Why I’m not big on dictionaries

If you’ve bounced around my website a bit, you’ll probably have noticed I’m not particularly fond of using dictionaries in learning Latin (or any language, actually). In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have atraumatic experience with a dictionary when I was a kid…

At least, no more so than anyone else.

It’s just that, in my opinion, dictionaries are the bane of all learners of Latin. Put simply, they do very little good and so much bad.

If we look for the good that dictionaries do for learners, the list is pretty short:

  1. Gives every word

  2. Ummm… *crickets chirping*

Yup, that’s pretty much it, they’ll just give you the raw meaning of a word. And what’s worse is they barely even do that part too well, since 9/10 times you won’t be seeing the word in its dictionary form, so you’ll have to work backwards (and sometimes guess) in order to find the word at all!

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Anyway, enough of the ‘good’. Now for the bad:

  1. Takes a really long time to find a word

  2. Most words have several meanings so you have to puzzle through to find the right one

  3. It does nothing to help you understand the structure or syntax of the sentence or phrase - which means it doesn’t actually help you with reading and understanding the sentence

  4. It encourages you to approach Latin like a puzzle to be solved, deliberately created to be a brain teaser, with the dictionary as a (not very good) version of the picture on the front of the box the puzzle came in.

  5. It’s extremely demoralising to have to stop and look up every second word, and kills any interest or motivation towards reading.

  6. It makes you feel dumb for not knowing a word.

As you can see, there’s a lot to be said for never using a dictionary again… while you’re learning.

You see, I don’t actually hate dictionaries. I have several myself, and I would be unhappy without at least one. My problem is just with dictionaries for learners. Because that’s not why they were invented, and it shows.

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Yep, it’s the truth.

Dictionaries weren’t invented for learners, they were invented for people who already knew the language, as a quick and easy reference guide for the odd word they didn’t know, or to remind them of a more obscure meaning of a word they did know.

Looked at in this way, there’s a lot of good a dictionary can do. When it’s used for its original purpose But for learners it’s a waste of time. 10 minutes’ reading with a dictionary is going to cover way less than the same amount of time just straight reading, meaning you can through two, three, even more times the amount of material, while enjoying it. And quantity combined with interest is the royal road to learning.

So what’s the alternative? Well, glad you asked - there are many good ways to read Latin while you’re learning without having to look up the meanings in a dictionary. I discuss a number of these ways in my free ebook, and I’ll be going into some of them in more detail in a future post. But for now here’s a quick list of your options:

Well, that’s it for today, hope this inspires you to ditch the dictionary and start reading for real!

Alexander Westenberg