In week four of our coaching course, it’s time to look at one of the key tools you need as a language-learner: the dictionary. We’ll give you seven key questions to ask yourself before you invest in the perfect dictionary to help you move forward in your learning. The content on this post is restricted to members of the Radio Lingua Club. If you’re already a member then you can access this by logging into your Control Panel and then returning to this page.

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Episode 04 – Don’t judge a dictionary by its cover…


This week on our coaching course, we’re asking the question “What makes a good dictionary?” There’s no easy answer to this, because so much depends on what type of learner you are, where you are on your journey, and where and how you’ll be using your dictionary. A search on for French dictionary or Spanish dictionary reveals a daunting array of possibilities (16,829 results for French and 13,145 for Spanish): there are pocket dictionaries, school dictionaries, multi-volume dictionaries, monolingual dictionaries, children’s dictionaries, dictionaries of colloquial terms, business terms, legal terms, and then a whole selection of picture dictionaries. So where should the learner start?

Perhaps the first question you should ask yourself is where you plan to use the dictionary, and therefore what size of dictionary do you require? It’s possible to find a small pocket dictionary for a few pounds or dollars, such as the Collins Gem series which is available in a number of languages. These small pocket dictionaries tend to fall into one of two categories: they either have lots of words but few translations for each word, or they have fewer words with multiple translations. Have a look at the two examples below:

Example 1
Example 1
Example 2
Example 2

Example 1 is taken from a small Spanish phrasebook and dictionary aimed at tourists. The ‘dictionary’ section is really just a list of vocabulary. You’ll see that in this example, the Spanish words are given in blue. Where there are masculine/feminine versions of the word, both are given, and then an attempt is made to explain the pronunciation of the word where a transliteration is given, using bold text to indicate stress. If we consider the word “next”, you can see only one translation is given: in this case the Spanish word siguiente.

Example 2 is taken from a pocket French dictionary, aimed primarily at school learners. In this example we’re focusing specifically on the word “next” and a number of translations are given. If we’re talking about the “next room” or the “next seat”, the word voisin or voisine is used, depending on the gender of the object we’re describing. If we look up voisin in the French section of the dictionary, we’ll see that it has something to do with “neighbour” or “neighbouring”. Just as in example 1, it’s expected that we know that adjectives have different forms depending on the gender of the noun they’re describing. However, in this second example, you’ll notice too that if we’re talking about the next meeting or next bus stop, then it’s better to use the word suivant/suivante, and if “next” refers to time, then we’d use the word prochain/prochaine. Crucially, some examples of the word “next” in context are given, eg. “next year” which is l’année prochaine, and “next time” which is la prochaine fois. This dictionary also points to the fact that there’s a special word in French for “the next day”, for example when you’re telling a story: le lendemain. Note also that the pronunciation guide used in this dictionary uses special symbols which are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet. This alphabet allows you to pronounce any word in any language, by using a series of symbols and diacritics. However, you may need to spend some time familiarising yourself with the IPA first!

The next example comes from a type of dictionary which has been introduced more recently – it’s from a learner’s dictionary and features some key examples, and information for the learner. This is from a German dictionary, and you’ll see that there are further tips provided to the learner regarding the case rules of German.

Example 3
Example 3

The final example given comes from a large Spanish dictionary, costing in the region of £25-30 ($40-50). Although there’s much more to read through in this entry, you’ll see that it’s often possible to identify the exact situation you’re looking for. In many cases, full sentence examples are given, eg. not just “the next stop”, but “I get out at the next stop”, in this case yo bajo en la próxima parada. Have a look at this example.

Example 4
Example 4

Note that example four includes idiomatic phrases, such as “whatever next!” and gives an appropriate translation. If you had translated “whatever next” in Google or any other electronic translator, your translations would have at best been literal, and at worst, completely incomprehensible! We’ll be discussing online translation in a future episode – there’s lots to say about that!

So, which option should you go for? The pocket-sized portable dictionary, or the heavy tome which would take up most of your luggage allowance if you’re travelling abroad? Again, it depends where you are in your language studies. I would strongly suggest that you avoid using a phrasebook/dictionary as your main dictionary. It’s fine to carry something like that with you when you’re out and about, but if you want to make real progress in the language, you really need a dictionary which provides the examples like we’ve seen above. Dictionaries made specifically for learners like example 3 often combine the best of both worlds – you’re never left to your own devices and there are normally enough examples to help you find the most appropriate translation.

One other important point about buying a dictionary involves the changing nature of language. If you’re considering saving money and buying a second-hand dictionary then you may find that it’s not very up-to-date. This may mean that some areas of vocabulary are missing, eg. relating to technology, and it also could mean that words which are described as colloquial may be outmoded. Anthony Burgess once wrote that a word in a dictionary is like a car at a motorshow: it’s “full of potential, but temporarily inactive”, so it’s important to remember that any dictionary is really only a record of how language is used in a particular place at a particular time. Don’t let this put you off, however. Most modern dictionaries published today have teams of lexicographers around the world collecting words and phrases and documenting their usage for the next edition of your dictionary.

The best advice I can give for buying a dictionary is that you should go to your nearest large bookstore and spend an hour looking at the various dictionaries. As I said earlier, don’t judge the dictionary by its cover – look inside and get a feel for how you would use the dictionary. As a language-learner you’re going to be spending a fair amount of time with it, so here are my seven key questions that you should ask yourself before you make the purchase:

  • does it contain good translations and lots of examples?
  • do I need a dictionary which will sit open on my desk while I’m working on my language-learning?
  • do I need a dictionary which is portable and I can fit in a pocket or a bag?
  • what’s the pronunciation guide in the dictionary like? Does it use the IPA and am I comfortable using the IPA? Most importantly, do I understand the pronunciation given?
  • does the dictionary contain any extras, eg. verb tables, style guides?
  • what does it look like? Do I like the way it’s printed? Do I like the font used and is it large enough to be read easily?
  • when was the dictionary published? Does it contain some recent words? eg. “social networking”, “credit crunch”, “netbook”, etc.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably end up coming home with more than one dictionary – a pocket one for your travels and a larger one for use at home!

Of course, there are many other resources which you will turn to in your language-learning, and if you spend a lot of time at your computer then there are countless resources online in the form of dictionaries and translators. We’ll be looking at the positive and negative side of some of these in the next episode.

Right-click to download audio (mp3)


    8 replies to "RLN Club – Learn a language 04"

    • Lindsay Giacomino

      This is an excellent episode! I can’t tell you how important it is to have the right dictionary when you’re learning a new language. For any Spanish language learners out there, I have a recommendation. As a Spanish student for now 6+ years (in high school and in college), my most helpful dictionary was one that I bought at the very beginning of my “journey”: Merriam-Webster’s Spanish-English dictionary. The dictionary not only provides many examples in the definitions so that you can figure out when/how to use words, it also has verb charts (highly useful for me in the beginning), and grammar guides. It’s relatively cheap at around $6 and small so that you can carry it around with you. I can’t recommend this dictionary enough! I only wish they had something similar for German.

      I still use it to this day, though now at my level most of my teachers are requiring a monolingual dictionary for class (any suggestions?). Thanks again, Mark, and good luck to all of you language learners out there!

      • Petra Adolf

        Hi Lindsay,

        A month ago, I bought the diccionario Salamanca – Español para extranjeros, which is a monolingual dictionary published by the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain (Salamanca is THE place to study Spanish in Spain, so I guess the University has some reputation for language learning). It’s quite expensive ($30-40) and weighs a lot, but to me, it’s worth the price. It covers a huge amount of words (with a focus on Spanish Spanish, but many Latinamerican words are included as well) and the explanations are probably as detailed as in Mark’s final example of the Spanish-English dictionary. Whereever possible, they give you some sample sentences so that you can see how and in which context the word is used. The explanations are written in easy Spanish and you also get verb tables and many grammatical explanations (whether to use indicative or subjunctive, which prepositions follow the verb etc.). It reminds me of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary for students of English, even though the layout is not that colourful and you don’t have extra boxes with special tips etc.

        Well, maybe this helps. Good luck for your choice!

    • Pannita Mitpakdee

      I think the link to download audio file is not correct… right? (ep. 3 instead of ep.4)


      • radiolingua radiolingua

        Hi Pannita – I’ve fixed this link. The flash player was pointing to the correct file, but as you pointed out the download link was last week’s file. Sorry! Hope you’ve managed to get the audio file now.

        • Sean McKinney

          The link for lesson 4 (and 3a, if there is one) is not appearing on my control panel. I only have links to lessons 1, 2 &3b. Please advise how I can access that content…thanks.

        • Pannita Mitpakdee

          I’ve got it! Thanks, Mark! 🙂

    • Ian Banks

      Hello Mark,

      Another really useful episode!

      Just to add to your last point about on-line dictionaries, many of the popular dictionary book publishers now produce versions for smartphones like the iPhone and Blackberry – as do some of the better on-line resources. This means that you don’t necessarily have to compromise between portability and quality. Of course all of the advice you give on choosing one still applies.

      You remark: “However, you may need to spend some time familiarising yourself with the IPA first!”.

      How would you recommend I went about doing that?

      My French-English translation dictionary includes IPA for each entry but I find it incomprehensible. There is plenty of information about the IPA available on the internet but I can find little that helps one to use it. I think this would make an excellent subject to include in a future episode.

    • Kathleen King

      I’m going to upgrade my French and Spanish Dictionaries after this episode. They are left over from my college days…I don’t want to say when! It is also easy to put dictionaries on the Kindle for use while traveling instead of carrying a book.

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