Some people might read the title of this post and think “Why is Katie writing about this? Does she think we’re stupid? I already know how to use a dictionary!” Please keep reading and let me explain!
Who is this post for?
I’m writing this for two groups of people:
1. There are some people who don’t know how to find the answers they’re looking for online. They don’t know the best places to look. Maybe they haven’t found the right dictionary yet. I know this because of the questions I’m asked on Facebook. (What does xxx mean? How can I use xxx in a sentence? How do I pronounce xxx?) I hope this post will help them to find the answers for themselves more easily so they can become independent learners.
2. Other people might use a dictionary all the time but they might not know about all the different dictionaries which are available and they might not know about all the features that different dictionaries offer.
Before we go any further, you need to know that I’m going to talk about dictionary websites here, not apps. Some of the dictionaries I mention do have apps but some of them are not free and some of them don’t have good reviews. I always just use the websites. (You know, people of my age grew up with Google and not with a smartphone so Google is always my first thought when I want information, not apps!)
There are two different kinds of dictionaries you should know about.
“Bi” means “two” so these are dictionaries with two languages. For example, if you speak Arabic and you’re learning English, you want to be able to translate Arabic to English and also English to Arabic.
If you want a good bilingual dictionary, it’s difficult for me to help you because I don’t speak your language! Cambridge, Collins and Word Reference are good for a lot of languages but not all. Cambridge even has some dictionaries that explain a word in English and give a translation as well, a bilingual and a monolingual dictionary combined.
Search Google for “best English Arabic dictionary” (or whatever your language is) or ask your friends what they use. Or just try a few different ones until you find one that you like.
Please do try to find a good dictionary instead of relying on Google Translate! Google Translate is always improving but it’s still not perfect. Also, dictionaries give you a lot more information than online translators.
“Mono” means “one” so these are dictionaries where everything is written in just one language. Sometimes people call these “English-English dictionaries” because the words and the explanations are both in English.
Low-level learners might prefer bilingual dictionaries but as you progress and become more advanced, I highly recommend you start using an English-English dictionary.
Why? Because they give you so much useful information, probably more than a bilingual dictionary, I think the example sentences are especially helpful.
The second reason is that they can help you to think in English, rather than translating from your own language all the time.
Here are some of the things you can find in a good English-English dictionary:
1. An explanation of the meaning.
2. Some dictionaries show you how common the word is.
3. They also show you which meanings are the most common. If a word has more than one meaning, the most common meaning is usually at the top of the list.
4. The level of difficulty of a word. Some dictionaries will tell you which words you should know at which level.
4. The pronunciation of the word, both written in phonetics and also with audio, often both British and American.
5. Example sentences which show you how to use the word.
6. Grammar information about a word, such as which part of speech it is (noun, verb, adjective etc), the different verb forms, whether a noun is countable or uncountable and so on.
7. Pictures. Sometimes the quickest and easiest way to understand a word is by looking at a picture!
8. Word lists. Oxford has lists of words for different topics and also lists of the most important 3000 or 5000 words to learn.
9. The ability to create and save your own word lists so you can review them later.
10. Differences between British and American English, and possibly Australian too.
11. Collocations. This means which words are commonly found together,
12. Word of the day. A nice way to learn new words.
13. A grammar reference section
14. Games and quizzes
15. Idioms and common phrases
You won’t find all this with Google Translate, right?!
Not all dictionaries have all of these features. I suggest you try out a few different dictionaries and decide which things are most interesting or important for you.
People often ask me which dictionary is the best or which is my favourite. I can’t answer that because, firstly, they are all good, and secondly, because it depends on what you want. I actually use all of them depending on what I’m looking for.
My favourite English-English dictionaries
Here are my favourite English-English dictionaries and what I use them for.
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English - ldoceonline.com
This one is good for providing lots of example sentences.
Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary - dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/learner-english
You can create a Dictionary Plus account and save lists of your favourite words. This dictionary also has a good grammar section.
Oxford Learner’s Dictionary - oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com
This one has some useful extras like word lists, pictures and information about collocations.
Collins English Dictionary - collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english
This dictionary shows you clearly how common a word is and what level it is. There’s also a blog and a grammar reference section.
Merriam-Webster - www.merriam-webster.com
This is where I go first if I want to find out about American English. (The others are written by British companies but they have American words and pronunciation too.)
Also, I sometimes just write “xxx meaning” into Google (where xxx is the word I want to learn about). Google gives me the meaning from the Oxford Dictionary (not the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary) at the top of the page and then it gives me links to other dictionaries further down the page.
Google also tells me the origins of the word and how the word has become more or less common over the years. I find these things really interesting but maybe they’re not for everybody!
If you’re serious about improving your vocabulary, I really think that one of the best things you can do is find a dictionary that you like and take advantage of the different features it offers.
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