Put the Language Dictionary Down

Put the Language Dictionary Down has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel.  Original video was published on August 6, 2018


Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here to talk about languages and today I want to talk about dictionaries. Basically, the reason I want to talk about dictionaries is because I was thinking about this person who asked me to do a video about the word ‘get’. I thought, you can look up the word get in the dictionary and you get eight or nine different definitions and then some phrasal verbs with some further meanings. You can read that, close the dictionary and you won’t remember much of what was there. That’s sort of the reality of dictionaries.


Now, I am a sucker for dictionaries and I want to show you my collection. I just went and grabbed a few here, so Vietnamese. Before I went to Vietnam, I got this phrase book and dictionary. I spent six days in Vietnam. I came away able to use one word cảm ơn, which means thank you. Nothing else stuck, zero. This was essentially useless. The same for Hebrew, nothing stuck, nothing, nothing except what I learned through listening and reading on LingQ.


I have bought so many dictionaries, most of which I never read, but it’s very tempting. 01:18.0, Japanese-English dictionary. What have we got here? English-Japanese Dictionary from when I lived in Japan, English-Korean, Korean-English Dictionary, English-Chinese Pronouncing Dictionary, Essential Arabic Vocabulary, [Insert Korean], Handbook of Korean Vocabulary, Tuttle Learner’s Korean-English Dictionary, Oxford Russian Dictionary. Here’s a German one [Insert German].


What else have we got? Oxford Starter Dictionary, 02:05.5. It just goes on and on and I’ve hardly used any of them. The only one I used was this one here, which is used because I lived in Japan for nine years. This one has the great advantage that you can look them up in the Roman alphabet. So you hear a word, I live in Japan, I hear things, I can look them up and sometimes find something. I can find the meaning for something that I’ve heard and I want to know the meaning of.


The temptation with a dictionary is that somehow you think that in this dictionary there’s a bunch of words and meaning and if I read this all of that is going to enter my brain, but it doesn’t happen that way. The dictionary has this great promise of enabling you to somehow shortcut the learning process by gaining all these words and your vocabulary is going to expand. Where I learn is from what you see behind me, books, CDs, listening, reading, letting the brain get used to the language. Hitting a certain word and a meaning, no sooner do you close the dictionary than you’ve forgotten what was there.


If you look up the word ‘get’ there’s eight meanings, so which meaning are you going to take away from that. If I’m reading say on LingQ where we have online dictionaries, which by the way is a big improvement, sometimes there are four or five meanings and sometimes they’re totally unrelated meanings. So I take from that a very vague sense of what the word means, but it doesn’t both me because I know that as I continue to come across this word in different contexts the range of meaning of that word and the particular sense of that word that applies to a given context all of that is gradually going to become clearer, but it will become clearer only if I do enough reading and listening so that I encounter it in different contexts together with different words. That way I acquire a sense of the language.


Furthermore, even in terms of learning a language, those purists who say we should only speak the target language and the dictionary should be a monolingual dictionary I don’t agree with at all. You want to get in and out of the dictionary as fast as you can, to get a bit of a hint of the meaning. You don’t want to spend all kinds of time trying to struggle through a description of the meaning in the target language where you encounter more words that you don’t know and you come away without any sense of what the meaning of the word is. You want to get a quick hint and go back to your context. It’s the context that’s going to give you the meaning. Therefore, a bilingual dictionary where one of the languages is your native language or a language you know very, very well is much sharper, much quicker, much more effective than a monolingual dictionary.


Just as with my Japanese, if I were to try and look up a word in my Japanese dictionary using hiragana or kanji it becomes more complicated. It’s the same with Chinese dictionaries. If you have a Chinese dictionary I would only use one that is based on pinyin so that you can go in there based on the phonetics of the word. When we started with Chinese the words in the dictionary were divided up based on a stroke count, so all the characters that had three strokes, four strokes, five. It took forever to find it. You’re going to forget it anyway, so the quicker you’re in and out the better.


Nowadays, of course, the dictionary I use the most is Google Translate. I have a bunch of dictionaries on my iPhone, but the only one I ever use is Google Translate. So if I have a word that I’ve come across whenever I put it in there I get the meaning, done. That’s the main role of a dictionary and that’s way the sort of online dictionary is so good because it satisfies your immediate need to get a sense of what this word might mean. So even though you might forget it, it satisfies that need right now in a given context to get some sense of what the meaning might be. Very often, especially, for example, in learning Korean, you’re disappointed because for whatever reason there’s a range of possible meanings or it doesn’t quite match the context and yet still that’s all you have to go on as you work your way through this content and eventually it’s the context that teaches you.


So the conclusion is the dictionary is very tempting. You think it’s a great source of knowledge of words. You might want to keep a copy right by the toilet where you have to sit. You have this sense that you’re learning something. It’s interesting actually. It’s interesting. It’s like reading grammar rules. It’s interesting, you’re reading it, yet you can’t retain it very well. You only retain it through the listening and reading.


So the dictionary, you do need it because as you’re working your way through content if there’s a bunch of words you don’t know you have to get a sense of roughly what that word might mean, how it ties into the rest of what you’re reading. You want to be in and out of that dictionary as quickly as you can and that’s why I tend to do my reading until I’m very good in the language. I do my reading on my iPad where I have access to online dictionaries. Furthermore, if I’m on LingQ I can look it up and save it to a database, I can possibly review it later on and that way the dictionary is a minor part of my, basically, input-based learning strategy. It’s no more than that.


Dictionaries are tempting. I don’t buy them as much now because I find them quite useless. I have bought a lot as I’ve showed you and there’s lots more here, but I’m not going to show you them.


Thanks for listening. Bye for now and I look forward to your comments.

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