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.

Inside the Mind of a Polyglot

Babel No More CoverA polyglot is defined as someone who is able to speak several languages. The exact number of languages can be and often is disputed, but technically “poly” from Greek means many so each is free to define it as he or she wishes. People tend to be fascinated and highly impressed when you tell them that you speak several languages. Everyone tends to ask you the same types of questions. How many languages do you speak? Where did you learn them? Do you travel a lot? Don’t you confuse them? While it is fairly easy to impress most monolingual people with your answers, it can sometimes come across as boastful, even when not intended to. In my own case, I have found that the best answer to give is to say how many languages I work in professionally. These are the languages I can use in any situation and actually make a living off of by translating and interpreting. I have studied many languages for pleasure, but if I mention those most people automatically assume that I must speak them all equally as well. However, studying and knowing can often be very different things. I have studied astronomy and chemistry in my life, but I am neither an astronomer nor a chemist. In fact, I remember very little beyond the basics in both of them. However, there are many people who quite readily claim to know fifty languages or more.

So what does it mean to know a language and how many can a person really learn? In search for an answer to that question, a new book has come out titled Babel No More by Michael Erard. The book delves into past and living polyglots and attempts to discover what they all have in common. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for several reasons. First of all, since I have an insatiable passion for languages, I was curious to know what I may or may not have in common with these language overachievers. Secondly, I participated in the on-line survey for the book several years ago and had been anxiously waiting for the book’s release to get a glimpse into the world of modern polyglots. Lastly, I received an iPad as a gift this past Christmas and this was my very first venture into the world of electronic books.

Mr. Erard actually focuses on hyperpolyglots, a newly coined term for people who speak six or more languages. However, he states that he found eleven languages to be a more accurate number for defining a hyperpolyglot. The author admittedly takes a somewhat skeptical approach to claims of those who speak many dozens of languages, pondering whether it is even possible for someone to speak so many languages to any meaningful degree. He researches renowned polyglots from the past and interviews several living ones to observe their methodology for learning and retaining so many languages. The author attempts to determine whether there is any secret or innate talent that they have for learning languages. Each of the people he interviews gives different approaches to tackling a new language, each suited to his or her individual learning style. When he confronts the question of how many languages a person can actually know, he comes to the greater question of what it means to “know” a language and whether you count a language if you merely know a few basic phrases in it. He learns that all of the people he studies have latent languages that they don’t actively use for long periods of time. They reactivate them as needed by studying them from a few hours to several weeks. He tries to figure out how many active languages a person can have, concluding that there seems to be a limit on how many a person can maintain at a high level, though he doesn’t give a precise number in the book. In the end he seems rather disappointed to realize that more than anything else what these hyperpolyglots share is a love for doing what most people find boring: studying vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and grammar. He states that polyglots “haven’t escaped the banality of methods at all; they make the banality more productive. Their minds enjoy the banality.”

My own take on Babel No More is that it is a rare gem – a language book with a mass appeal. It is written in such a way as to be both insightful and compelling. I found myself staying up well past midnight for nearly a week as I couldn’t easily put it down, if one can say that about an e-book. The polyglots that he profiled were fascinating, though sometimes a bit sad. I kept trying to find threads of my own learning style and personality in the quirkiness of the polyglots he covers. I found the living polyglots even more interesting as they are able to speak for themselves. In particular, I enjoyed the section on Alexander Arguelles, who is a living polyglot with an unquenchable drive for studying languages, and whose YouTube videos I have been following for years. His profile reveals just how much effort is required to actually maintain such a large number of languages. Though the book does not cover many other well-known living polyglots, or more famous past ones such as Mario Pei, it is well worth your time and money. I would encourage anyone with the interest in languages in general, or polyglots in particular, to give this book a read.