3 New Ways to Use Your Foreign Language Dictionary and Boost Your Learning

A foreign language dictionary is an absolute essential, a basic language learning tool.

But do you want to get some extra mileage out of it? 

Can you use it beyond looking up words you don’t know when you’re reading?

Aren’t dictionaries just boring and utilitarian resources, especially when you have colorful, modern textbooks and shiny online lessons to go after?

Dictionaries, both online and off, are great learning resources, even if they seem to be boring as all get out. And even that last bit wasn’t at all accurate—modern dictionaries usually contain mini-grammar resources and phrasebooks alongside their other virtues.

If you’re learning an uncommon language, sometimes a dictionary and phrasebook are the only learning resources you have access to.

It just takes a little creativity to make these massive sources of information work for you.

Here are three dictionary hacks anyone can use!

3 Innovative Foreign Language Dictionary Hacks for Every Stage of Learning

1. Beginner: Compile Targeted Word Lists to Jumpstart Your Vocabulary

What’s cooler than creating your own personalized textbook? This is basically what Gabriel Wyner, author of Fluent Forever, proposes on his website. Through classes or basic textbooks, all language learners are expected to pick up basic vocabulary that addresses a traveler’s most pressing needs. These include such basic categories as animals, places, body parts, food, etc., and they can be broken down into thematic word lists.

A word list is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a categorically organized list of words for specific situations. The categories help you remember words used in similar situations, and this method of learning vocabulary (while a little rote) is great when you need to quickly learn something for immediate use. FluentU even allows users to create targeted word lists within its program.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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You may ask, what good does a word list do? Well, a word list does more than you think. It’s both a starting point and a support for your other studies. The generally agreed-upon basic vocabulary categories are defined because those are the most basic things people need to understand and express. And, if you’re going traveling soon or want to start speaking the language as soon as possible, you can never underestimate the value of this vocabulary! Even if your grammar is lagging behind, Tarzan-speak combined with strategic gesturing can get you far.

Here are some ideas for dictionaries and other resources to help you out!

  • WordReference is a multilingual dictionary great for a wide number of world languages.
  • Jisho is an easy-to-use Japanese-English dictionary.
  • iCIBA is a high-quality Chinese dictionary.
  • If you’re learning a rarer language, try Lonely Planet phrasebooks—they come in a huge number of languages, including those with scarce online resources. The dictionaries in the back of the books are often extensive enough to outline your basic, necessary vocabulary, and the phrasebooks themselves are of excellent quality. I used one myself to learn decent Hebrew!

2. Intermediate: Mine Sentences for Your SRS

You intermediate learners out there can get a lot more out of your bilingual dictionaries by using a spaced repetition system (SRS).

An SRS is simply a computer-based flashcard program with a special twist. What makes SRS so special is its algorithm that predicts the rate of human memory decay. I’m sure you’re all familiar with memorizing some phrases or grammar tables, only to forget them one, two or ten days later. SRS fixes that for you!

For example, if you make a flashcard with gato on the front and cat on the back, and you guess the correct English answer, the program will wait several days until it shows you the flashcard again. If you get it wrong, then it will show you the card again immediately, over and over, until you get it right. Then it’ll show you the card one day later, with the time expanding as you become more confident in knowing the word. You end up reviewing difficult cards frequently and easy cards less frequently.

FluentU contains its own SRS program that presents you with the vocabulary, phrases, expressions and grammar patterns you’ve been absorbing from videos—and the cards actually have clips from those videos on them. How cool is that?

There are also independent SRS programs you could turn to such as Anki and Mnemosyne.

As you can see, SRS has huge implications in learning foreign language vocabulary items. But what’s this talk about sentences?

Instead of entering a single target language word on the front of the card and its English translation on the back, you enter an entire sentence on the front, and the English translation (possibly with an explanation of unknown words) on the back. Crazy! I know! Why would someone do this? Why shatter the paradigm of learning individual words?

Sentences provide you with context. Context is absolutely essential to efficient language learning. Context of a sentence, paragraph or book allows you to associate words with other things that you know, more so than learning a vocabulary word in isolation. That’s why FluentU shows you clips of real conversations or songs—the visual and aural context helps you remember the vocabulary items. In terms of grammar, SRS-ing sentences allows you to pick up grammar patterns that would ordinarily take a lot of memorization to learn. By seeing similar grammar patterns over and over, you’ll pick them up naturally.

Obviously, for sentence-focused SRS, you’ll need to enter in a huge number of sentences—in the thousands (Khatzumoto from All Japanese All The Time had 7000 sentences in his SRS by the time he was fluent in Japanese, and he recommends collecting 10,000 sentences!).

Where do you find these sentences? Everywhere! You can get them from your textbooks, and, when you’re more advanced, from other media. It’s clearly easier to mine sentences from written material, which is where your handy-dandy dictionary comes in.

High-quality bilingual dictionaries contain example sentences for a word you want to learn, along with their English translations. It couldn’t get easier! You enter these into your SRS, and you’re golden. Oftentimes, higher priced paper dictionaries work better for this, but here are some online foreign language dictionary resources you can use:

  • WordReference, again. It has the most example sentences for Spanish and French, significantly fewer for German. Not so many for other European languages.
  • Jisho has a lot of sample sentences for Japanese.
  • iCIBA seems to have a lot of Chinese sample sentences, too.

3. Advanced: Discover the Wonders of Monolingual Dictionaries

So, you’ve outgrown your bilingual dictionaries, that translate everything neatly (perhaps too neatly) into English for you, and they just don’t have the words or the cultural explanations you’re looking for. They keep shifting your brain into “native language” mode, which breaks up your immersion time. What to do, what to do?

Two words: monolingual dictionaries.

With these, you can understand the language using the language itself. Spanish words defined in Spanish, Chinese grammar explained in Chinese!

You can dive into these when you’ve reached the high-intermediate stage in terms of reading. I recommend making sure you can understand mainstream literature without heavy use of a dictionary or monolingual dictionaries will be tough. Reading through the definitions in monolingual dictionaries can take a little more time, and you might even find yourself looking up words in the definitions of those words. However, that’s a quite effective way to keep growing your vocabulary with plenty of context, relevance and associations that your memory craves.

You can SRS the example sentences from monolingual dictionaries, but you can also SRS the definitions. Let’s say you enter in a sentence, but you’re so advanced that you only need to define two words. You look them up in your monolingual dictionary and copy-paste both definitions.

But wait! There are words in the definitions that you don’t know! Define those words (embedded definitions) and you’re getting so much understandable language exposure it’s insane. When you start learning from monolingual dictionaries, your abilities improve rapidly.

There are tons of good monolingual dictionaries online. Check these out:


Dictionaries are some of the cheapest, easiest-to-find language resources.

And with these three hacks, your dictionaries will pay for themselves several times over—even if they’re free!

Cheap and useful… dictionaries are cooler than you thought, huh?

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