Writing in a second language – part III

After a bit of a break I am back with the third part of “Writing in a second language” and a next tip. Last time I advised you to not translate when you write, this time I suggest:

Do not use dictionaries

Catchy, isn’t it? And since I got your attention I will clarify a bit: do not use bilingual dictionaries when you write. Although, all in all, dictionaries are more than beneficial to any writing (be it native or a second language), being too attached to bilingual dictionaries might bring you more harm than benefits.

I’m sure that somewhere along the language learning process you had to write some sort of a written assignment and most likely you used a dictionary while writing it. It might be that when the homework came back to you with perfectly correct words (they had to be, you checked them in the dictionary!) being underlined as incorrect or used wrongly. It is because bilingual dictionaries due to limited space offer very little context to go on. The word might be correct, but it is not used in the situations or grammar structures you used it in.

The best you can do is try to stay within the language you are writing in: you are already trying to think in it, so why not support those attempts by using a monolingual dictionary or a thesaurus? You use them when you write in your native language, don’t you? (Well, if you don’t, I wouldn’t say it out loud!)

The first one will allow you to ensure that the word you’re about to use really means what you want it to mean. We often overhear some fancy words and we would like to use it, but we are not sure when would it be appropriate. With monolingual dictionary you can get the very definition of the word and often examples of use in sentences.

The second one will help to enhace your vocabulary in a second language. Whenever you need a specific word, think of a simple synonym in a second language. For example, when your protagonist is walking through a park, instead of looking up “stroll” in a bilingual dictionary, find “walk” (a simple word already you know) in a thesaurus. You will find your “stroll” listed among many other possibilities. But then, you might ask, how will you know you are picking the correct word? Oh well, you have to go and check its meaning!

For that reason I do love online dictionaries. The one I use the most while writing in English is Merriam-Webster. I am sure there are others, but since this one meets most of my needs, I stick to it. (Though if you can recommend any other feel free to leave a comment!) The reason I love Merriam-Webster is because of its functionality: I can switch between monolingual dictionary and a thesaurus with just one click! I also can instantly look up any definition of a word I find in the thesaurus section. It also has a very neat phone application – it might lack the theasaurus, but it can be used offline, so you are not bound by the internet access.

Go ahead and insert the word “walk” into thesaurus section of Merriam-Webster and then switch to a “walk (verb)” tab. Look at the list. I am sure you already know many of the words listed (and “stroll” is among them), but you just wouldn’t remember them at the very moment you were trying to write the sentence. It is because our passive knowledge of the language and vocabulary is much wider than the active one: you will recognize more words (and grammar structures) than you can “produce” on the spot.

By using monolingual dictionary and thesaurus you will support your “passive” vocabulary slowly becoming the “active” one. Your language will also become better as you will have better understanding of words you use – knowing the definition of a word also helps during translation (if you ever need to do it), as instead of relying on bilingual dictionaries you can find the most accurate equivalent in the given context.

Of course, there will be times when you just can’t do without a bilingual dictionary, so don’t throw them away just yet! If you are really stuck you can always use it and then simply double-check with the monolingual dictionary. In the end, if used properly, all dictionaries are your dearest friends.



Writing in a second language – part I

Writing in a second language – part II

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

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