When Should You Use a Dictionary?

by Language Learner on March 12, 2012

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.

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