Learning to Learn: Using Bilingual Dictionaries and translation

My dear Journal! 🙂

It is hard to miss the fact that students use L1 when they are trying to learn a new language, in fact everyone without exception will resource to it in the beginning of the journey, and sometimes it becomes a crutch instead of a tool, true. And some will rely on it more than others, also true. But although the degree varies, one thing seems to be the norm: they translate word by word both when trying to comprehend something or produce it. Unfortunately, the words learners are able to store through the decoding stage from paying attention to single word is repeated in the encoding stage by insisting on the process of looking at language from the point of view of units instead of chunks, especially when they are dealing with expressions. Last year for example I tried this simple experiment with most of my learners. I asked them what “Have a good time” in L1 meant and everyone first urge was to translate word by word even intermediate learners did that. Then, I asked them what “Have Fun” meant, and as most of them who had already learned Have Fun, answered it correctly in L1. When a new group of words was introduced to them,  they simply used what was natural to them to try to comprehend the word group. Have a good time was the title of a text in their textbook. So they had also context. After that I just drew their attention to Have fun = Have a good time and added “Have a great time” and “an amazing time” to the list. This was a great opportunity to talk about google translater, the use of bilingual dictionary, translating as a tool and other ways to learn vocabulary.

Learning to keep a vocabulary log and using the dictionary

Learning to keep a vocabulary log and using the dictionary

In the last few years I have been also very curious about the role of memory and the book Memory Activities for language learning, one of a kind, is insightful, inspiring and resourceful. It is one of the books I carry around with me. Although the process of storing and recalling seems to be the core elements of language learning, the way we internalize it counts. What I’ve noticed though is that we might be overly worried about students translating and trying to avoid that at all cost, but is it really the issue? Once I realized that most learners were so busy storing single words and translating from L1 to L2, L2 to L1, I understood that I had to do something about it. They were clearly not benefiting from it. And it was also clear that the way they use translation/bilingual dictionaries was not helping them develop accuracy and fluency.

In the past, I thought that countless exercises and activities in grammar would help. It think it does if you are not concentrating on translating word by word and totally missing the message. Learners should store L2 patterns, collocations, formulaic language and chunks and be able to recall them easily. I realized how important it is to focus on vocabulary learning and learning strategies from the beginning. Because even if they store a lot of words. And some do. They will talk almost like a robot. “I, visit, visited, my grandmother yesterday.” With so many unnecessary pauses as they are simply translating word by word*. And no matter how many times they have heard their teachers telling them not to do that, or going to great lengths to show the students the meaning of a word/words/expressions without translating any of it, they still will keep doing it.

I reckon that one of the things I had to accept as a teacher was using L1 is part of the learning natural process of a second language. Not sure why I resisted given students opportunities to learn how to use bilingual dictionaries, probably it was lack of time. I probably was so concerned with my PPP sequence and I would give them anyway the vocabulary they needed through vocabulary presentation that I think I didn’t see the need or had the time to do that. But today that sounds odd to me as I go back in time and think of my own learning experience. Even when I lived in the country I was learning the language (England and Egypt), I had to resource to L1 and make constant comparisons. I’m sure I did it on a daily basis until I could understand enough to move to L2 only and people’s explanations weren’t daunting anymore.

Writing their own examples from new words they've just seen in the text.

Writing their own examples from new words they’ve just seen in the text after check it up in the bilingual dictionary.

What have I changed in my practice?
  • I talk to them about it. But talking isn’t enough. You need to constantly remind them on how to see it. It is especially hard for higher level students to start the process over again. But not impossible. Few of them have naturally evolved, but most of them need to be trained to see language as chunks and grammar as patterns through practicing.


  • I make sure they see groups of words (chunks) by highlighting it in every opportunity possible.
  • Reflective approach is really helpful. When they open a dictionary it is important that they have time to look up words and pay attention to form, meaning, read examples, think of part of speech, word family, etc.
  • They should use a notebook to keep record of the new chunks and be able to add their own examples. Today I was reading a story with my group and the chunk “speeds by”, “runs by”, “drives by” came up. Even for one of my most pro-active language learner the first one “speeds by” didn’t make any sense. Even after she discovered the meaning of “speed”, it continued not to make much sense. Once, I explained that the idea is “somebody increasing speed while passing by” “… running while passing by” things started following into place and finally making sense. Once she got the meaning of “speeds by”, the rest of the reading ran out much more smoothly. Then she added the three chunks in her vocabulary log that by the way is also a language pattern.
A side note for my future self: a lot of students seems to believe that being fluent in English is being able to speak without pausing. And they measure their development not from the amount of grammar/vocabulary they have but if they are saying things fluently. It seems to me that they sort of stop caring much about grammar and vocabulary once they can carry out a conversation.

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