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#10. Should I use a dictionary?

Updated: Aug 28

The answer is yes, but in moderation and choosing your dictionary carefully.

First things first, do not use Google Translate. It is not an online dictionary created by lexicographers, who know about languages, translation, or grammar, but algorithms, which means that beyond the very basic translation of a simple word, it cannot cope with proper translation, nor is it meant to.

I recommend searching for the online version of an already established dictionary, for example, The Collins English/French Dictionary or The Collins English/Italian Dictionary. WordReference is also an excellent online dictionary with 20 languages.

Secondly, be careful not to overuse your dictionary. Most of my students obsess over the fact that they don't know all the words in the language they're learning. They forget that they're not meant to go from not knowing any words to knowing them all, and that you can still speak, even if you don't have all the words you need at your disposal.

How? you might ask. The answer is, by finding a way to communicate the idea instead. For example, you want to say 'the sea' in the language you're learning, but don't have the word for it. Then instead of rushing to a dictionary, how about saying 'the place where I swim on holiday' or just giving the name of a sea, 'The Mediterranean', for example? At which point, the person you're talking to will answer 'ah! 'La mer' or 'ah! Il mare', if they're Italian, and you will never forget that word, because you've learnt it in context.

By reaching every time for the dictionary, you're preventing yourself from actually finding a plan B to say what you want to say, and you run the risk of being entirely dependent on a dictionary when 90% of the time, you can figure out something else to say.

As I always tell my students, you're not a translator. Your job isn't to translate a sentence from English into the language you're learning. Your job is to convey an idea with the language you have.

I also tell them, that using a dictionary when you can already speak is akin to using a walking stick, instead of stretching a muscle that's been unused. At one point, you need to leave the stick behind and accept that, initially, you're going to walk slowly and that, the more walking you do, the quicker your pace will be!

Finally, searching for the translation of a word in a dictionary can end up complicating things needlessly. Some words have short entries, with one or two meanings, others have three to four-page entries (see the entry for 'make' and 'do' in the English dictionary, for example).

Navigating those, especially as a beginner, can be both daunting and confusing. I always know when students have used a dictionary when writing their sentences, because they end up using the word in the wrong context, which is something that only students with a deeper knowledge of the language can avoid doing.

So only reach for the dictionary if you're entirely stuck, if there's no other way for you to communicate. Ask yourself first if there is another way to say what you want to say. There always is.

More about my teaching approach

Don't hesitate to send me your questions.

#1. Is it too late to learn a language?

#2. Not knowing the word is not the end of the conversation

#3. Is learning vocabulary lists a good idea?

#4. Should I use bilingual books?

#5. Practising all four skills equally

#6. On the importance of making mistakes

#7. You know more than you think you do

#8. Can everyone learn a language?

#9. With or without subtitles?

#10. Should I use a dictionary?

#11. What's the main obstacle when learning a language?

#12. There's no such thing as perfect sentences

#13. Learning French when English is your mother tongue

#14. Listening is key

#15. Language learning does not mean translating

#16. The right tools to learn a language

#17. Why grammar matters

#18. Leaving your linguistic comfort zone behind

#19. About rote learning

#20. Assessing your own level

#21. Language learning is pattern spotting

#22. Key skills you need to learn a language

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