Do I need a dictionary? And what kind?

There are all kinds of dictionaries available on the market nowadays: monolingual, bilingual, as well as more specialised ones limited to particular lexical segments, such as different dictionaries of technical terms, synonyms, idioms, phrasal verbs etc. I’m often asked by my students, beginners especially, which of those they should buy; and whether they actually need a dictionary when there’s Google Translate.

Translation websites and apps are not the optimal solution for language learners. Without the wider context of a sentence, computer generated translation frequently turns out inadequate or outright wrong. If you try to translate a whole sentence or a paragraph, the result is bound to be something of a caricature. The benefit of such apps, though, lies in the easy access to a quick translation. If a quick fix and a literal translation is all you need, Google Translate and similar will do the job just fine. However, for anything more than that, you’d do best to avoid them. If you’re in the process of learning a foreign language, you will reap far more benefits if you use a traditional dictionary. Here students are faced with the following dilemma – which are better: monolingual or bilingual dictionaries?

Those who prefer bilingual dictionaries stress the fact that they are straightforward and very popular with students. The latter can be explained by the fact that learners feel the need for psycholinguistic assurance – a requirement easily met by translation equivalents found in such dictionaries (Hartmann 1994: 207). This can’t and shouldn’t be neglected as a motivational factor in the learning process. However, relying solely on bilingual dictionaries can create a sort of lasting dependency and a lexical phobia of new and unknown words, as opposed to developing the habit of understanding the meaning of the words out of context, without the obsessive need to seek the exact equivalent for each and every word.

Conversely, by using a monolingual dictionary, students are encouraged to start thinking in the language they’re learning. Constant mental switching from one language to another is avoided, the ability to paraphrase gets further developed, with both contributing to greater fluency. These are only some of the benefits emphasized in the contemporary teaching methods, where the use of students’ mother tongue is limited to a bare minimum or completely avoided, for methodological reasons. The use of monolingual dictionaries perfectly complements this teaching philosophy. Additionally, monolingual dictionaries typically contain far more comprehensive and detailed information on connotation, register, pronunciation and origin of words, and as such are a far better choice.

It goes without saying that in order to use a monolingual dictionary, one must actually be at an adequate level of language competence in order to be able to understand the explanations provided in that language. Does that mean that students at a beginner level have no alternative but to use a bilingual dictionary? Not at all! In case of English, there are learners’ dictionaries specifically designed for particular levels of learning. Even total beginners can use something other than a bilingual dictionary, such as an illustrated one.

Speaking of illustrated dictionaries, let me go back to the subject of Google Translate. Since most of my students are in the habit of googling things up whenever they need to check something, I don’t discourage it. However, instead of resorting to Google Translate, I ask them to use Google Images. Rather than getting a word-for-word translation (frequently a totally wrong one), they are presented with a series of images which can help them deduce or at least guess the meaning of the word in question. Even if they can’t independently, without my help, reach the correct conclusion as to the exact meaning, they can at least figure out whether the word stands for a physical object or an abstract concept, or whether its connotation is a predominantly positive or negative one, etc. In that way, I use Google Images with my students in order to create a setting for them to learn through discovery. In the classroom context that has proven to make much more sense than simply providing them with a quick translation.

Finally, to summarise: both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries can be very useful, depending on what the individual user’s needs are. In the specific context of language teaching and learning, however, I believe that monolingual dictionaries are a far better choice due to a series of methodological and didactic reasons, and it is this type of dictionary that I will always recommend over bilingual ones.

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