The ideal dictionary: L2 -- L2 --|-- L1

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A few days ago I ordered a book from, a very highly unrecommended site for e-books. Portuguese is one of my many languages somewhere in between Conversation Ridge and Mount Fluency, so many of the books I would like to read in English I try to buy in Portuguese whenever I can. Anything written in the non-Brazilian variant is especially hard to find, so when I find something written in that type of Portuguese I usually snap it up. Which book I bought this time I won't say because then someone will ruin the ending for me.

Unfortunately the reader on that site is about the worst I've ever used, and after a week of trying on various computers and browsers I was finally able to get it working on an Android tablet. At least I can read it. At least I was able to practice the fine art of sending angry customer emails during that time (which were answered by automated messages). Pelo menos posso ler o livro que comprei.

One positive thing I can say about the online reader though is that it comes with a dictionary, a dictionary for Portuguese readers of course. Click on a word for about a second and one can see the definition, and with the explanations being in Portuguese it gives more of an immersive experience.

However, there are times when one reads and is able to understand the definition of a word...but still doesn't know exactly what word it is. This is particularly the case with things like types of clothing, trees, and the like. Let's say for example I came across the word abeto. What's an abeto? It's this:

(Botânica) árvore conífera da família das pináceas (Pinaceae) que se encontra na Europa, Ásia e América do Norte

Árvore da família das pináceas; pinheiro-alvar; madeira de abeto.

Okay, it's a kind of coniferous tree. How about a freixo?

designação comum a várias espécies de árvores da família das Oleáceas.

Árvore oleácea, tipo da tribo das fraxíneas.

Okay, it's another tree. And even with a more complete explanation containing leaf size, tree height and anything else one might want to know, I've never learned these trees as an L1 speaker along with this information so I still wouldn't know.

So this is one of the situations where one requires quick access to one's L1 to check the meaning of the word. Teachers in schools that are forbidden to use anything but the L2 will remember a lot of frustration here, where a student asks for the meaning of a word and the word just happens to be one of these. How does one explain a word like this without using the student's native language? Acting it out, drawing it on the board, looking up an image online...but even with an image of a tree, it's still better to just say fir, or ash. Abeto is fir, freixo is ash.

So in short, the best dictionary for an intermediate language learner is the following: one with the definition of the L2 word given entirely in the L2, with a tiny button somewhere that can be clicked on if necessary to show the L1 definition. Ideally this would only be used once every dozen or so words, but always available as a last resort. Without it, one must leave the book for a time to go off to Wiktionary or wherever to find what the word actually is, in spite of having a general concept of what it means.


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