You’ve heard that phrases are a great way to learn foreign vocabulary.
You’d love to start sentence-mining like a pro.
You want to know how to mix and match vocabulary like a native.
How do you find phrases with with specific vocabulary?
Sure, you could start by using your old, tattered paperback phrasebook, but finding specific words takes ages using books. They’re designed for tourists who want to order a beer so they can simply flip ahead to the category with the right theme.
You’ve almost resigned yourself to using an automatic translator and your favorite dictionary to build each phrase word-by-word.
Hold it right there. Put down the dictionary.
How We Find Foreign Phrases in the 21st Century
People seem pretty adamant about learning foreign vocabulary in isolation. Why don’t they teach you chunks of language instead of just one word at a time?
The real problem is not that phrases are useless. Quite the opposite, phrases are a great way to use vocabulary in context. They allow your brain to learn new words in a way that’s natural to it. You’ll absorb things in easy, digestible “chunks” (a really cool technique known as “chunking”).
The real problem is just that paper phrasebooks just don’t match the needs of the modern language learner. Granted, the phrasebooks offered by Lonely Planet and others are very portable and straightforward to use for travelers—who often have limited internet and technology—but if you’re looking for phrases with specific vocabulary then phrasebooks can be a bit unwieldy.
They’re perfect for travel, but not so good for learning vocabulary by chunking.
The solution for chunking is to use a online, searchable phrase resources—often known as digital phrasebooks or online phrasebooks. This post provides you with a list of some of the best ones out there.
How to Find Phrases with the Right Vocabulary
First, a searching trick. While many of the resources listed below have a built-in search feature, not all of them do. However, this is the 21st century. Google can search almost anything and get great results, as can any reputable search engine. So, here’s a quick tip for searching any of the sites on this list.
You don’t even have to go to the online phrasebook website and search for words there—it’s even easier than that.
Instead, go to your search engine’s homepage and search for this: “<your desired vocabulary>” site:<the domain>.
For example, to find phrases containing the French phrase “mon oncle” (my uncle) on omniglot.com, you’d type “mon oncle” site:www.omniglot.com into the Google search bar. Use the quotation marks whenever you want to search for an exact phrase. Simple.
12 Super Searchable Online Phrasebooks for Learning Words in Context
Below are some of the best, searchable resources for finding foreign phrases.
Linguee is a phenomenal, multi-language resource. It provides a dictionary written by experts and a really cool search feature. This search draws from billions of bilingual online texts, most which have been professionally translated by humans, providing accurate translations between 25 different languages.
Searching in quotation marks will give you results of specific phrases in your target language, showing how translators have solved the translation of this exact phrase in different contexts.
Sources are from a variety of settings, including sites devoted to complex language such as business websites, poetry and technical documents. This is a search engine for real world language.
By clicking on the “more languages” on the home page you can translate from any language, not just English, which means this search feature is great for laddering language learning.
Google News Search and Google Book Search
Google News is not just great for keeping on top of current world events. It’s also an amazing tool for language learners to find phrases in context.
Firstly, you should choose your target country. There are news sources from many countries in the world. This is great because it means you can search, for example, for Brazilian Portuguese instead of European Portuguese.
Google Book Search does exactly the same thing, but with thousands of books from the last 200 years. By using the “Search Tools” option on the results page, you can tell Google to only search new books.
Searching for any word in your target language will bring up a load of reliable sources containing that word, which means that you will also get a load of useful phrases used in context. Again, putting a phrase in quotes will return examples of that specific phrase, which is really useful.
Linguanaut is “classic style” phrasebook. The huge advantage of it is the number of different languages it covers and the clear layout of its phrases. As well as detailed language-specific lessons in 15 languages, it contains dedicated phrasebooks in 50 different languages, ranging from Arabic to Zulu. Some of them even have audio recordings.
You can search this site for specific words and phrases by searching in Google <your desired vocabulary> site:www.linguanaut.com
Sometimes you just need a small phrasebook which you can print out and put in your pocket or wallet.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a foreign land with five minutes left on your internet cafe session, desperately searching online for a list of helpful phrases to print out, you’ll know how hard that precious information is to find.
Amongst its other language resources, Single Serving provides just that: Free, one page, printable phrasebooks in 24 languages. One day, you’ll thank me.
Like Google News above, Wikipedia is a vastly under-appreciated language learning resource. Not only does it give you well-written phrases, it gives you whole topic-specific articles in your target language!
There are two ways to search for phrases on Wikipedia. One is to navigate to your target language site (e.g. fr.wikipedia.org for French) and use the built-in search. The other is to use Google (e.g. search for: “quelque chose” site:fr.wikipedia.org) Personally I prefer the second way, as Wikipedia’s own search looks mostly at the article titles.
Your whole Google search results page will look like a long list of highlighted French phrases which contain the words “quelque chose” (something).
Omniglot is a mega-resource for languages. It is incredible and if you have not checked it out yet I highly recommend you do. Among its resources there are tons of phrases in over 200 languages, including less common languages like Klingon and Pig Latin.
The main phrasebook section contains the most common useful phrases in these languages and some even have audio recordings. There is also a fun section marked “‘useful foreign phrases,” which includes such phrases as “Pe tele ni lupe i le vao nei?” which is apparently Samoan for “Are there many pigeons in this bush?”
If you are learning multiple languages at once, there is also a helpful section where the same phrase is translated into multiple languages on one page.
To search omniglot, you’ll have to use the Google trick, i.e. <your desired vocabulary> site:www.omniglot.com
Although SmartPhrase only contains 7 languages, it is a great resource for finding phrases in those languages and their equivalents in English.
To start you can search for a word or phrase and it will tell you where you can find phrases containing those words. Phrases are grouped by helpfully specific topics, e.g. “Travelling by train,” which means that you can easily find only the phrases you’ll need in a particular situation.
It also contains a fun “Random Phrase Generator” which includes a “Test Yourself Mode” where the English definition is hidden from you, flashcard style.
Despite its minimalist web design, Engoi is actually an extensive and very useful resource for multi-language learning. For starters, you can choose between 15 interface languages, making it a great option for laddering or comparing two languages.
In general, most of the site is just lists of words, not whole phrases. However, what makes this site useful are its use of categories. Very quickly, you can have a list of words relating to, say, “parts of a book” in one list from which you can start building your own full phrases. Some language pairs also have audio recordings.
You can search only a particular phrasebook by using Google, for example <your desired vocabulary> site:www.engoi.com/it/fr will allow you to search for your vocabulary in the Italian-French dictionary.
FluentU Phrase Lists
FluentU is an online vocabulary learning system that uses videos from the web to teach you vocabulary in context. The system is a great way to learn phrases in context.
However, for finding phrases with particular vocabulary, the language-specific blogs are a good place to start. Many carefully selected phrases are already listed. There are phrase lists on the Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, English and Business English blogs.
To search the whole site, just search on Google: <your desired vocabulary> site:fluentu.com. You can also search phrases from a particular language by specifying one of the blogs, e.g. “pensar en” site:fluentu.com/spanish/blog to find Spanish phrases containing that term.
NemoApps Audio Phrasebooks
Like Engoi above, the free Nemo phrasebooks provide mostly a list of words, not full phrases. However, the most useful thing about it is that each word or phrase contains an audio recording.
It also provides 34 languages and the phrasebooks are available in the form of free language-specific apps with an integrated flashcard functionality.
Although quite simple, the Wikitravel phrasebooks are surprisingly useful. It provides phrasebooks in 195 languages, although many of the less common ones are almost empty. However, more common languages have quite a lot of content.
Each phrasebook is really one long, long page of phrases. Just check out what you’ll find by scrolling down through the French phrasebook.
Searching within the phrasebooks themselves is a simple case of using your browser’s “Find within page” function, usually by pressing CTRL-F on the keyboard. The Google search trick does not work well with these, because they are all embedded in long pages of content.
This is a great example of a truly 21st Century phrasebook. Among other language learning resources, Lingvozone’s phrasebook is multilingual with up to 45 languages.
Phrases are grouped into categories, audio clips are provided and phrases are even presented in a flashcard format.
The only slight annoyance is the lack of any search facility within the phrasebooks. As these are not static webpages, the Google search trick will not work here either. Still, it’s a highly useful resource for learning phrases.
Bonus: Google Search
So, you’ve searched all these online resources and you still can’t find a good phrase with your target vocabulary?
Well, let me say that I don’t believe you. However, if you need another option, the best way is to enter your phrase, with quotes, into Google Search.
If you want a phrase specifically for language learners then try adding the word “phrase” outside the quotes in English. For example, to search for the French phrase “quelque chose” you can search this in Google: “quelque chose” phrase.
The Internet is full of people who are using your target language. Use it to your advantage.
So, what are you waiting for?
Find some vocabulary you want to learn and search for some great phrases…it’s that easy.
Alex Owen-Hill is a European freelance writer. He writes about science, travel, voice-use, language and any of the hundred other things he’s passionate about. Check out his website at www.AlexOwenHill.co.uk. Any questions? Connect with him on Twitter at @AlexOwenHill and ask away!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.