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Finding the right foreign language dictionary (3)


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

Types of foreign language dictionaries

A foreign language dictionary is an essential tool for speakers and learners of foreign languages. Here we discuss the various types of foreign language dictionaries available and make some recommendations based on current research about language learning about the kinds of dictionaries that work best.



Bilingual vs. monolingual dictionaries

Bilingual dictionaries are dictionaries whose entries are in one language and whose definitions are in another. The most useful bilingual dictionaries are bi-directional. For example, a bilingual French dictionary consisting of English entries with French definitions and French entries with English definitions are far preferable to dictionaries that list words only uni-directionally.

Monolingual dictionaries are dictionaries whose entries and definitions are both in a single language. For instance, a monolingual Spanish dictionary has entry words in Spanish, definitions in Spanish, and all examples in Spanish. Because of this, comprehensive monolingual dictionaries are useful only to very advanced learners of a foreign language. You must have an excellent grasp of the language to be able to interpret definitions, descriptions of usage, and other information in a foreign language.

Even monolingual dictionaries written specifically for beginning learners have limitations. These typically focus on only a controlled set of vocabulary and/or may contain only very simple definitions. Though the advantage to monolingual dictionaries is that it gets learners thinking in the target language only, learners often have difficulties comprehending the information in the entries. When learners are caught up with understanding definitions or examples, the result is frequently frustration rather than learning. Research shows that vocabulary is learned much more effectively when learners use bilingual dictionaries.

Studies in second language acquisition confirm that users prefer bi-directional, bilingual dictionaries and that they are most successful using this type of dictionary.


From unabridged to pocket dictionaries

When buying a bilingual dictionary, remember that the larger the book the more useful information it will contain. Dictionaries that are too small have a very short and limited useful life, particularly as your language skills advance past the beginner level. For that reason, we recommend getting the largest dictionary you can for your purposes. The larger comprehensive or unabridged foreign language dictionaries make excellent home reference tools.

At the same time, we know that it's not practical to carry around a 2000-page book on your European backpacking trip or in your book bag to class every day. When transportability is an issue, you might consider a handheld electronic dictionary. These electronic dictionaries can give you the power of a large comprehensive dictionary in a lightweight and compact form. These are useful tools for just about any usage.

If you need a language reference for only for a limited period of travel, you might consider a phrase book for travelers. These are typically far smaller than the average dictionary, but much more useful than a pocket-sized dictionary. They include common phrases and sentences as well as vocabulary words that are specific to travel-related situations, like eating in a restaurant, making hotel reservations, shopping, exchanging money, and using public transportation. What's more, the usages in travel phrase books show cultural sensitivity and ensure that the traveler is using the right phrases with the right people in the right situations. A phrase book will get you through a short period of travel in another country, but it won't help much when it comes to saying something original or getting to know the local culture first-hand. That requires a much broader knowledge of the language and a more robust bilingual dictionary.

Because pocket dictionaries are very, very limited in scope and don't give learners the information they need to use language effectively, we don' t recommend them. There are far better alternatives available. Pocket dictionaries offer no distinct advantages except their low cost. Even at cheap prices, they usually turn out to be a waste of money because they frequently offer little to no help when you turn to them for assistance.


Electronic & online dictionaries

Electronic dictionaries, i.e. handheld computerized bilingual dictionaries, can be extremely powerful. They can easily contain over a million words and phrases, they can include audio pronunciations of all entries, and they can employ search functions that bring up all appearances of the word in a database rather than just at its alphabetical entry point. They can even contain multiple languages in a single device. And they offer the great advantage of being both lightweight and compact -- often not much larger than a scientific calculator -- and are therefore easily transportable.

Foreign language dictionary software and online dictionaries have similar advantages. Vocabulary lists can be massive and the size of the media is not effected. They can take advantage of multimedia support, including audio pronunciation and associative images to aid memory of words. And software and online versions of foreign language dictionaries almost always include search functions. Such dictionaries can be very useful for those who tend to need a dictionary often while using the computer. In addition, downloadable dictionaries are often available for mobile devices.

Despite the great advantages offered by electronic, online, and software language dictionaries, they do have limitations. Users sometimes rely on them -- particularly online translators -- too heavily for full text translation. This is an extremely unreliable method of producing sentences and texts in the foreign language. In fact, nearly every sentence produced by such a text translator will have at least one error, and more typically it will contain several errors of various types. In many cases, the intended meaning is lost in translation. On the other hand, full-text translation via online and electronic dictionaries can be a useful means of translating a text from the foreign language into your native language if you are trying to get the general gist of a text.


No dictionary will ever be able to substitute for actually knowing a language. But a foreign language dictionary is still a useful and necessary tool that learners can combine with their prior knowledge about the language in order to communicate successfully.


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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