Yes, dictionaries and translators serve a purpose. But believe it or not, the best students I’ve known have rarely used a dictionary or thesaurus in the classroom. That includes both group lessons and private lessons like italki.


Now, certainly, dictionaries and the like do help students when they’re studying alone or in a pinch (difficult situation, requiring a quick answer). An example: You’re in your country, learning the language, and you forget where to catch the next train. All of a sudden, your mind goes blank (totally forget) and you need to know the word for train. You look it up, stop sweating, and can then ask a native speaker the train schedule.


Here’s why dictionaries may not help with continued use:



What exactly is the meaning?


Dictionaries are notorious for giving every meaning and related meanings: nouns, verb, and adjectives, etc.

Let’s look up the simple word “please” in the dictionary from New Oxford American Dictionary. Here’s what we get:


please |plēz|
verb [with object]


1. cause to feel happy and satisfied: he arranged a fishing trip to please his son | [with object and infinitive] : it pleased him to be seen with someone in the news.

  • [no object] give satisfaction: she was quiet and eager to please.
  • satisfy aesthetically.


2. (please oneself) take only one's own wishes into consideration in deciding how to act or proceed: this is the first time in ages that I can just please myself.

  • [no object] wish or desire to do something: feel free to wander around as you please.
  • (it pleases, pleased, etc., someone to do something) dated it is someone's choice to do something: instead of attending the meeting, it pleased him to go off hunting.




used in polite requests or questions: please address letters to the Editor | what type of fish is this, please?

  • used to add urgency and emotion to a request: please, please come home!
  • used to agree politely to a request: “May I call you at home?” “Please do.”
  • used in polite or emphatic acceptance of an offer: “Would you like a drink?” “Yes, please.”
  • used to ask someone to stop doing something of which the speaker disapproves: Rita, please—people are looking.
  • used to express incredulity or irritation: You cleaned out the barn in only two hours? Oh, please!


Imagine you’re in a group class or with a private tutor (like on italki) and the teacher says a word you don’t know. You start looking it up and meanwhile you lose the next part of the lesson. What’s wrong with asking your tutor or classroom instructor about the word? Most teachers love questions.


Another thing: If you don’t know the meaning of the word, chances are others in the class don’t know it either. So by asking the teacher for the meaning, you’ll be helping other students as well. And it’s certainly faster and more direct than looking it up in the dictionary.


This leads us to other problems with overusing the dictionary.



It’s a distraction


A dictionary is a distraction for both teachers and their students. There’s nothing worse than a teacher trying to conduct a class and seeing a student punching away on something underneath his or her desk; often a cell phone. But many students are using their dictionaries to look something up when they can simply ask their teacher.


Have you ever been annoyed when students reach for a dictionary? For one thing, it does seem quite disrespectful to the teacher. Even more though, you and other students may wonder what you’re missing in the lesson. Why are they (and it always seems like the same students, right?) searching for something while you and the rest of the class are satisfied with paying attention to the teacher.


And so the teacher, in order to prevent these “under-desk” activities, should say at the beginning of the course that cell phones and dictionaries are not allowed in the class.



Wise use of dictionaries


Dictionaries are very useful tools when learning a language, of course. Let’s take reading and watching movies (even with subtitles). Unless you’re proficient in the language you’re learning, you won’t know every word and you’re not expected to. (Even I don’t know every word in my native language -- and I teach it).


In fact, you shouldn’t be looking up every word as you read or watch TV and movies. Usually, you can understand a whole sentence when skipping a word or two. The best thing to do is have a notebook with you and write down the word quickly and then look it up at the end of the movie. If you don’t, you will miss the action. Many times you will realize that you “knew” the word just by the context of the book or movies.



So what to do with a dictionary?


Use it when you really need it -- when you’re not able to ask your teacher or someone else what the word means.


Use it discriminately while reading or watching shows and movies in the language you’re learning. Remember, a dictionary may actually make you a lazy student. You don’t want to become dependent on a book, do you?


Instead, be brave enough to depend on the context of words and sentences. And when you don’t know the meaning of a word or expression, don’t be shy and ask someone!


Ilene Springer is a long-time Itaki teacher in English. She also is the author of “The Diary of an American Expatriate” (London, AUK publishers). You can also visit her website Chocolate


Hero image by Romain Vignes (CC0 1.0)