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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Dictionary: Use It. Don't Abuse It.

In this post, I’m going to introduce some techniques for using a dictionary effectively for developing vocabulary.  First, let’s address a common practice that I don’t feel is very effective. 
DON’T study the Dictionary
An English learner who spends hours “studying” random dictionary words and definitions will largely be wasting their precious time.  That person who opens the dictionary to whichever page and starts reading might learn something about some words but will not likely learn what is needed to utilize the words comfortably and accurately.   Plus, whatever they learn, will likely not remain in their mind for long and they will find themselves looking up the same information over and over.
DO reference the Dictionary
When you encounter a word or phrase that is unfamiliar, of course you should look it up to learn more about it.  More than this, you should reference the dictionary when you ARE familiar with a word or phrase but do not really feel comfortable using it.  Chances are you understand this word or phrase well enough when you hear or read it because it is a part of your receptive vocabulary.  It may not be part of your productive vocabulary though if you cannot use it in speaking or writing.  Referencing the dictionary and especially paying attention to examples of how the word or phrase is used can begin the process of converting this to your productive vocabulary.  Then you’ll need to practice using the word or phrase in speaking and writing until a greater level of comfort is achieved.  Noticing can also be helpful here as you recognize how the word or phrase is used in context and incorporate those models into your own production.
DO pay attention to pronunciation notes in the dictionary
When you reference something, note the accepted pronunciation(s) and if you are using an online dictionary, listen to an audio sample of the word if it is available.  Then practice saying the word (yes, out loud) so you can hear yourself say it.  Maybe you’ve heard the word many times but never said it.  So say it and practice saying it until it rolls of your tongue easily. They go out, work it into conversation and pay attention to any feedback you receive. 
DO pay attention to Collocations
Some dictionary entries will mention word collocations.  These word partners are critical to accurate use of many words. 
For example, if you reference the word, REGARD, you might find the following collocations:
·         as regards
·         in regard to
·         with regard to
·         due regards
·         best regards
·         no regard for
·         without regard for
·         a deep regard for
For more information on Collocations, see the post from January 17, 2012. 
DO pay attention to Word Families
Word family members or sometimes called “related forms” of a word are very helpful to be familiar with.  Let’s go back to the word, REGARD.  A person who looks up this word and pays attention to this root form alone, will only increase his/her vocabulary by one word but it will be more valuable to take a few more moments to recognize these related forms and their uses. 
·         regarded (adj.)
·         regarding (adj.)
·         unregarded (adj.)
·         disregard (verb)
·         regardless (adj.)
·         regardlessness (noun)
·         irregardless (adj.)
·         well-regarded (adj.)
In general, dictionaries (as well as translators and other reference tools) can be very useful for independent language learners if used appropriately.  Your time is valuable, use it wisely and get the most out of your language study!

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