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Using a Dictionary

Friend or foe?! You might think that a dictionary is a harmless helper, but approaching it in the wrong way, or relying on it, can get you into linguistic trouble. Read our blog post on using dictionaries to avoid getting lost in translation…

When using a dictionary remember why you opened it. It can represent a mountain of knowledge – but also a potential minefield.

Dictionaries vary in depth, type – and, ultimately, usefulness. If you want a bilingual tome to help you communicate, you need to understand that many words have no direct Russian equivalent – take the example of the word “privacy.” An English person trying to translate that word should explain the concept rather than settle for the dictionary translation “уединение.”

Speaking a language does not always mean producing a direct translation of your thoughts from your mother tongue; almost invariably, it’s a hindrance to think that way.

When you have built up more confidence, move away from looking up the translation of words, or from just opening Google Translate or Multitran. Try using a monolingual dictionary.

Monolingual dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary, have evolved over generations and can be a good read in themselves. They often provide a greater tool to unlocking the cultural thought behind words in a language. Vladimir Dal made a valiant attempt to create a highly illustrative version for Russian in the mid-19th Century. His work was so valued that unchanged versions of the Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language remain on sale today.

Better still, attach pictorial and/or emotional tags to words. Children – the sponges of language absorption – mostly learn foreign languages by using picture books rather than just vocabulary lists. This helps them link words to concepts and not just making work for the eyes.

A thesaurus is another breed of dictionary altogether. In modern times, it was Peter Mark Roget who came up with the idea of finding close alternatives or synonyms for words in English. He devised his Roget’s Thesaurus on principles of philosophy, putting words into broad categories that helped readers pick from themes to find le mot juste.

Nowadays, a thesaurus – be it that one or online – is probably most useful for composition and writing… for those moments when all the pictures in your head get muddled and you need something written in black and white. Try it when you need a bit of guidance and the dictionary just doesn’t quite match your needs.