When Should You Use a Dictionary?

One of the things many people do when they learn a new language is that they look up words in the dictionary. It is also commonly recommended in language courses and by language teachers to do so, and for good reason.
However, one of the most brilliant language teachers of our times, Michel Thomas, had a very different opinion on the use of dictionaries. In general, he recommended not to use them at all, with two main exceptions.
The first exception: Imagine a language student who is reading a book or newspaper or magazine, and he encounters a word that he doesn’t understand, but that is crucial to understand the whole sentence.
Pay close attention to the last part: crucial to understand the whole sentence.
Because oftentimes we encounter words whose meaning we do not actually know, but we can get an approximate understanding of them because of the context in which they appear. In written language, authors often use words that are rarely used in spoken language – uncommon words which aren’t really crucial to being able to converse in a foreign language.
As a language student, you really want to make the best use of your time and mental energy. Efficient learning matters, because we have a limited amount of time, and especially mentally focused time.
So to make the main point: only when a word is necessary to understand the whole sentence, to make sense out of a sentence, should you look it up in the dictionary. Otherwise, just leave it alone and be contempt with “guessing” it’s meaning because of the context in which it appears.
The second exception when you should use a dictionary, according to Michel Thomas, is when a word appears again and again, and you read it repeatedly for many times. This is an indicator that it is an important word which you should be familiar with.
Now whether you want to implement this advice or not is of course your choice – but keep in mind that Michel Thomas was a brilliant language teacher, and that this was one of his “golden rules to learn a language”, so to speak. So it might be well worth to check it’s validity for yourself.

Beginning to learn a language?

When you first learn a new language, it’s good to learn the basics by listening and verbally repeating. Just listening and repeating- skip the reading / writing for now. It is true that this is a little more difficult at first.

Usually, if we learn a new word, we want to write it down so that we can memorize how exactly to pronounce it. And usually we like to write it down in a kind of “karaoke language” – meaning, the way it`s spoken, in a phonetic way.

While this is indeed helpful when it comes to memorizing vocabulary, it also manifests an accent right from the beginning. If you fine-tune your ears so much that you memorize words by listening, you will also memorize the way the language sounds, the tonal patterns and the subtle nuances that often make a foreign language difficult to learn.

Again – this is not the fastest way if you just want to pick up a few phrases to be understood. But if you want to be able to speak really good, and get to know a language on a deeper level, then it’s worth it.  And in the long run, this approach is much faster.

If you can, record yourself when you repeat a word or phrase, so that you can also listen to the way you say a sentence and the way a native speaker says it, and compare the two. Most of the time you will find that at the beginning, there are differences in the way you sound – and these are sometimes difficult to recognize when you speak, but if you listen to a recorded sentence that you spoke yourself, and then again to the same sentence spoken by a native speaker, this really helps.

An old Persian proverb goes like this: “Everything is difficult before it becomes easy.” And the same is true for beginning to learn a language. At first, it can be overwhelming, especially if you are learning a language that is very different to your own. If for example you are native English speaker, and you learn Spanish – that’s quiet easy compared to learning a language like Chinese or Thai, which are practically not related.

Think about the way kids learn a new language: they just listen and repeat the sounds they hear. And this way, they become naturally fluent.

The Element of Fun

If you want to learn a language, the best way to do it is to have fun with the language. Yes, you need discipline and you have to make a commitment, but you also want to play with the language.

Don’t make it dead serious. So many people feel frustrated when they make a mistake. Relax, loosen up, have some fun with it, and you’ll see this will help you a lot in mastering a new language.