How to use a foreign language dictionary to learn faster and improve your style

How to use a foreign language dictionary to learn faster and improve your style

We’ve all used a dictionary, whether it was to look up an unfamiliar word in our mother tongue, or a translation in a foreign language. But, like any tool, dictionaries have the potential to do more harm than good if not used properly.

Let’s look at some of the common types of dictionaries and how to best leverage them in your studies!

Bilingual dictionaries

Level: Beginner–Advanced
Use: Look up vocabulary translations

A bilingual dictionary offers direct translations between two different languages. It is an indispensable tool for any serious language learner, and there are still significant benefits to using a paper one over a digital version.

In a good bilingual dictionary, you can find the following:

  • translation of a word in your native language
  • correct spelling and pronunciation of a word grammatical information about a word
  • the register (level of formality) of a word example sentences and expressions

When to use a bilingual dictionary

If you resort to a dictionary for every new word you see or hear, you’ll quickly burn out and cease to enjoy using the language. Efficient language self-learners are careful to choose which words to look up, and the right time to do so.

When you come across a word you don’t understand, keep reading until the end of the sentence, or better yet, the paragraph ☝️ If by the end of the passage the word still seems important, and you still haven’t guessed its meaning, go look it up.

Similarly, when you hear a new word in class or presentation, keep listening. What the speaker says next may give you more context and clarify the word’s meaning. If the word appears important, quickly jot it down and later ask your teacher or a fellow student.

It’s also an indispensable tool to find the correct word in your target language. Say you want to find out how to say ‘jumper’ in Italian.

Tips on using a bilingual dictionary

One word can have several translations

Vocabulary in different languages rarely matches one-to-one. An example often quoted as an illustration is the Inuit language, which, allegedly, has over fifty nuanced words for ‘snow’. Worse yet, a foreign word can encompass several meanings that are mutually incompatible in English:

Entry for 青い (blue) from the Japanese-English dictionary Weblio.

Does the Japanese word 青い (aoi) mean blue or green? 🤔 You’ll be hard pressed to answer the question without looking at some example sentences:

Example sentences for 青い (blue) from the Japanese-English dictionary Tangorin.

Ah, that’s better, 青い means green in the context of traffic lights, but blue when you’re talking about the sky... Looks like a tricky word to use correctly. It would probably be worth discussing its usage with a native speaker, or reading up on the Japanese perception of colours.

A word can be untranslatable

Some languages have more nuanced vocabulary than others, and some use complex grammar patterns to convey a meaning of just one English noun. Russian, for example, may resort to diminutives rather than adjectives to convey emotional context.

Entry for ‘dépaysement’ from the French-English dictionary Wiktionary.

“In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.” — From "The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust", by Tiffany Watt Smith

That’s certainly a word I can relate to! I might just start using it in English... 😆

One word can belong to different parts of speech

Many English words can act as nouns, verbs and adjectives. This is however, much less common in many other languages.

Entry for ‘best’ from the Russian-English dictionary Academic.

In the abbreviated example above, the English word best maps to different Russian adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs.

Grammar words can be misleading

Words that are more a matter of grammar than vocabulary are best learned outside of a traditional dictionary. One of the best examples are prepositions. You might think finding the translation for the French à, for example, would be straightforward, but that is not the case:

  • Elle est à Paris. — She’s in Paris.
  • Elle va à Londres. — She’s going to Tokyo.
  • Elle est à la banque. — She's at the bank.
  • Elle prend de l'eau à la rivière. — She’s getting some water from the river.
  • Elle a une robe à manches. — She has a dress with sleeves.

In cases like this a bilingual dictionary is just not enough, as it is necessary to learn the relevant grammar patterns before you can use the word correctly.

Fixed expressions break the rules

Fixed expressions, or groups of words that are always used together can add further difficulty to learning new words. Individual words in these expressions can gain a completely different meaning or even refuse to obey any grammatical rules!

For example, in English, we can ‘push’ a button, a stake, or a wheelbarrow, but in French, all three would use a different verb 😮

Entry for ‘to press’ from the French-English dictionary Le Grand Robert & Collins

A good dictionary will have a list of nouns paired with each verb, and some example sentences for context, but it's impossible to make the list exhaustive.

Additionally, unless the dictionary has an extensive list of good example sentences with translations, you may not always be getting the word that you’re looking for. Asking somebody how old they are in Japanese isn’t as simple as looking up the word for ‘old’ or ‘how’. You may not know that the correct way to ask somebody’s age is いくつですか?without reference to an external source.

Monolingual dictionaries

Level: Intermediate–Advanced
Use: Look up same-language definitions

Monolingual dictionaries provide definitions in the same languages as the words you’re looking up.

Entry for the antagonym ‘sanction’ from Merriam-Webster.

You can use a monolingual dictionary to look up:

  • the definition of a word
  • correct spelling and pronunciation of a word
  • grammatical information about a word
  • the register (formality) of a word
  • examples sentences and expressions

Although we don’t support the popular position that students should switch to monolingual dictionaries exclusively early on in their studies, they do have some unquestionable benefits for language self-study.

Monolingual definitions, especially in dictionaries adapted to second language learners, are written using easier vocabulary than the target keyword ✍️ This gives you an opportunity to review vocabulary in context and with a clear goal, two key ingredients for long-term retention.

Starting to use a monolingual dictionary can be a daunting tasks, so here are some tips for making the transition.

Tips on using a monolingual dictionary

Find a dictionary adapted to self-learners

There are two types of monolingual dictionaries: those adapted to native speakers, and those for foreign language learners. If possible, try to get hold of the latter version as it will have simpler definitions, and in case of Asian languages, furigana/pinyin (Chinese character readings).

Start with simple words on the tip of your tongue

To dip your toe in, start by using monolingual dictionaries for easy words that you’ve mastered a long time ago, but struggle to remember now. By the way, having a personal vocabulary book 📙 where you write the words that were difficult to remember or understand for you is a great idea, you will be able to remember them more easily when writing them down and have material for your thesauri use.

Use monolingual dictionaries to pick the right definition

Early on, we recommend using monolingual dictionaries together with their bilingual counterparts. As we’ve discussed above, very often a single word in your mother language can have several definitions in the one you’re learning.

A great way to figure out which of the available translations fits your needs is to look them up in a monolingual dictionary and peruse the detailed descriptions.

Use bilingual example sentences with monolingual definitions

To get more comfortable using a monolingual dictionary, start using it to look up new words, but continue to refer back to bilingual example sentences. Think of them as training wheels that give you the confidence to go forward 🚲

Thesauri

Level: Beginner–Advanced
Main use: Look up related vocabulary

Once you reach the intermediate level in your target language and start writing longer texts (or poetry!), you’ll want to get a third type of dictionary, called a thesaurus.

A thesaurus doesn’t give you detailed definitions or much insight into grammar and usage, but instead lists vocabulary related to a target keyword.

The entry for 言う (to say) from the Japanese thesaurus goo.

In a good thesaurus, you can find:

  • synonyms (words with the same meaning, ex. drunk and sober)
  • antonyms (words with an opposite meaning, ex. enormous, huge, gigantic)
  • homonyms (same reading but different meaning, ex. write and right)
  • related vocabulary with a broader or narrower meaning

A thesaurus is an indispensable tool, especially for languages relying on a wide range of nuanced vocabulary, such as English or Chinese.

Tips on using a thesaurus

Always look up definitions after using a thesaurus

It’s very tempting to open a thesaurus, pick a word from the list of synonyms, and call it a day. But some of the synonyms can be archaic, too casual, or make no sense in the context of what you’re trying to say! ☝️

The only reliable solution is to look up the definition of every word that seems promising in a monolingual dictionary. After some time you might find yourself guessing which word will fit your need best before confirming with a monolingual dictionary, but when you do take the time to look it up you are working towards making it your active vocabulary!

Online thesauri can save you time

There are many benefits to all online dictionaries, from pronunciation audio, to handwritten lookup, but it is the thesaurus that has benefited the most of digitisation.

Unlike in a traditional paper dictionary, where you’d be presented with a never-ending list of words, its online counterpart allows you to quickly click through to the right context:

The entry for ‘press’ from the English Thesaurus.com.

Even better, you can then filter words based on complexity, length, usage and more:

Once you’ve narrowed down the list, you can then find their definition in a single click!

Grammar dictionaries

Level: Intermediate-Advanced
Main use: Look up grammar patterns

A lesser-known type of dictionary is a grammar reference. Grammar dictionaries are perfect for non-romance languages, since their grammar systems are really what provides the nuance, not the vocabulary.
Entry for あげる (to give) from the Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar.

Unlike French or Italian, where the grammar rules (although sometimes complicated 😬), tend to be consistent no matter what the tone or context, languages such as Japanese use grammar heavily to convey a more subtle meaning. Want to convey to your interlocutor that you’re passing on information that you probably shouldn’t have heard in the first place? A grammar dictionary will tell you of this!

Entry from A Comprehensive Russian Grammar.

A grammar dictionary will help you:

  • grasp the nuance between grammar patterns master exceptions to grammar rules
  • find more formal or casual ways to express yourself

Tips on using a grammar dictionary

Try reading the grammar dictionary like a book, not a reference

Although grammar dictionaries often called reference books, when you want to learn how to say something specific in your target language, a regular textbook is often a better place to find the answer.

Where grammar dictionaries excel, is as a place of discovery of new turns of phrases and nuanced ways of conveying the same information. This is why I prefer to read through them chapter by chapter, or have a peek at a random section every day 🤓, to make my language more expressive and learn to think like a native speaker.

Corpus dictionaries

Level: Advanced
Main use: Look up word usage in context

Very often you'll come across words and expressions that are difficult to use based on dictionary information alone. In such situations, corpus dictionaries are a translator’s best friend 😌

A corpus dictionary allows you to search a word, phrase or expression and then highlights it's in a side-by-side view of professionally translated.

English/Chinese results for ‘“is a dynamic process”’ from Linguee.

Consult a corpus dictionary to find:

  • equivalents of sayings and set expressions
  • translations of seemingly simple words in special contexts

Tips on using a corpus dictionary

Always check the source

See the little warning sign in the screenshot from Linguee? 😒 It means that the particular translation does not come from a verified source and could be wrong.

Even if the source is verified, like most translations from EU organisations, you should still take care to check the original document to see whether the word use matches the context and register of your work.

Look through at least a handful of translations

Especially when translating more culture-specific expressions, browse through the entire list to see how different translators approached the same problem.

In the example above, the same Russian word ‘Бог’ is translated as ‘God’, ‘god’, and ‘Lord’ depending on the publication and context.


Now you know all about dictionaries! What mistakes have you seen people make most often regarding using them?

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