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Finding the right foreign language dictionary (2)


Choosing the right foreign language dictionary: The basics | Putting a bilingual dictionary to the test
Types of language dictionaries: Bilingual vs. monolingual | From unabridged to pocket-size | Electronic & online

Putting a foreign language dictionary to the test

The following evaluation methods for foreign language dictionaries assume that learners are trying to develop both receptive and productive proficiencies: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Bilingual dictionaries contain various features that help learners both understand and produce language.

Note that the examples for the tests described below are given for English. You should do the same types of tests in the foreign language portion of the dictionary to make sure both languages are treated with equal thoroughness.


1. The greater the number of entries and translations, the better.

Look to see how many words the dictionary says it contains. This information can usually be found on the outside front or back cover of a dictionary or in the introduction. Because the number of words in a language differs so much from language to language, it is difficult to give an exact number of words as the minimum range necessary for a dictionary to be effective, but it should certainly be in the 10s of 1000s at the very least. Depending on the language you are learning, a good dictionary might very easily contain 100s of 1000s of words.

In addition to seeing how many words a dictionary contains, look up some common or useful words (e.g. make, live, shower, full) and examine the listings to see if it contains all the meanings and phrases you might expect.

As you might have surmised, pocket dictionaries won't pass this test. They tend to be quite limited in scope and usually don't provide enough information about word usages to be effective.

2. A good foreign language dictionary is easy to understand.

Now look more specifically at 8 to 10 words at random and examine the meanings listed under each one. Are they easy to understand? Are the differences among various usages clear enough?

Which ever dictionary you choose, it is essential for you to familiarize yourself with the notation your dictionary uses. Look in the introduction or the inside covers for a list of abbreviations employed in the entries. Is the system clear? Does the dictionary employ different type-faces for easy recognition of various information?

3. In a good foreign language dictionary, word forms and derived words and word groups are easy to find.

Check some entries with irregular derivations (e.g. shear > shorn, make > made) to see whether they are listed along with the word from which they are derived, whether they are separate entries, or both. Are they easy to find? If they are listed separately, are there cross references pointing to the derivations? Make sure that important word forms are listed, particularly where they are irregular and unpredictable (e.g. child > children, goose > geese, shine > shone) and that they are not difficult to find.

In addition, check for common idioms. For example, when you look up sit, do you also find sit down, sit up, and sit it out? Or when you look under the entry for weather, do you find under the weather and to weather the storm? And if you look up storm, do you also find the idiom to weather the storm there as well? Good dictionaries should list such common idioms under each of their main parts.

4. In a good foreign language dictionary, entries are organized in a way that is easy to use.

Check 8 to 10 entries at random. Are the most common meanings listed first for each word?

Also look at several entries to determine whether related words that are different parts of speech have separate entries or clear sub-entries. For example, if you look up value, is it clearly listed as both a noun and a verb? Is the word valued, which is an adjective, also easy to locate?

5. A good foreign language dictionary contains helpful examples of usage.

Check some entries at random to confirm that the there are sufficient examples of usage so that you will understand exactly how the word may be used. For instance, when you look up decision, is the common phrase to make a decision given? Or when you look up kite, do you find to fly a kite under the listing?

Also check for useful example sentences. For example, if you look up knock, several examples of how it might be used should be provided.


If you know the International Phonetic Alphabet, another important feature to look for is a pronunciation guide. Many dictionaries include a phonetic transcription of each entry. This is especially important for languages that are not written phonetically, making the pronunciation of its vocabulary words largely unpredictable.

These guidelines should help you to identify how useful a dictionary really is. An example of a dictionary entry that passes these tests is included on our introductory page about choosing a foreign language dictionary.



Source consulted: Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, by I.S.P. Nation, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Choosing the right foreign language dictionary: The basics | Putting a bilingual dictionary to the test
Types of language dictionaries: Bilingual vs. monolingual | From unabridged to pocket-size | Electronic & online


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