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How to use the Linguee dictionary to learn Spanish

I’ve been learning Spanish. In February, when I was studying in China I decided to learn Spanish. I chose Spanish because my home is in America and Spanish is fast becoming the second language of Americans. I’m excited by the number of people who speak Spanish, the variety of places I can go, and the opportunity to read literature by authors like Borges and Octavio Paz.

My language background: Learning Japanese & Chinese

When I learned Japanese I had no idea what I was doing. I took classes for several years, studied abroad as an exchange student in Japan, and after many struggles managed to speak Japanese. Chinese I learned gradually over about three years, the last of which I was studying in Shanghai. In learning Spanish I apply what I learned with Chinese and Japanese to learn Spanish better and faster. I found that when I learned Japanese I tried to memorize everything. I learned words that were archaic and rare and downright strange. In Chinese I learned many obscure onomatopoeia before I learned how to properly introduce myself. I don’t recommend anyone do that. I think it’s much more impressive to be able to speak simply and fluently than to know some crazy words.

Learning Spanish with a frequency list

With Spanish I have decided to use a frequency list as advised on Tower of Babelfish, and the Linguee dictionary as advised by Benny Lewis. The dictionary called Linguee is a side-by-side bilingual translation dictionary for several different European languages. I’m using the English and Spanish function to study Spanish. I go down the list of Spanish words by frequency I got from Wikipedia and input each word into the dictionary. I scan the English sentences an easy one and copy the English and Spanish sentences into Anki. I often highlight the Spanish word I will memorize and highlight its English equivalent on the other side. This is so I don’t get hung up trying to understand the entire card if the point is only to memorize one word.

Why Linguee is better than Google Translate

Why not just translate the frequency list with Google Translate and memorize the words individually? Wouldn’t that be faster? I don’t think so.

I tried this and saw several problems with this approach.

1)    Google translate is not accurate enough.

2)    Words can have several meanings. It’s not good to memorize several meanings at the same time. (See “Rules of Formulating Knowledge” at SuperMemo.)

3)    There’s no context. It’s often impossible to determine what a word means without context.

Copying the bilingual sentences solves these problems.

1)    Linguee is based on real translations made by humans.

2)    Linguee gives different meanings for a search term and even gives the relative frequency of each meaning.

3)    Linguee sentences show the natural context for a search term.

I get Spanish words in their natural context and have an English translation to check against to make sure I understand. Sometimes I understand the entire sentence and get grammar practice as well. If I don’t understand the sentence I can still learn the word, and can look up its meaning via the translation (without associating that one word with any English word). A great function of this dictionary is that it will show different meanings for a word, and even better, give the relative frequency of each of those meanings. If there are more than one relatively frequent meaning, I make an Anki card for each meaning. I try to make at least two cards per word.

Honestly, this method is a little cumbersome. If I was good at coding, I would write a code to search the dictionary and grab the sentences without me having to copy and paste them one by one, but I lack computer skills. Some might argue that it’s not efficient to learn Spanish this way. It might be better to start from a phrasebook. The most frequent words can likely be learned easily by learning some useful phrases, rather than random sentences. I think this may very well be true. However, I think this dictionary is an excellent resource and I wanted to share with you how I’ve been using it.

Let me know what you think. I’d like to know how you study languages and how you use dictionaries. Please drop me a line in the comment box!


PS: You can follow Benny Lewis on his blog Fluent in 3 Months, or on Twitter as @fi3m and @irishpolyglot. You can follow Linguee at @Linguee and in Spanish at @LingueeEs.

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Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

Writer, translator, researcher, traveler specializing in Japanese and Chinese literature.

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