bilingual dictionariesYesterday, we gave you some tips for choosing a good dictionary for studying English. You may have noticed that we didn’t mention bilingual dictionaries or electronic translators, even though these are very popular with students.

Many English teachers — including the teachers at IEI — do not encourage students to use these dictionaries. (There are some exceptions, such as beginning English students.) They may seem better than English-only dictionaries because they are very quick and easy to use, but they are not good for improving your English. Here are four reasons why.

  1. They can be inaccurate. Many bilingual dictionaries are written by native speakers of the non-English language. They can contain translations that are inaccurate, awkward, or archaic. When writing teachers read student papers, they can easily identify phrases that came from bilingual dictionaries because they seem unnatural.
  2. Some words don’t translate. Languages have developed around the world independent of each other. That’s why some words in one language do not have equivalent words in another language — there simply is not word to describe that thing or idea. In these situations, a bilingual dictionary is useless.
  3. They don’t include nuance. (Go ahead, look up nuance in your English dictionary. We’ll wait here.) An English dictionary will give you the smaller details of a word’s meaning. Think about the words scream and shout. Their meanings are similar — both mean to make a loud sound with your voice — but they are not exactly the same. Screaming is high-pitched and usually used in a very emotional situation. Shouting can be in any pitch and is used in a wider variety of situations. A bilingual dictionary will not explain this difference.
  4. You don’t have to think in English. When you look up a word using your native language, you have to stop using English, use your native language, and then switch back to English. These mental changes interrupt your fluency and make it more awkward to use English. An English-only dictionary keeps your mind in one language.


[photo credit: busy.pochi]