How Often Do You Consult A Dictionary?

English is not my native language. It is not even a second language. In chronological order, it is the third language that I learned. The first was of course my mother’s tongue, Javanese. Then, Indonesian, our national language. I began to learn English only after I had more or less become a proficient speaker of the first two languages.

One of the things I can be proud of my English is the wealth of vocabulary I have come to master over the years — thanks to the many channels of exposure I’ve had access to in the learning process. I love reading. It has contributed significantly to my vocabulary stock. I listened to the radio — back then, at the early stages of my learning — with the sole intent of ‘hearing’ the sound and the rhythm of the language and adding more vocabulary to my repertoire. I also listened to different kinds of recordings and watched movies because I wanted to be able to feel the textures of the language as it is used by the native speakers. I wanted to get immersed in the language because I believed that it was the only way I could make it my own. All of those things, however, would not have meant much if I had not diligently worked with the dictionary. Dictionary did not only help me find the meanings of the words I found in my readings and heard in the radio or tape or movies, it also explained to me how they behave and in what kind of ‘ecology’ they most naturally inhabit. It also helped me pronounce those I found in silence in printed texts.

Throughout the many years of learning, I’ve had and worked with different kinds of dictionary. My first dictionary was a cheap pocket dictionary that I bought with my own pocket money from a book kiosk in the district market near our village. This dictionary claimed that it was the most complete. On its cover was printed 1,000,000 (one million) or something like that (I don’t remember exactly what the number was) — an impressively huge number that was probably meant to show that it had that many words in it. I guess it worked. To my impressionable young, village kid mind, it looked like it was one of the ultimate tools I’d ever needed to advance my English.

At first, the bilingual dictionary, which contained only list of words and their equivalence (English – Indonesian and Indonesian – English) without any clues of what class they belonged to, how to pronounce them and how they are used in sentences, worked just fine. Until, one day, my teacher in the tenth grade frowned and then smiled broadly upon hearing I used an inappropriate word in a conversation that we were asked to perform in front of the class.

I found out then and there that I needed a better dictionary. I saved money and bought another dictionary and then another one. From these dictionaries I learned that a decent dictionary is not supposed to contain only a list of words and their meanings but also clues on how the words are pronounced, what class they belong to and how they are used in sentences. It may also contain other things that a learner need to know or would benefit much knowing like the verb patterns, the derivatives, usage notes, etc.

I worked everyday and diligently with the dictionary, taking notes of words, their pronunciation, making examples from situations I could imagine I’d need the words. I kept the notes, memorise what’s in them, and reviewed them in the evening before I prepared another sheet for the new vocabularies. I did this until I finished high school.

In college I think I slowed down a bit, but I was never far from my dictionaries. They were still one of the main learning resources I relied upon.

Now as a language teacher (I teach English as a foreign language and Indonesian for speakers of other languages/BIPA) and a translator, I use dictionaries somewhat differently. Yes, I still occasionally use the dictionaries to help me find the meanings of unfamiliar words. But more than that, I now consult the dictionaries (and thesaurus) for accuracy and nuances of meanings whenever I’m in doubt of a word usage. They are more like fine-tuning tools for me now. This is particularly true when I am writing or translating.

So, how often do I consult a dictionary?

I’d say, quite often. And believe it or not, I still learn a lot from it.


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