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AlwaysSpanish is Retiring!

After a long awkward silence, here's something to break the ice – all over again. I can totally see why you should be upset to see no action from the Burro for over a month now, but trust me, your wait was all worth it. The news here is that your beloved Burro has just moved into a brand new home – one that's a whole lot richer, swankier, and easier to live in. I'm talking about PeppyBurro. That's the name of the new website! Isn't that cool? At least it tells you all about the Burro's pepped up temperament right off the bat, right? This post is not about Spanish-learning tricks (although I will drop in a couple out of habit, I guess) or grammar lessons. This one's all about our new home!

The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Always Spanish has retired. Please visit the new blog at for all future articles.

Google Images – The Best Dictionary The World Can Afford?

Not sure about you but quite a few successful polyglots have spent a shameful amount of time hunting for the perfect Spanish dictionary before finally stumbling upon one right under their nose. Before we even start with any details here, let’s break this to you – traditional Spanish-English-Spanish dictionaries are all often full of incorrect information and are perhaps your biggest enemy if you are using them to just expand your Spanish vocabulary memorizing words off them. Well, before the likes of Oxford® and Collins® go all out suing us, let’s elaborate and ensure anyone learning Spanish stays indebted to us for life!

Why do traditional dictionaries suck?

Are you using your dictionary the wrong way?
Are you using your dictionary the wrong way?
Photo credit: Horia Varlan licensed CC BY 2.0
Before we start with our dictionary-bashing, an illustration of the problem statement is in order. Once upon a time, I set myself to the task of labeling every mueble (piece of furniture) in my household with its Spanish name in an attempt to absorb some Spanish. This was a part of a bigger exercise aimed at weaving more Spanish around me in order to build a totally immersive environment. So, I started with sillas (chairs) and went on to mesas (tables), ropero (closet), armario (cupboard), and so on.

As I went on labeling every mueble in my apartment, I reached my shoe-rack. Now, this is an interesting piece of furniture which doesn’t always have an equivalent in every culture and, by extension, language. For example, Hindi doesn’t have any word to identify this object nor does any other language spoken in the Indian-subcontinent.

So, I started off with a good amount of skepticism when I looked up the word on SpanishDict. Ok, this didn’t disappoint me and gave me zapatera as the Spanish equivalent. But the cynic in me refused to take the word on face-value and decided to dig deeper. I performed what is commonly known as a reverse-lookup on the Spanish word and that’s where all the confusion started. SpanishDict translated zapatera into a “female shoe-maker” and an irrelevant “olive spoiled in the pickle”. Now, if zapatera were truly the Spanish for “shoe-rack”, that’s what it should have shown as at least one of the meanings but it showed, instead, everything but. So is zapatera really the Spanish for a “shoe-rack”?

I had a similar confusion with my dresser, the one with a mirror flattering the narcissist in me. Also called a vanity, this one is often mistaken by most dictionaries for a chest of drawers with no mirror whatsoever. SpanishDict, for one, gave cómoda as the closest word for “dresser” in the sense of a “vanity”; while a reverse-lookup of cómoda simply gave “chest of drawers” with no hint of a morror. When I looked up “vanity”, on the other hand, one of the words it threw was tocador in the sense of a “dressing-table”. So, what is it? Tocador? Or cómoda?

So do they really suck?

Do you see where all of this is headed? Perhaps, the only conclusion from that little life-experience with Spanish is that traditional dictionaries must not be relied upon for any word-to-word translation as the results are sometimes ambiguous at best. However, before you decide to give away those expensive dictionaries you bought yourself before you started learning Spanish, stay assured you they are way more useful than recognized, only for a slightly different purpose.

Remember, how we once advised against learning Spanish words in isolation and, instead, using phrases and sentences to build the ever-important context? Well, not sure if you ever wondered where to find such sentences for your flashcard decks but here’s the answer anyways: Dictionaries. Yes, we do see the irony here. The very resource that sucks when it comes to finding words turns useful when it comes to sentences! Well, if you notice, every entry in a dictionary (most of them), has at least one sentence or phrase as an illustration of the meanings provided. Those sentences are most often the best ones in terms of flashcard-worthiness and must be mined regularly as long as you are learning Spanish. What makes them so useful is the fact that they meet every criteria of a flashcard-worthy sentence; they are short, they illustrate a key vocabulary item, they illustrate a key grammar construct, and they are simple. These features mean that the sentences found as illustrations in most traditional dictionaries are of the highest quality and must find a spot in your deck of flashcards.

The best dictionary was always right there before your eyes!

The best dictionary was always right there!
The best dictionary was always right there!
We are sorry for the little detour above but still hope it was worth your time anyways. Now coming back to where we left my muebles, I was still confused about a few items, most notably, the shoe-rack and the vanity. So, just before I decided to give up in favor of waiting for some local speaker to clarify things for me, I decided to use a highly unlikely resource – Google Images®! It was totally out of instinct but the results were nothing short of a “Eureka!”

What I did was pretty simple though. I looked up each of the Spanish words thrown by SpanishDict in Google Images in hopes that the images returned would give some hint of what the word essentially means regardless of its precise English translation according to the dictionaries. So, zapatera returned pages after pages of shoe-racks in all shapes, sizes, colors, and forms, and without much further deliberation went into the Post-It® on my shoe-rack. Similar exercises with cómoda and tocador revealed that while cómoda is the bureau without any mirror, also called, “dresser”, it’s tocador that the label on my vanity should read.

Suddenly life seemed so easy! While Google Images® might not be terribly useful when it comes to words of action or any non-noun for that matter, it is incredibly accurate when it comes to names of objects. The best thing is that instead of giving you an English word as the meaning (which is the worst way to use a dictionary, by the way), it gives you pictures that illustrate what the word being looked up stands for. It is this quality that makes Google Images® your ideal picture book and dictionary while learning Spanish or any language. Just make sure you use more specific top-level domain for better accuracy. So, since we are dealing with Spanish here, it’s better to use the edition specific to Spain, Mexico, or any other Spanish-speaking country instead of the generic one.

Try this radical new use of Google Images® and let our community know if your experiences have been as enriching as mine was. We are glad that the solution to the problem nagging me the most was right under my nose all the while. This is, in fact, often the case with most of our problems and it should inspire you to know that there are always more resources floating around than there are problems. Learning Spanish couldn’t get any easier than this.

The BIG RED BOOK of super quick Spanish vocabulary using mnemonics and other unconventional memory shortcuts is out and ready to make Spanish accessible and fun once again. 1,442 pages packed to the brim to help you nail difficult Spanish words @ THE SPEED OF THOUGHT.
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  1. Just tried it and must say it’s indeed a great idea! Too bad this won’t be much help when it comes to verbs or adjectives… :(

  2. Too bad this won’t work for verbs or adjectives :(

  3. You’re right, Steph. But don’t worry, there are other ways to nail them too. Besides, should also be your best friend. :)

  4. Google isn’t accurate all the time; so don’t just dump your dictionaries yet! Besides, Google ain’t gonna teach you the usage anyway.


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