Thanks to the internet, using dictionaries is a lot easier now. You don’t need to carry bulky ‘pocket dictionaries’ anymore. Most of the respected print dictionaries also have websites. The question is which one is the best for you?
Most teachers recommend monolingual (English to English) dictionaries. And it is true that if your English is pre-intermediate or above, using a dictionary that gives you the definition in the target language will really boost your vocabulary. However, for lower levels, these types of dictionaries are not always ideal because they are usually created for native speakers. Beginners who have limited vocabulary might not understand the given definition, which can cause confusion, and more importantly, make them feel demoralized. Therefore, it is not a sin to use bilingual dictionaries especially if you are learning English from scratch. Having said that, it is always good practice to use English to English dictionaries even at very early stages. You just need to find a good balance between the two. Make sure you pick a reliable dictionary such as Cambridge Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, etc. All of these also have Learner’s Dictionaries for lower levels, which offer a smooth transition from bilingual dictionaries to monolingual ones. Below is an example from Oxford Learner’s Dictionary:
This is a typical dictionary entry which includes the headword (this is the word you type in the search box), form of the word (e.g. noun, adjective, verb, etc.) the definition, an audio clip of how the word is pronounced and the phonemic transcript. The audio clip is a great tool for improving pronunciation. It even gives you different accent variations. Make use of it! It will help you a lot with pronunciation.
For those of you who do not want to read long definitions, I recommend dictionaries of synonyms which give you words that have similar or related meanings.
Check out thesaurus.com, one of the most widely used synonym dictionaries:
Thesauruses are also ideal for advanced learners who want to diversify their vocabulary. Most of us are familiar with this type of dictionary thanks to Word where you can search for the synonym of a word simply with a right-click.
Alongside classical dictionaries, there is also Urban Dictionary which provides definitions of slang words in English. Do keep in mind, though, that the definitions here are written by everyone:
It’s a website where users can contribute with their own definitions. It’s a good way to become familiar with English language spoken in the streets and it’s fun!
Last but not least, book lovers and good readers, I definitely recommend an E-Reader to you. E-readers offer you the freedom of carrying your whole library with you wherever you go. Plus, they come with a built-in dictionary which is very easy to use. It’s an ideal tool especially for advanced learners. You just need to press and hold the word you’d like to look up:
I myself have a Kindle Paperwhite and am very happy with it but I’m by no means an expert on e-readers, so you have to do your own market research to find one that you like. If you don’t want to buy one, you can download Kindle for free on your PC or Mac on amazon.com.
So, is it better to use Google Translate or a proper dictionary? Google translate does make our lives easier but it is not the most reliable tool when it comes to language learning. It does not provide context regarding the usage of the word and you might end up with a completely irrelevant meaning. Remember that the best way to learn a new word is to see it in context. The best dictionaries include other usages and sentence examples which show you the word in context. Of course, none of these dictionaries is a tool on its own for building vocabulary, but once you acquire the habit of using them frequently, you can combine it with vocabulary-building practices and receive very effective results. A good way to start acquiring this habit is to pick one and add it to your tabs. Now, all you need to do is type the word!