Language Learning: 7 reasons to use a dictionary

Dictionaries are an investment, like good tools!
Dictionaries are an investment, like good tools!

Dictionaries are bulky, heavy, cumbersome, slow, and awkward. Not to mention expensive, at least here in Germany.


And who needs dictionaries these days anyway since we have Google? So much easier and faster to just look up words online, right?


We all pretty much know that just because something is easier and faster, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also better. Getting something from a fast-food joint is easier and faster than cooking a meal, but it’s not optimal nutrition.


I do look up a lot of words on my phone, but I couldn’t even imagine trying to learn a new language without a real paper dictionary, and here are 7 reasons why:



Find useful words that are not in your textbook


You can chance upon all kinds of useful words just paging through the dictionary. Words that you would use in your daily speech but that aren’t in your textbook or haven’t come up in class. You look up the word for “word” in German and find not only “Wort” but all of the related words such as “Wortschatz” (vocabulary – literally it means “word treasure” – I love that!), “wörtlich” (literally) and “Wortspiel” (play-on-words; pun) The basics are all there, in one place, like gold coins in a treasure chest. Isn’t that convenient? Besides, everybody has different interests and since you might want to talk about motorcycles, quilting, or marine biology in your new language, words related to these interests are unlikely to be found in a generic textbook. And the more personalized you make your learning, the more interesting it will be.



Multiple meanings and examples


A good dictionary will list multiple meanings of a word and also give examples of how it’s used in common phrases, including some of the really odd and funny ones. These are the kinds of things that trip you up as a learner. How is someone learning German supposed to know that “das ist mir Wurst” (“that’s sausage to me”) actually means that you couldn’t care less–even if they knew the meaning of each individual word?



Practice a new alphabet


I’ve just started to learn Russian, which is an enormous challenge and very slow-going, and using a dictionary helped with learning the alphabet and spelling of words. My brain is having a hard time accepting the fact that many letters which I recognize, actually designate a completely different sound in Russian and so are also in a different order. But looking up words in Russian and then realizing I’m searching under the “wrong” letter is good practice—also in patience, let me tell you… Obviously this only works if you have some idea of how the word might be spelled and you look it up in your target language. I write down a word from memory in Russian and then look it up in my dictionary to see if I got it right or not.



You find words that amuse you


While browsing through my French dictionary, I chanced upon the word “supercherie”. Now if I had seen that word in a text somewhere, I would have inferred that it was a sort of super superlative form of chérie. Not even close! Chérie means darling but supercherie means hoax, fake, or deception. I thought that was pretty funny and that’s probably why it stuck in my mind. (Not sure how useful that is, but it’s entertaining at any rate, and that’s always a big plus when you’re learning anything new.)



Dictionaries are quiet


They don’t peep or ping or ring while you’re trying to study, and you don’t need an internet connection to use it. You can leave your phone in another room, turn off your computer, and focus on your language learning. This is probably reason enough to get a dictionary, because there is no way you can concentrate if your phone is alerting that you have new messages. True, dictionaries are distracting in and of themselves. But twenty minutes spent leafing through a dictionary looking at all the cool new words you might want to learn is probably more useful than looking at your phone every three minutes…



Find passive vocabulary treasures


Depending on what language you’re learning, just leafing through a dictionary might show how many words you already have in your passive vocabulary. When I first start a new language, I often feel a sense of dread, terror, panic, you name it, when I look at the size of the dictionary. How on earth am I going to learn all these words? Well, I won’t and I don’t need to. I don’t even know all the English words out there. But even so, it feels like an impossible task. So take Russian. I thought there would only be a random word here or there that I would recognize on sight, but once I started to get the hang of the alphabet, I found tons of words that have been borrowed from languages I know. So if I see that there are also words like интернет, эспрессо, стресс, секс, паспорт,супермаркет, фаст-фуд (internet, espresso, stress, sex, passport, supermarket, fast-food) then it kind of calms me down and gives me hope because not every single word is going to be completely abstract to me. (But be aware of the false friends out there—just because it looks and sounds like a word in your own language, doesn’t mean it has the same meaning.)



Develop a scholarly attitude


And if nothing else, a big fat dictionary might make you feel more scholarly, like you’re really taking this seriously! And attitude and how you feel about learning is not to be underestimated when tackling a project as large as this. Dictionaries (literally!) have that kind of weight. It’s like investing in a good tool and it will last for years.




Now these are all just things that I’ve noticed over the years and they aren’t necessarily scientifically proven, except for the part about putting away your phone and other electronic devices. There have been studies done on this and I definitely think this is the most important reason for using a dictionary. Like I said, it might feel slow and awkward at first, if you’re not used to using one, but like everything else, the more you do it, the faster you will get over time.