There seem to be a recurring disagreement as to when answers can be dismissed because they can be answered 'just by looking at a (monolingual) dictionary'. More generally there seem to be an opinion that someone who is not able to read a monolingual dictionary should not ask questions about nuances of meanings.

I do not completely agree with this, for a variety of reasons:

  • I believe every question should be taken at face value. Yes, maybe the question is about subtleties, but if so what's the harm in explaining them? The usage in practice does not always reflect dictionaries after all.

  • I am not sure that a language learner is able to get as much information out of a monolingual dictionary as a native speaker. For better or worse, I noticed that monolingual dictionaries are intended exclusively for people with a very good command of the language: sometime the meaning is obscure if you don't understand other nuances and so on down the rabbit hole. Sometime the point that is confusing the OP is even something the dictionary does not clarify at all, because it is "obvious" to native speakers.

  • Sometime even knowing which word to look up in a dictionary is highly non obvious.

What does the community think?

  • The first thing I bought when I started learning a foreign languge (first French and later English) was a bilingual dictionary and grammar book. At that time Google didn’t exist yet, to say nothing about language sites like those you can find on SE. Even though looking up a term or an expression on a dictionary or on a grammar book will not guarantee anyone to find an answer, I think that such tools are important and any user, from basic learner to experts, should never stop resorting to reliable reference. – user4354 Jun 5 '18 at 11:59
  • I think that promoting the usage of reliable language tools such as dictionaries or online free grammar sites should be part of the activities of this site. Nobody should be too lazy or too scared to use them. – user4354 Jun 5 '18 at 12:01
  • @user5768790 The question is not about bilingual dictionaries however, but monolingual dictionaries – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 12:25
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    Not sure what the real difference is. A beginner would likely use a bilingual dictionary first or search in Google. Here it is clear that they do nothing, they just ask. On ELU questions without preliminary research are just put on hold. – user4354 Jun 5 '18 at 13:38
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    @user5768790: I believe we are not thinking about questions such as the first example in DaG answer ("What does vite mean in Italian?"), but about more subtle ones. For instance, a question asking which preposition is the correct one in a sentence. – Charo Jun 5 '18 at 14:42
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    @user5768790 See for example the question that sparked this meta post, do you think it does not show enough research? – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 14:47
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    @DenisNardin - the kind of research I’m talking about is shown in answer below, (easily available online) of which there is no trace in the question. Having said that I think the issue is not specific to that question. – user4354 Jun 5 '18 at 15:41
  • @user5768790: I'm afraid I don't understand your last comment: to which anwser are you referring to? – Charo Jun 5 '18 at 15:57
  • @user5768790 The point being that it is easily available online in Italian, and not necessarily in a language register a learner can be expected to understand easily – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 16:13
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    I would like to remark that the point we are addressing here is not if users have to do some research before asking (if that were the case I would agree with @DaG answer), but to which extent we can expect from a learner to use monoligual dictionaries so as to try to solve his or her own question before asking here. – Charo Jun 5 '18 at 19:50

I have the opinion that this StackExchange site serves pretty much two types of users.

A) Absolute Beginners — They don’t understand most of the language, and need their hand held for the basics (see my question here).

B) Experts — Who have an impressive (to a non-native speaker) command of the language, and discuss certain finer points (eclectic vocabulary, unorthodox usage, best-fit for grammar, idioms), etc.

There doesn’t seem be any room in-between for intermediates. As you develop proficiency, you get a reasonably hacky command of the language (you can communicate your idea but it either has broken grammar or the wrong type of words; maybe a flawed understanding, etc.). These hang-ups have the potential to be great types of questions to other intermediates who usually go through the same motions (I can think of a million questions on the subjunctive, for example, despite being able to explain it "in-theory" to another English-speaker), but usually, technically, they don’t need to be asked. Why? Because if you have a reasonably hacky intermediate command of the language, you can struggle (emphasis-mine) through a monolingual dictionary. And if you can struggle through it, you can almost always find the answer there.

I fall into this category.

I come to this site pretty much every day to learn, to read all the questions that have been posted and to participate in the discussion (when I can). And, as an intermediate learner, I frequently want to ask questions, but because of what I perceive this site to be, I almost never do. Therefore, I engage the monolingual dictionaries in mortal combat to find the answer (at least that’s what it feels like). But sometimes that’s not even enough. Look at my question here. I spent a good 3 to 4 hours researching this because it bugged me (and that’s the type of person I am), I even had the exact page on Treccani, referenced in that question, open. Throwing my hands up in defeat, I asked my question, and was presented with the exact same page, and the passage that I had read at least twice. My hacky command of the language wasn’t enough to find it.

Most of the questions that I see downvoted (not all, some are legit please-translate-for-me questions, or other frowned-upon types) I feel are in this intermediate bucket. The person understands enough of the language to ask the question, but while they could (or maybe can’t) use a monolingual dictionary, it feels more like a fight than something useful.

That sets up the environment that this site isn’t for intermediates (which one would think is where most people committed to learning a language would remain for the longest amount of time), which I think not only leads to this disagreement, is part of the culture of language-learning sites in general and why they remain in Beta for so long. I pay for a tutor every week that I just save all my questions for in the interim (among other things, not solely for this), because I feel like the reception here would be hostile, except in the rare, certain, circumstances that I think it might be acceptable.**

In summary, I’d love to participate in this community more often; I can’t deny that I love learning this language. But I feel blocked by my own inability to do the research required. And in that case, I support what @DenisNardin indicates above. I’m a stickler for the rules, so when I see people say “not enough effort put forth”, I just nod my head and accept the norm. But I admit I would like to see that changed, and let the whip not crack so harshly on those who want to learn, but their effort may not be so visible. I, for one, would ask more questions.

**I'm not saying this site is doing this on purpose. This site contains some of the most helpful people I've ever encountered on the SE network. I want to list out all the people that've helped me, but I would feel afraid to leave someone out. I feel this behavior has more to do with the application-of-policy than anything else.

  • Your question about the Nume protettor was a very good example of post about something very precise, with a description of your attempts and leads (a reference work, a native speaker, a different interpretation) and a specific question. I'd like to see and upvote many more questions like that. – DaG Jun 4 '18 at 23:17
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    Thank you for answering! I, personally, would love to see more questions from you, even if they are more basic. What do you think we could do to be more welcoming to intermediate learners? – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 5:13
  • @DaG, I mentioned that question because I did consult with a monolingual dictionary (Treccani), I perused or read the very same passage that had my answer, but my level in Italian was not high enough to see it. Normally, I wouldn't have minded if I failed to find it, but because it was in the dictionary, the very dictionary I had been searching in -- and "consult-the-dictionary" has been the dictum here, it felt like I had wasted people's time rather than asked a meaningful question. And if one feels like they're wasting time from people who help them, one tends not to ask for it. – Marco Jun 5 '18 at 15:11
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    @DenisNardin I'm no expert on policy, but what I would suggest would be to keep the (check-dictionary-first) rule in place, but to apply it less-strictly. I think if you remove the rule completely, then you will get a flood of questions that I think are inappropriate for this site, where even a bilingual dictionary, for example, would suffice. If we give learners the benefit of the doubt, and take the Math.SE approach and ask, if it's not obvious, "What have you tried?" before downvoting, that could promote a meaningful response that shows that effort was attempted, before just asking. 1/2 – Marco Jun 5 '18 at 15:16
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    @DenisNardin In my view, intermediate learners should have to demonstrate that they have made an attempt to find the answer. That idea is core to the SE philosophy. But, that attempt does not have to be a monolingual dictionary IF it is out of their grasp to comprehend it. 2/2 – Marco Jun 5 '18 at 15:20
  • @Marco Thank you for your time. I'll have to chew on it and think about what, if anything, we can do as moderators to improve the environment. – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 16:12


For intermediate learners, monoligual dictionaries are probably not the answer, but they may be the source of excellent questions.

In my opinion, this kind of questions posted by learners should not be dismissed. I think they shoudn't either be downvoted. But I must admit that, in these posts, I have sometimes written comments in favour of usage of monoligual dictionaries or upvoted comments of other users who were asking to the OP if he or she had consulted a dictionary: I would try to explain why. I'm really upset if, as a consequence, some users felt in the way explained by Marco, so I believe that, in the future, we should be more careful with the way we say things in comments so that users don't feel their questions are not welcome in this site.

As a language learner (not only of Italian, also of other languages), I have always found that, even if I was not able to understand everything that was on them, monoligual dictionaries gave me learning opportunities that I couldn't find on bilingual dictionaries. For instance, they gave me lots of examples of usage of words or expressions that I couldn't find on bilingual dictionaries, at least the ones that were accessible to me (I'm writing in past tense because I'm trying to immagine myself as an intermediate level student or even as a beginner of a romance language). For this reason, I would like to encourage intermediate learners to use monoligual dictionaries. To encourage, not to feel forced to do it because I can understand that learning experiences of other people may be different from mine.

In addition to that, my point of view is that usage of monoligual dictionaries by intermediate users can often improve the quality of questions or can even produce new interesting ones. By no means I would expect from a learner to struggle with monoligual dictionaries so that the conclusion would be something like "well, after spending a lot of time on dictionaries, I think I have found myself the answer, so there is no need to ask a question on the site". This is not what I mean to suggest and I'm really sorry if someone has interpreted my comments in that way in the past. Using the words of Marco, I believe it's not a good idea to give the impression that these "hang-ups" of intermediate learners that "have the potential to be great types of questions to other intermediates who usually go through the same motions" have no room to be asked here just because the answer can be potentially found elsewhere. But I also think it would be perfect if some questions on this site contain something similar to this:

  • I had a look at this dictionary, but I'm not able to understand what is explained on it and this is the reason why I ask this question.
  • ‎After consulting this dictionary, it seems to me that ... . But I'm not completely sure if I understood that correctly, so I would like to ask ...
  • ‎I found this example on this dictionary that seems to suggest that one has to use that preposition with that construction or with that verb, but I wonder if other prepositions can also be used.
  • ‎I found this example on this dictionary, but then I came across to this text in which this is slightly different and I wonder if this is an error.
  • ‎I found this example on this dictionary that attracted my attention, but I don't understand it. So could you please explain it to me?
  • ‎I have found these examples of usage of this construction on that dictionary, but I would like to have some more examples from native speakers.
  • ‎This dictionary seems to suggest that these two constructions have exactly the same meaning, but I wonder if there are some subtle nuances between them.
  • ‎...

I don't mean with that that every good question posted by an intermediate learner must necessarily refer to a research on a dictionary. I began to participate in this site as an intermediate level autodidact student and you can see that I posted lots of questions with do not mention any dictionary at all. I don't know if they are good questions, but at least most of them weren't downvoted. Moreover, I agree with what is said by Denis: even if an answer or some information related to a question can potentially be found on a dictionary, it may be not obvious knowing which word to look up on it.

Finally, I think we should be careful not to give messages that can sound paternalistic such as something similar to "if you are a beginner, you don't need to wonder about this kind of things" (that can even continue with something worse: "so, at the time being, don't worry if you don't understand the answer we are giving to you; once you have learnt enough, you can come back to the site and you will probably understand it"). I remember my perplexity when a user told me something like "as a native speaker, I have never used these words; so, since you are a stranger, you don't need to learn how to use them properly".


I would like to add something that I think doesn't answer directly @DenisNardin question. But, since we are discussing about this here (I think we are addressing many different topics in the answers that go beyond the question), I feel I have to do it. In my opinion, we should be extremely careful when accusing a self-learner of being lazy just because he or she didn't explain the research he/she has done before asking in the body of the question. I mean, I believe we should carefully avoid doing this unless we are completely sure that this person hasn't do any research at all about the subject of the question. From my experience, it can simply be that such a research it's really difficult to explain. Keep in mind that an autodidact is someone who has learnt everything he/she knows about the language researching for hours, days or even years, so it can be sometimes extremely difficult to explain the research he or she has done about an specific subject. When I began to participate in this site, I had been learning Italian as an autodidact for years. After years of learning in that way (that is, after years of personal research on many aspects of the language), I found myself with some doubts about some specific points, so I began to ask them on this site. But I can assure you I was completely unable to explain my previous research on that topics.

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    I like this idea a lot. Your example phrases, maybe, could even be added to our own "how-to-ask" section: that while consulting a dictionary is preferred, if you are able, please mention why it either didn't work, or what is the reason for your confusion. If we know where people are getting stuck -- we might be able to provide better answers. And encourage people to ask more questions, that are qualified in that way. – Marco Jun 5 '18 at 15:24


I think this question on German SE serves as a prime example. The OP does not provide any information about his "research effort" whatsoever -- about what he managed to find out on his own about the word "danach". However:

1) This question was picked up as a Hot Network Question -- presumably by one of SE's employees. If the question had been deemed inappropriate due to "the lack of research effort", SE would not have featured the question in the first place.

2) The question garnered nearly 3,000 views, but not a single person, including moderators, complained about the lack of research effort. Not a single downvote, or a closing vote in sight, either.

However, if it had been me who had recently posted the exact same question here on Italian SE, I would have been accused of not doing enough research or showing it. Quite contradictory.

So basically, the kind of question which was problem-free on another language site on SE has been regarded as "substandard" this time here on Italian SE.

I believe that showing your research effort in each and every one of your questions should not be foisted upon OPs by long-standing members, because the criteria/interpretation of what is considered to be "lacking in research effort" can be quite arbitrary.

The SE's "research effort" clause is intended to discourage the homework-help type of frivolous questions to begin with. For serious questions like mine to be dismissed as "substandard" because "you can supposedly solve them on your own just by consulting monolingual dictionaries"... when in fact it is not the case at all...

This kind of pushing-away attitude only serves to make the act of asking questions unnecessarily difficult, thereby alienating new members in the process. Just because an OP (like myself) usually does not elaborate on their research effort in their questions, it does not mean that they have not done enough research in advance.

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    In my experience all SE site, especially the language ones, consider preliminary research as an essential feature. By providing a few links showing what you’ve found is a good staring point for other users to help (saying that you’ve done that without showing anything is not the same thing). If we want this site to improve and attract more visitors reliable sources, both in question but also in answers should be regularly cited and posted. – user519 Jun 6 '18 at 5:47
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    @Gio: I don't think all language SE sites are really being so strict. If you are able to understand some Spanish, see this Spanish.SE Meta discussion. They are considering that, since they are a Beta site, the most important thing is not to scare users so that they don't come back to ask again. – Charo Jun 6 '18 at 7:29
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    @Charo - ELL (English for learners) surely is, though there may be exceptions for learners who are at a very early stage. Anyway I understand the “ not to scare” beginners issue. I’m just afraid that questions and answers simply based on personal unresearched material may have a negative impact on the perception of the quality of the site, scaring away other users. Maybe it is just my impression. – user519 Jun 6 '18 at 7:50
  • @Gio: In fact, they are discussing about this question which asks about something that, at least at first look, it seems easily answerable by looking to a Spanish monoligual dictionary. But then the answer goes beyond what is explained on dictionaries, so it produces something interesting for the site. – Charo Jun 6 '18 at 8:10
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    Notice that there is a comment asking to the OP: "what research have you done about this?" But they don't say "you should use a monolingual dictionary" (in fact, the OP answer with a comment saying that he or she has consulted a dictionary). – Charo Jun 6 '18 at 8:10
  • @Gio: And it seems to me that "Sharing your research helps everyone" means "it's advisable to explain your research in the body of the question" and not "it is strictly necessary that you explain your research in the body of the question, otherwise that will be closed". I don't think that a question is bad for the site just because it doesn't explain the research the OP has done before asking. And if we are going to be so strict, we should now close lots of the questions that have already been asked on this site. To begin with, some of me. – Charo Jun 6 '18 at 8:37
  • @Alone-zee: May I ask you: are you a self-learner? – Charo Jun 6 '18 at 10:15
  • @Charo Yes! I've never learnt any foreign language in an official setting such as a university -- except for the first 3 langues that I have been speaking natively since I was little. I've always learnt the other 7 languages online by self-teaching -- and I hasten to add, with the aid of my friends, colleagues, ahd girlfriend. As for Italian, I have one Italian friend here in Japan that I can speak with regularly. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jun 6 '18 at 10:46
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    @Alone-zee: Mmmm... Based on my experience as a self-learner, I think I would add something about this to my answer. Because I think it's really unfair to accuse an autodidact of being lazy just based on the way he or she wrote a question, when it's someone who has learnt everything he/she knows researching for hours or days. – Charo Jun 6 '18 at 11:05
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    I would say that the goal of this is not to show that you've done the effort, but in precisely explaining what you don't undertstand. In most cases that demonstrates that you've done the work. For example, asking about the difference between two words, in general, is not appropriate, because in theory you could look them up and find that "difference", in a bilingual dictionary, monolingual, or otherwise. 1/3 – Marco Jun 6 '18 at 14:50
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    But if you explain say, that you understand that word A means this, and that word B means that, and you think the difference is X, someone can help you and they see that you've done the effort without you explicitly stating it. Just saying "I don't understand." means no one will have any clue as to where you're hung up on, and therefore, that no one will know in what way or in what manner to answer. 2/3 – Marco Jun 6 '18 at 14:51
  • I think the issue is not whether you need to show that you've done your effort. I would emphatically disagree that that rule should be struck. The issue is whether a monolingual dictionary should always be consulted for these types of questions, and that is where I do not agree (for the reasons in my answer). But saying that an OP doesn't have to prove that they've done the work, to me is ridiculous. They may not have to outright state it, but then it should be clearly evident somehow in their phrasing of the question. 3/3 – Marco Jun 6 '18 at 14:53
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    @Alone-zee I might be. I'm prone to misinterpretation. Please give me the opportunity to clarify: are you saying that when you say "I believe that showing your research effort in each and every one of your questions should not be foisted upon OPs by long-standing members, because..." that OPs don't have to do any effort, or that long-standing members should not ask them to prove it? Either way, I disagree. Unless there's another way to interpret that (please let me know if that's the case), my points above were specifically written in response to it. – Marco Jun 6 '18 at 16:26
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    @Marco I'm afraid you are heavily misinterpreting the gist of my post, because you seem to be saying that you don't agree with something I don't assert myself. I'm not discounting the importance of showing one's research or consulting monolingual dictionaries, either. Not at all. It's all about flexibility, as Charo points out, too. At any rate, no matter what one's thoughts are on this matter, the hard fact remains that excessively sticking to the idea of "showing one's research" in every single post is not the mainstream here on SE. Otherwise, 80% of the questions on SE would be closed. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jun 6 '18 at 16:27

My recurrent objection to some questions is indeed that it could be answered “just by looking at a (monolingual) dictionary”, but it's actually more than this. Looking at a dictionary (monolingual if possible, bilingual else) should be the first step in any doubt about a word, but of course it is not necessarily the last one. What I find debatable, and contrary to the norms of SE sites, is when one appears not even having taken that first, simple step (or other obvious ones: searching previous answered questions, looking up a grammar, even Googling it, for easy, uncontroversial facts).

This is not just about being a stickler for the rules (which, anyhow, would not be a bad thing): it's more about making themselves understood.

Let me make an admittedly simplified example. Say, I ask:

What does vite mean in Italian?

This, I hope, is in everybody's opinion a censurable question under every point of view, since a 1-minute browsing of a dictionary would convey much of what is to be known about the word vite.

I know that vite means “grapevine”, but I am reading a text about two wooden boards kept together by a vite. What can that possibly mean?

This is just slightly better. On the one hand, it shows a modicum of research and gives a modicum of context, enabling a useful answer. On the other hand, however, it would denote too cursory a perusal of a dictionary: the imaginary OP would have missed much of what any dictionary has to say about vite.

The minimum acceptable effort, in my opinion, would be in a question like:

I know that vite means both “grapevine” and “screw”, but I stumbled about this word in the sentence Bisogna studiare le vite dei grandi uomini, and I understand that the rest is about studying great men. I suspect that neither of the above meanings of vite is correct here, and that it involves a form of some other word beginning in vit-. A verb? Another noun? Can anyone help?

This could come from a beginning student, who is still struggling with elementary morphology, but I'd be inclined to accept and, in fact, welcome such a question.

Showing one's research, of course, doesn't mean giving a lengthy and boring report of all reference works and websites one has perused, all the dead ends one has arrived at and so on, but rather showing what one already positively knows and what exactly one needs to know.

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    I quite agree with your last paragraph but, at the same time, when a question is not showing what you are saying, I think we should be more careful with the way we express this on comments, so that the OP doesn't have the impression that his or her question is not welcome. We should give positive constructive messages. Something that sounds as "we are trying to help you to write your question in such a way that we can give you an answer that is really helpful to you". – Charo Jun 5 '18 at 11:34
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    I am not so sure that looking in a monolingual dictionary is a necessary first step. For a person fluent with the language, sure, but for a language learner? And let's not kid ourselves: most of the people asking questions on this site are language learners. While we should absolutely encourage the usage of monolingual dictionaries, pushing them as a condition sine qua non seems a step too far to me. – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 11:46
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    I see, @DenisNardin, but, first, my answer stands as it is even removing “monolingual”: there are often questions whose authors don't appear to have looked anywhere before asking here. And, second, I'd urge anybody to begin using a monolingual dictionary as early as possible (see for an example of the issues with bilingual dictionaries this question by the above-answering Marco). – DaG Jun 5 '18 at 12:33
  • You are perfectly right, @Charo, and my impatience shows one more reason why I wouldn't make a good moderator. :) – DaG Jun 5 '18 at 12:34
  • @DenisNardin: Oh, but “monolingual” in the title is a recent change: I was afraid I had missed it. – DaG Jun 5 '18 at 12:38
  • @DaG: When I said "we should be more careful" that includes me. – Charo Jun 5 '18 at 12:39
  • @DaG It was only present in the body of the question, I decided to add it to the title because people seemed to overlook it :). Also I think this has little bearing with you possible skills as a moderator... – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 12:41
  • @DaG: I wouldn't urge anyone to do that, but try to convince learners that consulting monoligual dictionaries may be really useful to them. – Charo Jun 5 '18 at 12:45
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    @DaG My question that you linked is exactly why I understand your position, and don't entirely disagree with it. A monolingual dictionary would definitely have been able to answer my question -- but at that stage in my learning, there was no way I would've been able to interpret the nuanced difference that I was "somewhat" seeing. If there was a monolingual dictionary with a "simple" vocabulary (like a primary school dictionary) this would be a different story, but Treccani and others don't strike me as elementary in the slightest. – Marco Jun 5 '18 at 15:30
  • @Marco As a matter of fact we had a question asking exactly for such a dictionary but I suspect it doesn't exist (in primary school I used the Devoto-Oli, which is a fully fledged dictionary squarely aimed at native speakers) – Denis Nardin Jun 5 '18 at 16:10
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    @Marco: There are several dictionaries for children (for instance the Zanichelli Junior, for lower secondary school), but I haven't a clue whether they are useful for an adult learner. – DaG Jun 5 '18 at 16:18
  • For instance, Zanichelli Junior claims “La scelta delle parole è basata sui manuali scolastici; le definizioni sono semplici anche quando esprimono concetti complessi; gli esempi chiariscono l’uso del termine all’interno di un contesto”. – DaG Jun 5 '18 at 16:19
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    @DaG I will certainly look into it, because I've been searching for very such a thing. I tend to get better results from books from primary or secondary school in Italy, than books written for adult english-speakers learning Italian. – Marco Jun 6 '18 at 14:59
  • @Marco: I've just discovered a monolingual Italian learner's dictionary that may interest you. See my answer here. – Charo Aug 16 '18 at 8:55
  • @DenisNardin: As an answer to your previous comment, it seems that at least there exists this one. – Charo Aug 16 '18 at 8:59

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