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  • Writer's pictureNur Deniz Mutlu

How to Use Dictionaries Effectively When Learning a Foreign Language

Did you know that the first dictionary in history is the cuneiform tablets of the Akkadian Empire which date back to 2300 BCE? These tablets were discovered in Elba, now modern-day Syria, and they contain a bilingual list of Sumerian-Akkadian words.


Cambridge Dictionary defines “dictionary” as “a book that contains a list of words in alphabetical order and explains their meanings, or gives a word for them in another language; an electronic product giving similar information on a computer, smartphone, etc.”

As you already can guess, words are the most indispensable parts of languages. Let’s think for a minute. If you did not know the meanings of words, how would you communicate? You learn your native language(s) from your parents subconsciously. As you grow up, your vocabulary expands. But, what about when learning a foreign language?

No matter how we learn a new language, we always cling to dictionaries. This is not to say that we do not need dictionaries for our native language(s). Because sometimes, we do. But especially for foreign language learners, the dictionary assumes the position of guide. No one can achieve an adequate level of proficiency in foreign languages without dictionaries.

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Learning new words and phrases is the first step you take when learning a foreign language. To form a solid foundation in your language-learning journey, you should be attentive and know how to choose the best dictionary for your purpose. By doing so, you can maintain a smooth learning experience and be successful in other steps.

Dictionary types

According to the online courses “English for Academic Studies” from FutureLearn & Coventry University and “English: Skills for Learning” from OpenLearn, dictionary types include:

  • Monolingual dictionaries: This type of dictionary provides a definition in the source language.If you use a monolingual dictionary for an unknown word in English, you can only see its English definition. Also, a monolingual dictionary includes lots of other information about grammar, synonyms, and pronunciation. For instance, Macmillan Dictionary is an excellent source for people using monolingual dictionaries.

  • Bilingual dictionaries: A bilingual dictionary provides a translated version of the word you are looking for, such as the Collins English-French Dictionary. You can use a bilingual dictionary to look at what a word means in your native language or any other language you know. It may have limited information about the word.

  • Language learner’s dictionaries: This type of dictionary is similar to the monolingual dictionary since it only provides a definition in the source language. But there is a slight difference: language learner’s dictionaries have a clear and simple language. They are formed to help foreign language learners. Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary and Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English are good examples of this type.

  • Specialist or subject-specific dictionaries: A specialist dictionary is also like the monolingual dictionary in that they both provide a definition in the source language. However, such dictionaries are specific to only one area. They do not include the general meaning of words. The Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary is an example of a specialist dictionary.

  • Collocations dictionaries: After you check the meaning of an unknown word, you can see the most common combinations of that word by looking it up in a collocations dictionary. It does not include the meaning of a word. However, this type is maybe the most important one after the dictionaries providing definitions. For instance, the verbs “do” and “make” seem like they have the same meanings. Here is the point where language learners get confused. If you do not know the combinations of these verbs, you can make a sentence such as “I do a cake” instead of “I make a cake.” So, it is always important to know how words are used with other words. For example, the Oxford Collocations Dictionary, or the sites such as Ozdic and Just the Word, can help you to find collocations of a word.

  • Thesauri (Thesaurus): This type of dictionary resembles the collocations dictionary, but it provides synonyms, antonyms, related words, and sometimes example sentences. Also, it does not include the meaning of a word. You can go to Thesaurus if you want to find a word’s synonym, antonym, or the words related to it.

In addition to these types, you may also want to use etymological dictionaries. This type of dictionary provides the origin of words and their evolution throughout time. Even though it may be unrelated to foreign language learning, learning the origin of a word can help you memorize unknown words better and learn interesting facts about their history. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology or Etymonline are great examples of this type of dictionary.

Which one is the best?

Now, we know that not all dictionaries are the same. So, it is important to mention which is the best option for foreign language learners. Bilingual dictionaries may be the easiest ones for learners to use as they include both the language we already know and the language we are learning. However, it is always more efficient to use language learner’s dictionaries.

While we can find only the equivalent meaning of an unknown word in bilingual dictionaries, learner’s dictionaries can show more than one definition, variations by tense (for verbs) and plurality (for nouns), pronunciations, parts of speech, example sentences, phrases, idioms, and expressions. Therefore, using learner’s dictionaries can ensure better learning.

Thesauri and collocations dictionaries are the two types of dictionaries you should use no matter what your level is. Learning a new language is not only about learning the meanings or definitions of a word. Expose yourself to the related phrases, words, idioms, or sentences made with the unknown word.

Once we reach an intermediate level, we can also begin using monolingual dictionaries and specialist dictionaries. Since monolingual dictionaries are more complex than other types, using them at the beginning of your language learning journey is not recommended. Likewise, specialist dictionaries are unique to a specific field. If you use them first, you do not learn a new language. Instead, you learn the terminology of that field.

Let’s explain the importance of dictionary choice with an example taken from the online course “English for Academic Studies.” Click to the links respectively and try to see the difference:

How to access?

You can access dictionaries in a variety of ways. According to the online course “English: Skills for Learning”, these ways are as follows:

  • Print dictionaries: You can purchase a print dictionary online or from a bookstore. Nowadays, due to the widespread use of online dictionaries, print ones seem a bit old-fashioned. But still, you should have at least one print dictionary.

  • Online dictionaries (subscription): You can access online dictionaries available on subscription, such as Oxford English Dictionary. You can find everything you need with such dictionaries because they give comprehensive information about the vocabulary. If you are an enrolled student and your university subscribes to an online dictionary, you can generally access it for free.

This is a picture of a male student sitting at a table in front of an open laptop. He's writing something in a notebook.
For students, school can provide free resources.
  • Dictionary apps: You can download dictionary applications, such as Longman Dictionary English or, on your smartphone, computer, or tablet.

  • Online dictionaries (free): Apart from the online dictionaries available only on subscription, there are also free online dictionaries, such as The Collins English Dictionary.

  • Search engines: Language learners generally do not prefer search engines. However, if you want to compare dictionary definitions, you can use them. Search engines, such as OneLook, may come in quite handy since they find several definitions from free online dictionaries.

How do you memorize new words?

Unfortunately, it is not possible to say that there is only one way to memorize a word. You need to find your own way to keep the new words in your mind. However, there are some common ways to make this easy.

When you see an unknown word, you should look up the dictionary which is convenient for your level. You can note all the words you do not know in your vocabulary notebook or prepare a card for each word.

You should learn and get familiar with how these words differ in particular contexts so that you can use them correctly later on.Therefore, you need to read, listen, and understand the sentences you encounter as much as possible because this is the best possible way to remember a word.

You may need to spend a lot of time reading and listening to the language you are studying. If you use SkeLL, you can find example sentences for the word you want to see in a sentence. If you wish to listen to a conversation, talk, or speech in which the word you have learned takes place, you can visit YouGlish, which finds sentences from YouTube videos. After trying these, you can try to make your own sentences.

Look over the words you have learned at regular intervals. If you do not remember any of them, you had better revise them. You can meet someone who tries to learn the same language as you do. It can be great to feel motivated and supported by others. You can even test each other by preparing some mini quizzes since this can make your learning much more enjoyable.

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Studying together can make learning easier.

Recording new vocabulary

According to the online course “English for Academic Studies,” after learning a new word, it is important to record it by keeping a vocabulary log. When you note down the word, you can draw a table by following these: (If you want to see an example, you can click here.) 1. Word: You should write down the word for which you are keeping the vocabulary log. 2. In my language: If you do not understand the meaning of a new word, you can use a bilingual dictionary and write the translation. But still, you need to remember that words can have lots of different meanings. You should ask yourself these questions: “Does it make sense to me?” and “Does it fit the context?” 3. Definition: You should make sure that you choose the correct definition from the dictionary for this part. If you see any other contexts in which the word is used, you should add this information to your log, too.

4. Example sentence: To understand how to use the word, write at least one example sentence at first. But if you see new and different ways to use the word, you should keep adding. 5. Part of speech: You should note down the type of word you learn and find the other parts of speech. For instance, if you have learned the word “independent,” you should write its type first, which is an adjective. Then, you should search and find other variations of “independent,” such as “independently” and “independence.” 6. Collocations: You need to bear in mind that almost all words have common combinations with other words. If you learn the collocations, it gets easier to use them in a sentence. Pearson Academic List is a good source for finding collocations. If you decide to learn a new language, it is natural to be confused at first. To understand how to use the word, write at least one example sentence at first. Some of the sources and examples given in this post are for English learners only, but you can easily find similar ones for the language you are trying to learn. Do not forget, learning a new language begins with learning new words. We would be happy to support you on your language learning journey! We offer online, group, individual, and in-person language classes. You can join us if you want to learn English, Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic. For more information, please visit our website or email us at

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