The Benefits of Dictionary Flipping

I have been so busy with work lately that I haven’t written anything. That is about to change as I have several drafts of posts for the second half of the summer. In the meanwhile, here is a post from a guest blogger, Hannah Varadi.

A previous post on our language blog discussed the potential drawbacks of learning a language “naturally” without grammar.  But what about the concept of vocabulary memorization?

Language dictionariesLike grammar, drilling vocabulary is one of the most tedious parts of language learning.  It’s the opposite of language immersion, in which one absorbs vocabulary through hearing or reading the words and infers their meaning through context.   But although making vocabulary stick in your head can be tricky at first, it is also essential—and there are ways to make it somewhat more enjoyable.  One way to do this is through a quick-and-dirty version of vocabulary absorption: a tactic I refer to as “dictionary-flipping.”

In this case I will use “dictionary” to include both print and online language dictionaries, as well as online forums: that is, resources which will give you the basic idea of a foreign language’s definition, but not to the depth with which a native speaker would know the word.  I am also only addressing written language and not spoken language, which is a topic for another day.

It was while reading the French writer Joseph Kessel’s novel Le lion for a class assignment last spring that I last applied this method in earnest.  The novel was just above the level at which I could comfortably read in French, mainly because it takes place on a reserve in Kenya and includes plenty of description of the picturesque scenery and wandering animals. On average, every page contained about two to five words that I had never encountered—most of them crucial to understanding the sentences in which they appeared.

To handle this, I would read a paragraph or a page of description, absorb the rough gist, note all the unfamiliar words, flip through the dictionary to find only the unfamiliar words that seemed important to the context, then rereading the passage.  Even in cases where I guessed the meaning of a word based on context on the first read-through, looking up the unfamiliar words and then rereading the passage allowed me to see the image the author intend to convey much more vividly.  I gained a more concrete image of, for instance, the sun rising over Kilimanjaro as a herd of elephants splash around in a watering hole.  It was also easier to pick up the nuances of character interaction and dialogue when I understood individual adjectives.

And most importantly: this process got somewhat easier over the course of the novel.  In the first place, maintaining the habit of looking for vocabulary became increasingly comfortable.  I was able to identify recurring words after the first couple of occurrences (fauve—“big cat”, se pencher—“to lean”, se dresser—“to stand upright,” etc.), and thereafter to recognize their meaning immediately each time they appeared.  In this way I absorbed and remembered about 50-60% of the vocabulary I encountered in total, and my heightened understanding of the novel’s content allowed me to more highly appreciate and enjoy the narrative.

Admittedly, different forms of vocabulary learning are more effective for some people than for others, and I admit that in certain respects the method I used for Le lion was inefficient.  After all, I retained far fewer memories of vocabulary through dictionary-flipping than if I had taken the time to at least write down the words and their definitions.

I must also stress that this method of learning vocabulary requires a text just slightly above the level at which you can read comfortably.  In this case I began with a fairly solid understanding of French grammar, verb conjugation, and vocabulary: had my grasp of French been lesser when I read the book, I would have spent so much time looking up vocabulary that I would have lost the sense of the text.

What’s more, Le lion is a relatively modern book from the 1950’s, and contains virtually no jargon, proverbs, or informal expressions in French.  It can be difficult or impossible to find these three things in the average language dictionary: you have to either search through online forums or consult a native speaker of the language, both of which are certainly worthwhile but also time-consuming.

But for this particular book, and for my particular purposes—reading to gain a deep meaning of the novel’s themes—the method worked well enough.  Of course acquisition of vocabulary is crucial in language learning, and it’s a process we continually undergo even in our native tongue!  But which method to use for learning depends on your goal, and on the quantity of knowledge on the language you already possess.  There’s a time for drilling, a time for gist-reading, and a time for flipping through the dictionary every paragraph or so.


Hannah is a junior in Comparative Literature (Creative Writing and Spanish minors) at Oberlin College, who is studying abroad with CIEE’s Communications and Journalism (CNMJ) program in Seville. You can follow her blog here.