How to learn a language
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How to learn a language

2.3 Resources: dictionaries and translators

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We classify dictionaries and translators separately from other resources, as they are designed for both language learners and people who may not speak the language or be interested in learning it at all and just want to look up a word. Every language learner should have access to a good bilingual dictionary regardless of their language level, either in print or online, such as words reference or reversal. More advanced learners should aim to use both bilingual and monolingual dictionary like those that native speakers use, which provide definitions of words in the target language rather than translations into their own language. As well as the obvious use of looking of the meaning of words, your dictionary can help in a number of other ways.
Entries in dictionaries provide information about the category of word that you're looking up, whether it's a verb, noun, adjective, adverb. This can be very useful when trying to understand the meaning. Most dictionaries also provide synonyms, which can help you make your writing more varied. They also include the phonetic representation of the word, which will help you pronounce it.
Good dictionaries also provide examples of the words used in context. Online dictionaries sometimes have links to audio files with the pronunciation too. And dictionary apps and those that can be installed in e-book readers can sync with texts so that you can click on a word in the text you are reading to find its meaning.
Online translators are another type of tool available to language learners. These offer machine translations with the option of entering text or speaking. And it will produce a translation, sometimes also with its pronunciation. The best known and most used online translator is Google translate. You can look up single words and online translators will offer a good result. Although you should be aware of the different meanings that the same word can have. Although opposition to the use of translation software has been raised by some language teachers. Realistically, these pieces of software remain the first place where many language learners turn to when composing texts in the target language.
The machine translation algorithms have improved vastly in recent years. But translations can be erroneous, especially when sentences are looked up without context. Some language combinations work better than others, as these tools tend to rely on available texts and translations of sources. So for example, whereas the English, French or Spanish, English combination tends to provide very good results, other combinations such as Hungarian, English may produce results that are not as accurate.
When using online translators, try to use simple sentences and avoid colloquial expressions. Never take the translation offered as the correct translation. And always evaluate the text provided for possible errors. A way of checking the translation is to use the translator to translate the translation provided back to the original language.
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Laura says:

When I started learning Spanish, I was not sure how to choose the right dictionary. Some are marketed for beginners, and I started off with one of those when I first started learning Spanish, and then spent a little more money later on, and bought myself a more comprehensive dictionary.

Activity 1 Trying out online translators

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Go to an online newspaper or news organisation in your target language and copy a paragraph of text from a news item. Then go to an online translator, such as Google Translate, and paste the text onto the translation box to provide a translation into your main language. Look at the results. Does the text make sense?


It is probably good enough to enable you to understand what the text is about, but it is probably not 100 per cent grammatically correct. Most likely there will be some sentences that convey the meaning effectively, but may sound slightly odd, as if someone who isn’t familiar with the language style wrote them. So if you use an online translator to translate a text you have written in your main language into your target language, don’t expect it to be totally correct either.

Laura says:

I think that when you start learning a language, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using online translators without realising that the translation often contains mistakes, so this is a useful exercise to show why you must be careful.


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