There is a huge problem with almost every single dictionary you will come across. The translation is always wrong! Yep. Demand your money back! 😛
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 🙂
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.