How To Use A Dictionary When You’re Learning A New Language

You may already have a foreign-language dictionary lying around that you haven’t touched in years. Here’s how to get your money’s worth out of it.
woman reading a book

When was the last time you used a foreign language dictionary? Not a website, not an app, but an actual, physical dictionary. If you’re like most people, it’s probably been a while. What use is a foreign language dictionary when you can use your phone to translate any word at any time? Used the right way, however, they can become an invaluable resource in your learning.

Chances are, if you’ve taken a foreign language class before, you probably have a dictionary floating around somewhere. If so, go find it and blow the dust off that bad boy. And if you don’t have one, there are plenty of Spanish–English, French–English or whatever-other-language-you-need–English dictionaries out there for cheap. Once you’ve acquired one, use these tricks to aid your language studies!

Looking Things Up In A Foreign Language Dictionary

Yeah, yeah, this is obvious, but we’re going to start with it anyway. Never underestimate the sheer value of looking up a word you don’t know in a foreign language dictionary.

While just googling “[foreign word] in English” is a quick and easy way to find out what a word means, you probably won’t remember it that well in the future. Taking the time to actually open a book, find a word and read the definition a few times will help cement the word in your memory.

Dictionaries also have the advantage of being more detailed than, say, Google Translate. When you plug a foreign word into the internet for translation, what you get in return is a single word that is supposed to be its English equivalent. This, however, doesn’t give you all the subtleties of a word. How do you actually use it? Does the word have grammatical gender? Are there other possibilities for how it’s translated? All of these are things you can learn from a good old-fashioned dictionary.

Creating Your Own Personal Dictionary

Looking words up as you need them is great, but an even better tool is making a personal dictionary. What this means is that whenever you encounter a word you don’t know — whether it be in a movie, in a podcast or in a book — you look it up and write the definition down in a notebook.

There are a few benefits to keeping a personal dictionary. First, writing things down is a proven method for remembering things better. Second, you can keep track of the words that you’re actually encountering regularly and refer back. And third, it’s a great way to keep track of your language-learning process. In the beginning, you might be adding dozens of words to your notebook every day, but over time the number of words you encounter that you don’t know will decrease.

If you want to really push yourself, don’t just write down the English definition you find in the dictionary. Instead, try to write the definition for the foreign-language word in that language. That way, you’re not just translating from language to language in your head, but really engaging with your target language.

Checking Out The Example Sentence, Part of Speech And Pronunciation

Another great benefit to dictionaries is that they’ll often provide subsidiary information. A direct translation is alright, but seeing how it actually works in a sentence is much better. You can also get the pronunciation, part of speech and other information.

Chances are, even if you’ve used a dictionary a number of times, you’ve never read the little section at the front that explains exactly how the dictionary works. There are a lot of choices that go into making a dictionary to fit in as much information as possible, so reading the beginning of the dictionary will give you insight into how the definitions work (how much information does it provide? does it give you conjugations?). It may sound silly, but it can help you quite a bit.

Using The Phrases Section

Every foreign-language dictionary is different, and so all of the layouts are different. Very many of them, however, will include a phrases section at the beginning or end. This section is your friend.

The phrases section is a break from the alphabetical word translations in the rest of the dictionary. In this section, phrases are organized by topic. If you’re on vacation and need to figure out how to ask for the check, pull out your dictionary, find the “At A Restaurant” phrase section, and the answer will be there. If you need to ask for directions, pull out that dictionary again to search for the magic words.

In an ideal world, by the time you need to speak the language, you’ll already have all the words in your head. But if you’re having a tough time recalling something and it’s right on the tip of your tongue, the dictionary is there to help you out. It’s your key to having fuller and better conversations, and it’ll aid you on your language-learning journey.

Go beyond the dictionary.
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