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Finding the right foreign language dictionary (1)

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

Choosing the right dictionary: The basics

There are numerous bilingual dictionaries to choose from. How do you know which is the right one?

Well, above all, a bilingual dictionary has to contain enough information to be useful to the user. A one-word translation of each entry is not enough information for a foreign language learner to know 1) how to use the word in context and 2) whether the translation given is the correct one for the learner's given need. For instance, if an English speaker looks up jam in a pocket English-German dictionary, he might see the following entry:

jam, Marmelade f.

The entry tells the user that the German translation for jam is Marmelade, a feminine noun. That's well and good if the user wants to talk about the sweet, sticky, jelly-like substance he spreads on his toast in the morning. But what if he means to say that he was in a real tight spot -- also called a jam -- or in a traffic jam? Or what if he wants to know how to say that he jammed his finger in the car door. Despite having looked up the term in his handy pocket dictionary, the user still may not have enough information to express himself, or even worse, he might end up saying something fully unintended: "I jelly my hand in the door" or "I'm in a real jelly" or "I was in a traffic jelly." Humorous maybe, but not very effective communication, to say the least.

A truly useful bilingual dictionary contains a variety of information, from multiple translations per entry to grammatical information to facilitate usage to examples of the word used in phrases and specific contexts. Here is the entry for jam in a more comprehensive English-German dictionary:
jam 1 [dʒæm] n Marmelade, Konfitüre f. you want ~ on it too, do you? (Brit inf) du kriegst wohl nie genug or den Hals voll (inf)?

jam 2 1 n (a) (crowd) Gedränge, Gewühl nt.
  (b) (traffic ~) (Verkehrs)stau m, Stauung f.
  (c) (blockage in machine, of logs, etc) Stockung, Stauung f. there's a ~ in the pipe das Rohr ist verstoppt.
  (d) (inf: tight spot) Klemme (inf), Patsche (inf) f. to be in a ~ in der Klemme or Patsche sitzen (inf); to get into a ~ ins Gedränge kommen (inf); to get into a ~ with sb/sth mit jdma/.etw Schwierigkeiten haben; to get out of a ~ jdm aus der Klemme helfen (inf), jdn aus der Patsche ziehen.

2 vt (a) (make stick) window, drawer etc verklemmen, verkanten; gun, brakes etc blockieren; (wedge) (to stop rattles etc) festklemmen; (between two things) einklemmen. be careful not to ~ the lock paß auf, dass sich das Schloss nicht verklemmt; they had him ~med up agains the wall sie hatten ihn gegen die Wand gedrängt; it's ~med es klemmt; the ship was ~med in the ice das Schiff saß im Eis fest; he got his finger ~med or he ~med his finger in the door; er hat sich (dat) den Finger in der Tür eingeklemmt.
  (b) (cram, squeeze) (into in + acc) things stopfen, hineinzwängen, quetschen; people quetschen, pferchen. to be ~med together (things) zusammengezwängt sein; (people) zusammengedrängt sein; (in train etc also) zusammengepfercht sein; why ~ all the facts into one article:? warum zwängen or quetschen (inf) Sie alle Fakten in einen Artikel?
  (c) (crowd, block) street, town etc verstopfen, blockieren (people also) sich drängen in (+ dat). a street ~med with cars eine verstopfte Straße; the passage was ~med with people Menschen verstopften or versperrten den Durchgang.
  (d) (move suddenly) to ~ one's foot on the brake eine Vollbremsung machen, auf die Bremse steigen (inf) or latschen; he ~med his knees into the donkey's flanks er presste dem Esel die Knie in die Flanken; see also ~ on.
  (e) (Rad) station, broadcast stören

3 vi (a) the crowd ~med into the bus die Menschenmenge zwängte sich in den Bus
  (b) (become stuck) (brake) sich verklemmen; (gun) Ladehemmung haben; (door, window etc) klemmen.

Note that jam has two separate entries. Entry 1 references the sweet fruit spread and entry 2 refers to kind of jam related to a bind or narrow place. Note that entry 2 lists 3 sub-entries, reflecting its usage as a noun (n), a transitive verb (vt), and an intransitive verb (vi). And each of these entries in turn differentiates between a variety of context-determined usages and gives numerous examples of how ideas are expressed in practice. The phrases jam in, jam on, and jam up are listed as separate entries.

Granted, chances are that a user may never want or need to know most of these usages of jam; but the sheer precision of the information just about guarantees that the one meaning he is looking for is very clearly specified.

These two contrasting entries for the same word are meant to exemplify how important it is to choose the right dictionary. It can mean the difference between successful communication and misunderstanding, between learning a language and never progressing beyond a very basic level.

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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