Do I need to get a Spanish/English dictionary?

stack of books

If you are starting to learn Spanish, absolutely.

However, if you are already at an intermediate level, going into advanced, you should start moving away from that kind of dictionary and instead use a dictionary in Spanish. The same kind native speakers use as reference.

I believe this is a crucial step to take, as early as possible. It is almost certain you will feel awkward using it at first, but if you want to achieve a high level of fluency in Spanish, you need to get connect each word in Spanish directly with the idea(or ideas) it represents. It is also a great way to learn how to define or explain something, for when you can’t quite find the word for it at the moment.

When starting to learn a foreign language as a grown up, a bilingual dictionary lets you use your native tongue as a bridge between ideas and words in the new language. This definitely saves you time and frustration, but it is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, it lets you understand some things a lot quicker. Basic nouns and verbs can be learned by demonstration (e. g. someone could show you a picture of a cat, while saying the word “gato”

, or say the word “saltar”
and then jump). But some nouns have very subtle differences between them, some verbs are too complicated to demonstrate, and abstract concepts are quite difficult to explain at the beginning.

On the other hand, it may give you the false impression that there is a one-to-one correspondence between words in one language and words in the other, when in reality things are a lot more complicated than that1

Think back to the time you learned your native language. You didn’t have any other language to use as reference. You learned through demonstration, repetition, trial and error, explanations in the same language you were learning (with simpler vocabulary you already knew) and the like. That allowed you to build direct bridges between ideas/concepts and words. Those bridges are what allow you to express yourself fluently in your native language, because there are no intermediate steps (other than ordering your thoughts before speaking, of course). Ideally, this is what you want to achieve in the language you’re learning. If you rely too much on a bilingual dictionary, you may get used to thinking in your native language, then translating. While that may work if you’re just reading some text, it won’t work for conversation at all, since it completely disrupts the flow of dialogue by introducing an extra step requiring considerable time and effort to go unnoticed.

All right, I hope this helps you and don’t forget to come back regularly to check new posts and resources to help you in your journey!

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Also, if you want to brush up on (or learn) proper Spanish pronunciation, check out the self-study video course I offer. There’s also a free lesson from that course that you can watch.

You can also send me questions or request subjects to read about. You can do it in the comments or send me a message.

See you next time!

Footnotes

  1. If they weren’t, automated translation systems would already be available and their output would be indistinguishable from what competent human translators produce (but that’s a rant for another time).

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