrong habit practiced by millions of people for decades. People’s learning English will go on the right way.