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Using a Dictionary
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Words can fool you.  And translating words can really fool you!  That can even be dangerous.  But then, that's what they made bilingual dictionaries for, right?  You can just look up the word in English, and it will tell you what word to use in the target language, right? Hmmmnn!

I looked up a common word in Swahili.  The Swahili word is sherehe.  I know that we use sherehe where in English we use the word "celebration," or "commemoration." The verb coming from it, sherehekea, means to celebrate something, or celebrate because of something.

In the Swahili-English dictionary, I found: pomp or display; demonstration, rejoicings, cheers, triumph.  This was pretty close.  If it had not been with the other words, "demonstration" would have meant something else to me.  But they did not even have the very common verb form!

If I had needed a word for a riot ("demonstration"), this word would have been far off! And under "celebrate", the English-Swahili dictionary does not even list sherehe! So much for that dictionary.  Well, I know most of you do not care about Swahili, but I bet you can substitute your own words from your own experience.

Three-Dimensional Language
Dictionaries are usually one-dimensional.  Life and language are three-dimensional.  A word list or single-word equivalent just cannot give you the rich meaning of people's use of a language in the full context of their life and conversation.  Thus most simple travelers' dictionaries are not much help.  They will often lead you astray.  So how can you best use a dictionary?

First, the best dictionary will give you examples of the word in a sentence, often for each separate meaning.  This brings the word to life by providing a bit of context.  But such a dictionary probably costs more.

You can still make a simple word-equivalent dictionary work for you.  Always cross-reference from the original word.  Most words in English have several meanings .  You want to be sure the word you got in the target language is really for the meaning you have in mind!

After you look up the English word, check the target language word to see what different English words they give for it.  This will give you the range of meaning and usage and clarify connotations.

Final Authority
Remember, in the end the final authority is not any book, but a speaker of the dominant dialect or from the area where you expect to live.  The real context of the word's meaning is the actual daily usage by native speakers.  Then be prepared for a range of meaning from one speaker to another. This way you can get an idea of the range of meaning for the word in question.

The Idea
Words are symbols of thoughts and ideas.  Words often cover a wide range of related meanings.  The set of related meanings depends on the cultural worldview, technology and social structures that language is related to.  One reason English words have so many meanings is because English-speaking peoples have such a wide range of culture and geography.  Learn the idea set for each word, and the word set related to a certain idea.

The same word may also represent totally unrelated ideas.  Word sets vary considerably from one language to another.  Word sets rarely match exactly from one language to another - or even from one dialect to another in the same language.  So you probably need several words in your language to explain the idea of a word in the target language.  

Use the dictionary dynamically and creatively to get at the idea behind the word.  Don't let the dictionary limit you to a single-word equivalent in English.  It might be the wrong single word!

Also related:
[TXT] How Words Grow
[Review] How Many Words?
[TXT] Word Mapping
[Review] New Words
[TXT] Overlearning
[TXT] Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
[TXT] Quick Guide to Language Learning
[TXT] Working on Vocabulary
[TXT] Worldview and Experience.


Original version of this article first published in the "Techniques" series, Focus on Communication Effectiveness, July 1995
This version first posted 9 June 2001
Last edited 28 July 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 1995, 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu  
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