A dictionary is a great tool and even a great bedside book. I love exploring it, flipping through to discover complicated or funny words, in English or in French.
However, you should not cling to your dictionary as you would cling to a lifebuoy. Dictionaries can be so big and heavy that they would make you drown – quite the opposite of what you would expect from them.
When I teach, I want my students to take the habit of not using a dictionary during our lessons (unless specifically asked to do so for a given task or activity). I must have said it over so many times that I once found out that I had been nicknamed Ms “Pas de dictionnaire!” (“No dictionary!”). As long as they remember it, that’s fine with me! 😉
In this article, you will:
- learn why you should strive to avoid the systematic use of your dictionary
- get tips on how best to use your dictionary (includes practice worksheet)
- find out which dictionaries I recommend.
Situations When Using the Dictionary Can Be Tricky: Tips
In speaking activities
When you are in the middle of a conversation with a native, you wouldn’t make them wait while you flip through all the pages of your French dictionary or type in your electronic device, would you?
Tip: Be smart and find another way of wording what you want to say! (A good teacher should encourage and help you implement strategies so that you can gain autonomy in French conversation.)
For example, if you don’t know the word for “frog”, you can give a definition, like: “a green animal that hops (and whose legs some French people eat…as per the cliché!)
In writing activities
When you are writing, a English/French dictionary proves to be a very precious resource indeed, but some students fall in the trap of relying on it so much that they end up losing all common sense and end up translating from one language to the other literally. Not efficient!
What’s more, the word is not always chosen correctly. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
Tip: Try to only use your dictionary to:
- look up words that you really need for your piece of writing
- check the gender of a noun
- check the conjugation of irregular verbs.
In reading activities
When you read, the reason why you don’t want to look up each and every new word is that you will end up not only very distracted/interrupted in your reading but also discouraged in your efforts because there can be many unknown words.
Tip: Use the context to guess the meaning. Only look up a word when it really prevents your understanding of the message as a whole. Otherwise just move on with your reading. Not everything is important. Also, choose a book according to your level in French: see my article “Reading French Books: Where to Start?” and my “Recommended Reading List”.
Smartphones now come with dictionary/translation applications. I have already found myself in a pretty embarrassing situation, reminding a student not to write SMS in class (I find the use of cell phones in class very rude and was quite annoyed). Then, he replied “But I’m not writing an SMS, just looking up a word!” Oops. Well, anyway…you’re not supposed to! 😉
Tip: Class time gives you the opportunity to ask questions and discuss anything with your teacher and fellow students. Therefore, any question you may ask will also be beneficial to others – especially as some students feel shy. Remember that there is no such thing as a stupid question.
Besides, your teacher will be glad to be helpful to you and may give you tips to help you remember the word (for instance its origin, similarities with other words you may know, etc.)
Using Your French Dictionary Efficiently: Tips
Select the right type of word and context
If a dictionary indeed is a great tool to have, the thing about a tool is: you need to learn how to use it…otherwise it will do the exact opposite of helping you !
Notice that there is often more than one suggested translation for a single word. You’re not supposed to just pick the first one and assume that the rest has been printed for ornamental purposes!
Tip: You first need to know what type of word you are after: a noun? a verb? a transitive or intransitive verb? Having some grammar knowledge is essential to use your dictionary efficiently. (If you have difficulties with French grammar, this article can help!)
The following example illustrates an incorrect use of the dictionary from one of my French students.
- Example #1 (as seen in my previous article)
My student had written:
“Je voudrais devenir pilote pour la mouche autour du monde.”
As I couldn’t figure it out, my student translated for me. She meant to say:
« I would like to become a pilot to fly around the world.»
Not knowing how to say “fly”, she had looked up in her dictionary.
The word “fly” can either be:
- a noun : a fly / housefly, this annoying insect thousands of which try to enter your mouth, nose and ears when you travel in the Australian outback
→ in French, the word for it is “mouche” (feminine)
- a verb : to fly – in the sky, generally with wings. Planes fly. Birds fly.
→ in French, the word for it is “voler”
In the sentence “I would like to become a pilot to fly around the world”, the word “fly” is a verb. Therefore, my student should have written :
“Je voudrais devenir pilote pour voler autour du monde”,
not : « Je voudrais devenir pilote pour la mouche autour du monde » !
Understand the abbreviations
The abbreviations and indicators/indications (often in italics or in between rounded brackets) will give you valuable information to help you choose wisely between the different types of word and understand the meaning/language register.
Common abbreviations that you can find in your French/English dictionary are:
|conj||conjonction||conjunction, linking word|
|nom féminin||feminine noun|
|nom masculin||masculine noun|
|verbe intransitif||intransitive verb|
|verbe transitif||transitive verb|
Double check (with a bilingual dictionary)
In example #1, a native French speaker would not have been able to understand you. But it could be worse (and I hear you ask: “What could possibly be worse than not being understood when it comes to speaking a language ?”). Well : being unintentionally rude or crude ! Innocently saying something that will be interpreted totally the wrong way !
- Example #2
One of my students had to imagine and write their horoscope.
He wanted to say “you will kiss a frog (but it won’t turn into a prince)”
He looked up the word for “kiss” and wrote “vous baiserez une grenouille (etc)”, which actually means no less than… “you will screw a frog”!
This is what happened: just like in the previous example, my student started by choosing the wrong type of word: in “you will kiss a frog”, the word “kiss” is a verb, not a noun.
If you look at the noun, “un baiser” is “a kiss” indeed. But used as a verb, the word “baiser” has now shifted in meaning and is very rude (unless it is used with a body part, such as kiss the forehead/hand of the person)!
Of course, my student would not have known that. So, here’s my tip: once you’ve looked up a word from English to French, it is best to double check that it really is what you mean by going to checking the translation from French back to English. (I do this myself quite often with English…to French!)
Source images: http://www.wordreference.com/
Use sparingly…and with common sense!
Enjoy and use your French dictionary efficiently and sparingly.
Test yourself with my free practice worksheet (PDF).
Which French Dictionary to Use?
Here are the dictionaries that I use myself.
Online dictionaries to find a solution in one click !
- I always use the free online Word Reference dictionary for bilingual English/French reference (other languages available) because at the bottom of the entries, there are links to forum threads where people can submit their questions and discuss to find a good translation of expressions that may not be in the proposed results.
- Lexilogos also allows you to choose between many free language dictionaries (and even country maps and keyboards), but I personally use it more for unilingual French dictionary (there again, you can choose between many different online dictionaries but also the synonyms, ethymology, slang dictionaries, dictionaries of expressions, etc)
Many of you may be using Google Translate. I will write an article about it later.
Bilingual or French dictionary?
- Translating from English to French
If you need to translate a word from English to French that you don’t know, you will need to use a bilingual English-French dictionary.
- Translating from French to English
To check the meaning of a French word you’ve just heard or read, you can use either edition (a bilingual or French-only dictionary). In order to challenge/push you a little bit, I would encourage that you use a French dictionary from an intermediate level in French. This is a great opportunity for you to learn some extra vocabulary in the process and to get you familiar with how a definition is worded (so that when you don’t know how to say a word during a conversation, you can more easily give/make its definition)
Share your experience! Do you have some examples of mistakes you made because of an incorrect use of your dictionary?Get Worksheet