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The best online dictionary for learning any language: Google Image!

| 36 comments | Category: learning languages, Tool and Resources

searching for the image of a term

There is a huge problem with almost every single dictionary you will come across. The translation is always wrong! Yep. Demand your money back! :P

When you look up a word such as “voiture” from French, your dictionary may suggest “car”. But “voiture” doesn’t mean “car”. A “voiture” is “a wheeled motor vehicle used for transporting passengers, which also carries its own engine or motor…” which in English we happen to call a car. But it isn’t a “car”! That’s just a word, a set of letters. That voiture/car/coche/auto etc. thing is a concept.

This is an important idea for learning languages. When you see a new word, which is spelt entirely differently from how it is in English, you may be tempted to just think yourself “Why do they make it so hard?? Why can’t they just use the English word?” Well, there is no universal relationship between an object and any particular word, even (gasp!) English words!

OK, that may be an interesting philosophical discussion or whatever, but how can that help me learn a language quicker?

Stop using English to learn your new language!

The main problem with traditional dictionaries is that you look up the word and see what the translation to English (or your mother tongue) is. This means that if you apply it to memory you always have to go via another unconnected language. This is NOT the way to speak fluently. When you hear a word you know, the thought process for most language learners is something like “Ordenador”… “Computer”… ….! Ah ok, I remember! You translate one word to another word and then get the concept via the second word. Or vice versa when you are speaking the language yourself. But fluent, and especially native speakers do not think like this! This is kind of thing that slows learners down into umms and uhs; because you have to go through twice as many words (native language + learned language) to be able to say the same thing. “Dónde está el… What’s the word for computer in Spanish?? Damnit, I learned this yesterday, it begins with an O I think…“. Your entire flow and rhythm in speaking a foreign language is lost when you keep switching between it and English. You should actually be asking yourself something like “Dónde está el… ¿Cómo se dice esa palabra? Si quiero mirar internet, entonces lo utilizo.. coño, cómo era?”. So, your entire thought process should be through the language; abandoning English entirely (even if you make mistakes). I’ll come back to this idea another time, but back to the word itself…

When I hear “ordenador” or any other translation of the concept I’m familiar with, I associate it with the concept, not with the word “computer”. It takes a bit of practise at first, but it’s not as hard as you think because it’s all part of how we naturally learned words in our native language when we are growing up. We should use the same approach for our second (or third etc.) language! But, instead of just saying “it takes a bit of practise”, I can actually offer one good way to get used to associating the word with the concept:

Google Image to the rescue!

Most of you may be familiar with http://images.google.com as just a quick way to get an image from the Internet to use in some document (like I just did with the computer image above). But it has much greater potential than this. As suggested a while back, over at Lifehacker, you can use Google’s Image search as a dictionary. Try it for my examples above (voiture, ordenador). Or try it with any word you are learning! Obviously it gets trickier when looking up verbs that are hard to represent as images or emotional concepts etc., but on the other hand it does much better at representing harder specific words that your cheap pocket dictionary or even the best online dictionaries can’t find.

When using this, note that you should set Google image’s URL to the domain of the country that speaks the language you are learning whenever possible (this ensures Google doesn’t think you misspelt the word, or if there is a false friend or brand name etc. in English with that word). Spanish is http://images.google.es , French is http://images.google.fr etc. So if I want to find out what the Czech word “komár” means, then I’ll look it up in Google Image (.CZ) and I see what it is, associate that word with the concept in my mind (not thinking about the English word), perhaps applying memory techniques (that I’ll get to later) and when I hear the word later, then I will think of it quicker because I’m not slowing myself down with the English word. Note that Flickr is also an excellent resource for image searches and this can potentially be even better than Google Image because of its well applied tagging system.

Give it a try! Let me know if it works :) . Of course, standard dictionaries aren’t all that bad; I use them too all the time. But remember that my point here is that you need to get used to NOT thinking via English! If you must look the word up in a dictionary then after you see its translation, picture what the word represents and associate that with the foreign language word, not the English word with the foreign language word. Give me your thoughts on this in the comments below :)

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  • Caora Rua

    Hahaha, the situation may be even worse if there are no dictionaries between your language and the language you’re learning! Unfortunately, there’re no decently made Russian-Basque, Russian-Irish and Russian-Welsh dictionaries, so I learn these languages through Spanish and English dictionaries and books respectively! ;)

    Btw, never tried Google images, sounds completely new for me! Thnx!

    “OK, that may be an interesting philosophical discussion or whatever, but how can that help me learn a language quicker?” – Personally I like this kind of discussions, especially at night, especially in the kitchen, I think we must discuss it! xD

  • Caora Rua

    Hahaha, the situation may be even worse if there are no dictionaries between your language and the language you’re learning! Unfortunately, there’re no decently made Russian-Basque, Russian-Irish and Russian-Welsh dictionaries, so I learn these languages through Spanish and English dictionaries and books respectively! ;)

    Btw, never tried Google images, sounds completely new for me! Thnx!

    “OK, that may be an interesting philosophical discussion or whatever, but how can that help me learn a language quicker?” – Personally I like this kind of discussions, especially at night, especially in the kitchen, I think we must discuss it! xD

  • Chris

    Indeed. This is so true. By the way, the Berlitz method is also based on images. The teacher is always a native speaker and often does not even speak the pupils language. All is based on pictures and goes from single words to complete sentences. It is quite amazing to see how fast this methods works. Starting to think in the language you want to learn is a process, it might take a while, but you will get there. As soon as you start dreaming in that language…you are on your way to fluency.
    Google images is indeed a good help to eliminate translating back and forth. Of course, it requires some effort, but hey, if you are motivated, no trouble can be too hard can it?
    Good luck to all you people out there learning languages!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Believe it or not, I actually worked for Berlitz as a teacher ;) So I know all about their method. It works for a lot of people, but is definitely not the way I would go about learning a language (the course I was teaching was very well structured, but inflexible to the needs of the particular students; presuming they all have the same learning process. Seems a bit impersonal). On the other hand their “professional English” course was quite interesting indeed.
      I practise “lucid dreaming”. I can dream in Czech whenever I want (even if it involves using only the 3 dozen words that I know :P )

  • Chris

    Indeed. This is so true. By the way, the Berlitz method is also based on images. The teacher is always a native speaker and often does not even speak the pupils language. All is based on pictures and goes from single words to complete sentences. It is quite amazing to see how fast this methods works. Starting to think in the language you want to learn is a process, it might take a while, but you will get there. As soon as you start dreaming in that language…you are on your way to fluency.
    Google images is indeed a good help to eliminate translating back and forth. Of course, it requires some effort, but hey, if you are motivated, no trouble can be too hard can it?
    Good luck to all you people out there learning languages!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Believe it or not, I actually worked for Berlitz as a teacher ;) So I know all about their method. It works for a lot of people, but is definitely not the way I would go about learning a language (the course I was teaching was very well structured, but inflexible to the needs of the particular students; presuming they all have the same learning process. Seems a bit impersonal). On the other hand their “professional English” course was quite interesting indeed.
      I practise “lucid dreaming”. I can dream in Czech whenever I want (even if it involves using only the 3 dozen words that I know :P )

  • http://blok.ficova.com/ sylva

    interesting-)))
    here’s a tip for a “real” dictionary: http://www.slovnik.cz

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      An excellent link, thanks Sylva!! I’ve referred to it a LOT to understand text messages and words that Google Translate does a pathetic job with (as well as those horrible twitter updates you’ve been reading of mine :P )
      That site may stop me from ever buying an actual Czech dictionary!! :D

  • http://blok.ficova.com sylva

    interesting-)))
    here’s a tip for a “real” dictionary: http://www.slovnik.cz

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      An excellent link, thanks Sylva!! I’ve referred to it a LOT to understand text messages and words that Google Translate does a pathetic job with (as well as those horrible twitter updates you’ve been reading of mine :P )
      That site may stop me from ever buying an actual Czech dictionary!! :D

  • Karl

    Benny – you’re so right. I often wondered to myself (in plain auld English) what a Benny is. Google Image to the rescue.
    http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=benny&gbv=2&aq=f&oq=
    :-)

  • Karl

    Benny – you’re so right. I often wondered to myself (in plain auld English) what a Benny is. Google Image to the rescue.
    http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=benny&gbv=2&aq=f&oq=
    :-)

  • Davidderousse1@veriz

    Benny, you wrote this………I practise “lucid dreaming”. I can dream in Czech whenever I want (even if it involves using only the 3 dozen words that I know )

    Now, how do you manage that???

    That would be a real trick.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Lucid dreaming is when you practise realizing that you are dreaming, so you can eventually control what happens. It’s fun, but since it’s only within your mind, it’s not quite so useful in terms of learning or practising a language :P
      There are lots of resources online about how to learn how to lucid dream if you google it :) Have fun :D

  • Davidderousse1@veriz

    Benny, you wrote this………I practise “lucid dreaming”. I can dream in Czech whenever I want (even if it involves using only the 3 dozen words that I know )

    Now, how do you manage that???

    That would be a real trick.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Lucid dreaming is when you practise realizing that you are dreaming, so you can eventually control what happens. It’s fun, but since it’s only within your mind, it’s not quite so useful in terms of learning or practising a language :P
      There are lots of resources online about how to learn how to lucid dream if you google it :) Have fun :D

  • Roy

    It’s an interesting idea. I’ll give it a try. Although there’s bound to be a few cases where it’s less than helpful – I put “la lápiz” into the Spanish google images..and the results indicate the word means either “pencil” or “wannabe gangster” :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      lol, somehow I don’t think one would confuse the two given the amount of images actually showing a pencil from the lápiz search. :) It shows that guy because he has a tattoo saying Lapiz; for whatever reason (don’t care too much to investigate this particular guy’s story :P ).

      Google marks its images based on tags people add to images on their websites and perhaps title words when an image is included in the body of some text. It’s not 100% perfect (it is automated after all), but I still think that 95% perfect does a pretty good job at showing you what the word means :)

  • Roy

    It’s an interesting idea. I’ll give it a try. Although there’s bound to be a few cases where it’s less than helpful – I put “la lápiz” into the Spanish google images..and the results indicate the word means either “pencil” or “wannabe gangster” :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      lol, somehow I don’t think one would confuse the two given the amount of images actually showing a pencil from the lápiz search. :) It shows that guy because he has a tattoo saying Lapiz; for whatever reason (don’t care too much to investigate this particular guy’s story :P ).

      Google marks its images based on tags people add to images on their websites and perhaps title words when an image is included in the body of some text. It’s not 100% perfect (it is automated after all), but I still think that 95% perfect does a pretty good job at showing you what the word means :)

  • Cainntear

    Hmmm… half-right, I’d say.

    Yes, “car” is a only a label for a concept, but why is that a bad thing?

    I’d argue that being a label for a concept makes it all the more useful. When I’m looking at a photograph of a Ford Escort, I’m not looking at a concept: I’m looking at a particular thing. It is a car, but it is more specifically a Ford and more specifically an Escort. It is a car, but it is more specifically a saloon and more specifically (again) a Ford Escort. It is a car, but it is more generally an internal combustion road vehicle and more generally a vehicle.

    Any photograph represents a single instance of a very broad hierarchical topography of concepts.

    But the word “car” is a picture of the concept itself — when we say “car”, it opens up the full spectrum of possibilities: F1, rally, 4×4, SUV, saloon, hatchback, estate, coupé, sportster, people carrier.

    In short, the native word is the only “picture” we have of the concept and therefore the best tool for associating the new word with the concept.

  • Cainntear

    Hmmm… half-right, I’d say.

    Yes, “car” is a only a label for a concept, but why is that a bad thing?

    I’d argue that being a label for a concept makes it all the more useful. When I’m looking at a photograph of a Ford Escort, I’m not looking at a concept: I’m looking at a particular thing. It is a car, but it is more specifically a Ford and more specifically an Escort. It is a car, but it is more specifically a saloon and more specifically (again) a Ford Escort. It is a car, but it is more generally an internal combustion road vehicle and more generally a vehicle.

    Any photograph represents a single instance of a very broad hierarchical topography of concepts.

    But the word “car” is a picture of the concept itself — when we say “car”, it opens up the full spectrum of possibilities: F1, rally, 4×4, SUV, saloon, hatchback, estate, coupé, sportster, people carrier.

    In short, the native word is the only “picture” we have of the concept and therefore the best tool for associating the new word with the concept.

  • http://www.elmeeke.hu/ fmvs

    Dude, awesome insights!

    Do you have any idea how to picturize those words which even the mighty google is in trouble with?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Well, I’ve tried Google for abstract qualities (hope, fear etc. and it does a lot better than I ever would for visualising them :P ) It’s done pretty well with less common languages too. If Google fails you, you may just have to turn to a dictionary (but not Google translate!! :P )
      I’ll discuss good online dictionaries in a later post :)

  • http://www.elmeeke.hu fmvs

    Dude, awesome insights!

    Do you have any idea how to picturize those words which even the mighty google is in trouble with?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Well, I’ve tried Google for abstract qualities (hope, fear etc. and it does a lot better than I ever would for visualising them :P ) It’s done pretty well with less common languages too. If Google fails you, you may just have to turn to a dictionary (but not Google translate!! :P )
      I’ll discuss good online dictionaries in a later post :)

  • Paul

    Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work so well with things other than nouns. I tried it on the German word “beklagt”, and only guessed that it meant something like “regrets” (I think more accurately “bemoans”) by translating surrounding words to get some context.
    Then I tried “gegenüber”, and I couldn’t work out from the images what it meant. Several pictures of buildings… maybe it meant something to do with that? Nope, it means “opposite (from)”, “compared to”.

  • Paul

    Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work so well with things other than nouns. I tried it on the German word “beklagt”, and only guessed that it meant something like “regrets” (I think more accurately “bemoans”) by translating surrounding words to get some context.
    Then I tried “gegenüber”, and I couldn’t work out from the images what it meant. Several pictures of buildings… maybe it meant something to do with that? Nope, it means “opposite (from)”, “compared to”.

  • http://www.MyBeautifulAdventures.com/ GlobalButterfly

    This is such a brilliant idea, love it! :)

  • eshep

    I totally agree with this idea – I teach English to new Canadian adults and in classes where we have computers at our disposal I always encourage them to look up images for a quick idea – using an English-English dictionary is good practice in reading but sometimes inconveniently time-consuming and leads to more questions, whereas images often need no language to be understood. Also, images do help in remembering words, in my experience.

    Even abstract concepts can sometimes lead to interesting and informative image searches – try searching for the word “temptation” and see what you get! Sometimes there is a problem when double meanings are in play, but that can be an interesting lesson too. ;)

  • Esteban

    Hi!

    I love your site, it's wonderful, I also love to learn languages, maybe one day can I go to Berlin and be friends via Couchsurfing :).

    There is an excellent resource from Google called Googles, you only take a picture with your cellphone and Google will search for it. So, it's ideal when you don't know the name of something in the language you are learning.

    Also Googles translates short texts using OCR if your cellphone uses Android.

    I speak natively Spanish and speak English, Esperanto and I'm learning German and Latin.

  • Igor
  • disqus_ls5T7MZf5h

    I’ve been doing this for a while since I’m a visual learner and I was amazed to see that there are other people that think in a similar way as I do! Additionally, I had created a google document where I used to paste the image of the word I wanted to remember/learn and I was adding the word in English, its definition, plus the translation to my mother language in some more abstract words. I still have in my mind those pictures. Really helpful! Cheers.

  • disqus_lImsIZ7Io2

    I recall once that I was entirely unsatisfied with the description of a word whilst practicing translation (大雨, I believe), so I just tossed my dictionary of to the side and did a google search; no luck in finding out whether it meant a huge rainstorm with thunder and lightning, or just a downpour. I changed it to images and saw the wonderful photographs of an average rainstorm.

    Definitely helpful for determining the scope of a concept, but it doesn’t always help. If there were more resources compiled by associations of data (sound, image, word), rather than compiled as a comprehensive lesson plan with everything broken down into lists, I’m sure it would be a bit easier.

  • http://jumpandtwirl.blogspot.com/ georgie

    this is a good idea. I remember from my first longer stay (3months) in England that I learnt many words just in the context knowing what did it mean but not knowing the czech translation. On the other hand, as I get deeper in the languages now, yes, I need to know the context and the full meaning of the word, not just the translation, but I am partly heading to the carrer of a translator and in that case I think it’s quite important to know those translation, don’t you think? :) I know you reffered mostly to the people who want to learn the language to communicate but I am quite interested in knowing more about your experience of translating :)

  • Kevin Johnsrude

    If you set your Google language to your target language then it’s easy to simply search in Google Images in your target language regardless of the URL.