Why do traditional dictionaries suck?
|Are you using your dictionary the wrong way?|
Photo credit: Horia Varlan licensed CC BY 2.0
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!|
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.