19 March 2011

Dictionary Survival Skills: Teach a student to fish

I always assumed that using a Spanish-English dictionary was sort of an intuitive exercise. However, if you see "Ella be muy bonita" or "Mi amigo es muy fresco" enough, you start to remember what happens when you assume.

I modified my vocabulary techniques for Spanish I's introduction to geographical terms. We still made semantic groups of the English words (it's fun when they argue about where island and beach go--so invested!) before I had them look through the geography sections of Spanish Wikipedia on Venezuela and Mexico to find as many of the words as they could from the now semantically organized list.

For the rest? Merriam-Webster.

I know dictionaries aren't the best way to learn vocabulary, I know. Vocabulary isolated from context inhibits meaningful connections, etc, etc. But at some point or another, you're going to want to know how to say something you don't already know how to say.  And we all know translators are evil and untrustworthy. So they've got to learn the proper way to answer their own questions.

We went over the meaning of [bracketed] items,  italicized initials, things in all CAPS, and the bold parts: pretty much all the things that have been mistaken for translations or that can help you choose which translation suits your purpose. So here are the basic rules of thumb for surviving a Spanish-English dictionary:

  • First of all, there are two sides of the dictionary. If you can't find the English word you want, it might be because you're in the Spanish side.
  • ignore the [bracketed] parts (unless you know something about the phonetic alphabet)
  • the italics are essential: you should know before you look whether you're looking for a v, n, adj, or something else (choosing the wrong kind of word is one of the more confusing mistakes you can make, especially if your audience doesn't know any English)
  • CAPS words are not the translation (that's why they look like English: they are). However, they help you choose the definition that best suits what you're looking for with respect to denotation, sense of the word (ie cool/awesome vs. cool/temperature).
  • you can basically ignore the bold words, too, as they are just different forms of the word you're looking for. Example: when you can't find "was" and it says "see be," it means for you to look up be in the English side of the dictionary.
  • Finally, the first definition is usually the most common one.
I know the lesson was productive, not only because students found the words that weren't in the contextualized look-up, but because they were saying things like, "No, wait, that's the verb. I wan't the noun" and "I was right! That IS how you say east!"

We all want students to keep learning, even when we're not there to teach, and teaching them to use a dictionary is a way to help them at least snack--if not feast--for a lifetime.

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