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How to Use Bilingual Dictionaries

(and how not to)

Bilingual dictionaries are an essential part of every language learner's toolbox, but they can be both a blessing and a curse. Aside from the fact that it's far too easy to look up a word rather than making the effort to remember what you learned, even the act of looking something up can be fraught with difficulty, because students aren't always taught the right way to use bilingual dictionaries. It's not difficult, but it does require more effort than finding the right page and accepting the first word in the list.

One Word ≠ One Translation

Languages are not one-to-one matchups. The vast majority of English words have more than one French equivalent, and many have several. And vice versa. For example, take the French word pile. When you look it up,* you're presented with a page full of information:

Une pile

How do you know which of these translations is the one you need? Pay attention to two things:

1. Context - how is the word being used? The word pile means different things in these sentences:

  • Il y a une pile de livres.
  • J'ai marché sur une pile.
  • J'ai acheté une pile.

2. Notes - look past the translations to all the clues provided:

Une pile, with notes

  • (= tas) indicates a synonym
  • [de pont] clarifies the nature of the object
  • (Informatique) and (Électricité, Électronique) refer to the domain

So you should be able to figure out from this that the translations of the above sentences are

  • There's a pile of books.
  • I walked on a pier.
  • I bought a battery.

Transitive vs Intransitive Verbs

A further complication is sometimes a given verb can be transitive or intransitive in one language, but its equivalent in the other is two distinct verbs. So, again, you need to consider context in order to choose the right translation for "I grow flowers" vs "Flowers grow quickly."

Swallow entry 1

Swallow entry 2

So the French translations are Je cultive des fleurs and Les fleurs poussent vite.

Multiple Parts of Speech

Many English words belong to two different parts of speech, whereas their French translations are a different word for each. Be sure to choose the translation that corresponds with the part of speech you're actually using. (This is one of the reasons it's so important to understand some essential French grammar terms. If you don't know the difference between a noun and a verb, how can you choose the right translation?)

To grow intransitive

To grow transitive

Problematic Prepositions

Prepositions are especially tricky when it comes to dictionaries, because they're a matter of grammar much more than vocabulary. You might think finding the translation for, say, à would be straightforward, but that is not the case.

  • Je suis à Paris - I'm in Paris
  • Je vais à Londres - I'm going to London
  • Il est à la banque - He's at the bank
  • prendre de l'eau à la rivière - get some water from the river
  • une robe à manches - a dress with sleeves

So for prepositions in particular, a bilingual dictionary just isn't enough - you need to look beyond vocabulary to grammar, especially when a verb precedes the preposition.

Fixed Expressions

There's also the matter of fixed expressions, where certain words always go together, regardless of whether there's a perfectly good synonym that you might like to use instead.

For example, in English, we can "push" a button or a wheelbarrow, but in French, on appuie sur un bouton and on pousse une brouette. A good dictionary will have a list of nouns for each verb, but it's impossible to be comprehensive, so further research might be needed. Here's part of the "push" entry:

To push

The Bottom Line

Bilingual dictionaries are essential, but they're not infallible. Read through the entry, look at the examples, and consider how similar each one is to what you're trying to say. If they're inconclusive, look at another dictionary, or try searching for your phrase.

And keep working on improving your French grammar, as that will help you use the dictionary even more effectively!

*Screenshots courtesy of Le Grand Robert & Collins online dictionary (subscription). For a great, free French dictionary, try WordReference.


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