Do we really need dictionaries?

Harrap's French English dictionary

I was pondering this the other day as I did my Russian homework. As a student studying French I pored over my four volume Harrap’s Standard French and English dictionary and when I began studying Russian “in anger” (that’s a phrase I picked up from the Moodle developers I hang out with) I bought the big Oxford Russian dictionary.

But I hardly ever use it. Why not?

First, because it is so much easier to check things using Google Translate on my phone. And before everyone screams in horror: I never take its pronouncements as Gospel. If I need to know a short phrase or correct declension/conjugation, I will often speak into my phone, look at what Google Translate offers and then reverse the process by saying the Russian to discover the resultant English translation.  Then if I am still not convinced, I will look at some of the alternative translations on offer, and most useful of all, I will type the phrase into a site such as Reverso which offers real life contextual examples. This final benefit is, I think, the main reason I have moved away from using dictionaries. While it is easy to find single words or verbs with a quick check online, that’s not helpful in isolation. We need to see the words in situations to be sure we’re using them appropriately. Good dictionaries offer examples, but they can’t compete with the internet. Sometimes if I am still uncertain about a phrase, having run it through Google Translate, reverso and the WWW in general, I’ll revert to my dictionary, but interestingly the last time I did that and went with the advice of the dictionary, I ended up with a not-quite-right sentence. The internet had been right after all.

And dictionaries – the paper kind – can’t pronounce words for you. Well they can highlight the stress and offer a phonetic transcript, but much better to hear real people pronouncing the words online. ( I confess I am slightly sceptical of Google Translate’s rather robotic readers, but they’ll do for me for the time being.)

In terms of verbs, at the level I am at so far, my 501 Russian verbs book serves me much better than a dictionary  because not only does it give me all the conjugations with some useful related expressions, but you can find words more quickly because you don’t have to sift through nouns, adjectives and other extraneous words!!

I see that in a couple of the exams I plan to be taking next year, you are allowed to use a dictionary. I  presume that will be a paper dictionary, avoiding the distractions and potential misdoings of an online equivalent. I will need to practise a bit with this  “old-fashioned” dictionary because one downside of using the internet for word-searching is that you don’t have to memorise the order of the letters in the alphabet! I used to be lightning fast finding words in dictionaries (Ok my known languages had alphabets almost the same as the English one) but on the rare occasions now I use my Oxford Russian dictionary, it takes me a while to remember whether to look near the start of the alphabet, the middle or the end. And how many times have I done a fruitless search for a word under в only to realise it is actually under б?

I am not at the stage yet in Russian where I would ask on the (rather scary) forums, as I have done when preparing presentations or training sessions in French or German, but if when that day does come, that will be yet another reason to forego the dictionary.

Perhaps if we’re somewhere with no internet access, when my phone and laptop batteries are dead, perhaps then I’ll need my dictionary? Apart from that.. well.. I’m not convinced..

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