Saturday, December 06, 2008

don't use a dictionary!

If you are learning a language, you should not use a dictionary to learn words. It is a colossal waste of time. You look up a word and then proceed to forget what it means and so you have to look it up again. This process repeats itself over and over again. What does it mean when you have to re-look up a word? Well, it means you didn't learn anything the first time, doesn't it. It also means you wasted your time.

Instead of using the dictionary, let yourself wonder what the word means. Let your brain try to figure it out. Give it some time. This is what you did when you were 2 years old. It must be the natural way.

There was a study done on memory that is known as the "Zeigarnik effect." A quote from the article where I discovered this:
it was shown that tasks that are interrupted are remembered by adults approximately 90% better than those that are fully completed, and that children, in general, remember only interrupted tasks.
You see, when you look up a word in the dictionary, the task is completed. That is why you don't remember the meaning. Your brain is spending no more time thinking about the word or trying to figure it out. You're satisfied, it's over, done, and forgotten about.

Let's look for some other ways in language acquisition that we can apply what Zeigarnik discovered. Perhaps, if you read a story in your target language and never find out how it ends, you will be able to remember the details of the story better. You might recall certain phrases or words that were used in the story. If you are really curious about how it ends, you might end up dreaming about it which means that your brain is processing that story.

Does anyone have any other ideas or comments on the Zeigarnik effect?


  1. I would also like to see some kind of linking of the Zeigarnik effect to the learning of words. Why did you make this connection?

  2. The Zeigarnik effect is about memory recall. When you haven't yet learned what a word means, you try to recall its meaning. Why is it that we forget so quickly what we just looked up in the dictionary? Because the task was completed. Why would we be able to recall an unfinished task better? Because our brain is spending more time on it. So what I'm saying is to let your brain spend more time on the words by letting it think about them longer. The more time spent will create stronger paths in the brain. That is my theory.

  3. It's an interesting theory, but it only works if you have enough vocab to figure out what the word means in context.

    How long does it take a kid to start talking? A year, 2 years? How long until they can speak clearly? 5 years, 7 years? And that's being around that language all day, every day.

    I'm not arguing against the theory, just saying that it has pretty strict limits as to when it's useful.

  4. If I am working online I will use an electronic dictionary to maintain flow, but I don't expect to remember every word I look up. It does help to be at least at a certain level though. You get to the point where there may be lot of words you don't know but they are usually domain specific or rarer variants of ones you do know ("that person is really agitated about the %^&* and wants the other person to help him") an electronic mouse-over dictionary tells you what the %^&* is but you may well decide not to spend effort learning it (simply because you are not coming across the word in other contexts). You may also come across a word that means melancholy but be happy for now with knowing the foreign word for sad.

    In the above case a dictionary that can provide quick translations lets you decide what words are worthwhile whilst letting you maintain flow and allowing you to read topic in specialized areas.

    I really notice the Zeigarnik effect when I have chosen a piece of text to study though. It is never worth my while to spend time to learn all the words 100% the effort is too huge, but much less effort spent on the interesting words that I kind of guessed or suddenly remember hearing elsewhere pays off.

    The problem with a non-phonetic language like Chinese is that without a dictionary it is hard to guess whether a new word is worth learning or even one that you already know well in the spoken form. In this case the dictionary action has to be fast!

  5. I agree with your theory for the most part, but I think a dictionary or sound lookup is helpful for character based languages such as chinese or japanese. I think it's much more difficult to remember an arbitrary symbol then if it has a sound associated with it.

  6. I agree that it does not work well when you cannot read a word because you are left with a phonetic blank. Another point is that you cannot avoid using a dictionary when you are living a language, like I am doing with Japanese in Japan.

    But for the languages you are trying to acquire on your own, you are in control.

    Adults have the ability to learn like children, but adults can do it quicker. Children have to learn about the whole world around them. Adults only need to learn the language. Even if it does take as long as children, I would rather have the abilities of a 7 year old child in Chinese after 7 years, than the typical adult learner of Chinese after 7 years.

    Anyhow, this post was about the reason that dictionaries do not help you learn words. See my earlier comment for the reason. Or read the original post again. :)

  7. Keith,
    I appreciate your statement about how dictionaries don't help you learn words. I just think for Chinese, and probably Japanese although I don't have any experience with Japanese, limited use of monolingual dictionary is helpful, but just enough to learn the reading of a word. However, I have to admit that it is refreshing to see the subtitle of a word that you've been wondering how to read in a monolingual broadcast.

  8. Chaoyangexile, I agree with you. Although you can try to guess the reading of a Japanese word, if you don't recognize the word then you can't be sure that you are reading it correctly unless you check.

  9. Watch out world, I have also blogged about it. I like the Indian interpretation. I hope your dramas have a lot of emotional moments.

  10. When I look up a word, I usually don't forget it because I make up a mnemonic story to implant it in my brain.


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