I’ve been studying languages for a long time (over 20 years in fact, because I’m still learning my native language English) so I’m pretty used to using dictionaries. I’ve had lots of foreign language dictionaries in the past and still do, from school learners dictionaries, to picture dictionaries, pocket dictionaries and native language dictionaries. So I always have a lot of choices when I meet a new word.
As now I’m focusing on Chinese language, I usually turn to Pleco when I don’t know a word. It’s a very useful app, where if you don’t know how to type the Chinese character, you can draw it and the app will recognise it. Pleco is a very useful tool for all Mandarin learners, and it has some pretty good translations of Chinese idioms too.
Lately, my vocabulary book has gone into overdrive and the words are colour-coded according to which text book they came from: comprehensive, listening, oral, reading and writing.
A few of my teachers have seen me looking up vocabulary on Pleco, and have told me that now I’m at an advanced level, I should be looking up unknown vocabulary in Chinese, not in English because the translations aren’t always right and there are some subtle differences with some words: for example, in English referee and judge are two different words, but in Chinese, 裁判 can be used to describe both of these. It’s also true that some things just don’t have a handy translation, try telling me what 辛苦你了 translates as!
This is not the first time this has happened. In our final year of university, in our Spanish translation classes, we were not allowed to use Spanish-English dictionaries, and instead were all made to download the RAE dictionary (the Spanish equivalent of the Oxford dictionary). We all reluctantly did this, but secretly would go home and check Wordreference when completing our homework.
Our teachers are right, looking up a word in an English- foreign language dictionary is a bit lazy. We just look at the first or second word and take it as it is, without question, but when we look up a word in a native language dictionary, it gives us a better understanding of the word and using our brain to figure out the meaning is better than just remembering what it seems like in our own language.
There are some difficulties in looking up words in a native language dictionary: synonyms. Imagine you don’t know the word ‘enormous’, you look it up and the definition says ‘huge’, but you realise you don’t know what ‘huge’ means either. You turn to H , find huge only to find that the definition is ‘enormous’ – what do you do then? This is a problem I’ve found when looking things up in my 现代汉语词典. I’m trying though, and as I’m learning over 250 new words each week (yes I’m keeping track this semester), as my vocabulary expands, I’ll be able to use the Chinese – Chinese dictionary better than I am doing now.
What do you think about looking up unknown words? Do you prefer to use your own language to understand, or do you use a native speaker’s dictionary?