HOW TO USE DICTIONARIES: Terminology and tips

use a dictionary

In a previous blog post and accompanying video, I gave you three very good reasons for why you should never use Google Translate. I thought it might also be good to guide you down the right path, away from the devil with these tips on how to use dictionaries productively so you never have to use that thing again. You know what I’m talking about.

WHY USE A DICTIONARY WHEN YOU HAVE GOOGLE TRANSLATE?

Well, as previously discussed, Google Translate will serve you a very decent, premade text or translation (most of the times anyway) but it will basically do most of the work for you. That’s why we still have good old-fashioned dictionaries. Sure, they might be off-putting and intimidating and they’re not always super easy to use, but a dictionary can give you so many things that GT never can: actual understanding of how a word is used, how the context can radically change the meaning or usage of a word and how to conjugate a verb according to your needs. It’s just a great tool in helping you gain independency when learning a language, you just have to learn how to use it. To help you along, I’ve compiled this guide with which type of dictionary you could use according to your level.

ONLINE DICTIONARIES: RECOMMENDATIONS & TIPS FOR YOUR LEVEL

I’ve compiled the following guide to which online dictionary you could use according to your level and needs. In a follow-up blog post, I’ll give you more information and explain how to use them.

A1-A2 
for students learning Dutch (from the Netherlands or without any specific accent in mind) with English or German as a source languageUse this free dictionary:
https://en.bab.la/
for students learning Dutch (from the Netherlands or without any specific accent in mind) with another source languageUse this free dictionary:
https://www.thefreedictionary.com/
for students specifically learning Flemish DutchUse the combination of 
1. the paying Van Dale translation dictionaries (either French, English, German or Spanish , 4.99€ / year) and since these dictionaries don’t have the pronunciation of the word in Dutch, combine it with
2. the monolingual Van Dale NT2 online Dutch dictionary for Dutch students (3.99€ / year) where you can hear the pronunciation in Flemish Dutch as well
A2-B1
Use the combination of 
1. the paying Van Dale translation dictionaries (either French, English, German or Spanish , 4.99€ / year) and combine it with
2. the monolingual Van Dale NT2 online Dutch dictionary (3.99€ / year). That way you can switch between the translation and the Dutch, simplified description of the word. 
B1 onwards
 As much as possible, try to use the Van Dale NT2 online dictionary for Dutch students only. 

USING TRANSLATION DICTIONARIES CORRECTLY

The very first thing that you should do when you want to look up a word in the dictionary of your choice, is to determine what kind of word you’re dealing with. First of all, let’s look at this alphabetically organized list of common grammatical terms you’re most likely to find in a dictionary.

DUTCH GRAMMAR WORDABBREVIATIONTRANSLATION
bezittelijk voornaamwoord(bez. vnw)possessive pronoun
bijvoeglijk naamwoord(bn)adjective
bijwoord(bw)adverb
lidwoord(lidw.)article
persoonlijk voornaamwoord(pers. vnw)personal pronoun
verkleinwoordN/Adiminutive
voegwoord(vw)conjunction
voornaamwoord(vnw)pronoun
voorzetsel(vz)preposition
wederkerend voornaamwoord(wed. vnw)reflexive pronoun
werkwoord(ww)verb
zelfstandig naamwoord(zn)noun

HOW TO DETERMINE THE GRAMMATICAL FUNCTION OF THE WORD

How to determine what kind of grammatical function your word has, will of course very much depend on the context. If you’re using English or any other Germanic or Romantic language as your source language, you shouldn’t struggle much with finding correspondency between grammatical words in your source language and Dutch. By that, I just mean that nouns in any of these languages are often translated as nouns in Dutch, adjectives normally correspond to adjectives, verbs to verbs, etc. Quite straightforward. If your source language is something else, then I would suggest you invest in a good, paper dictionary since the online dictionary market mostly covers the biggest European languages.

If you’re unsure about the grammatical function of the word:

  • You could look at the words that surround it.
  • The word itself can also be an indication of what you’re dealing with: If it ends in “en”, it’s likely a noun in plural or verb in infinitive or plural. if it ends in “e”, it’s likely an adjective decleansed.
  • The position of the word can also help you along: if it appears at the end of the sentence, it’s likely to be a verb (part of the “eindgroep”). If it appears in the beginning, it’s likely to be a temporal word, or the subject of the sentence, meaning, likely to be a person or a thing.

WHY CONTEXT MATTERS…

There are a number of words in Dutch that depending on the context, will change grammatical usage and therefore, meaning. There are also many words in Dutch that will change meaning according to the context. So after having found a translation in a dictionary, always double check that it makes sense in the context that you want to use it, either by comparing it to one of the examplary sentences in the dictionary or putting the translated word in the context of the text and check whether it makes sense. Below you’ll find some examples, far from exhaustive though. This is not a dictionary.

WORDS WITH DIFFERENT GRAMMATICAL USAGES

DUTCH WORDGRAMMATICAL FUNCTIONMEANING
zijnverbto be

possessive pronounhis

noun (+ het)being, existence
haarnoun (+ het)hair

possessive pronounher

personal pronounher
levennoun (+ het)life

verbto live

WORDS WITH DIFFERENT MEANINGS DEPENDING ON THE CONTEXT & USAGE

DUTCH WORDCONTEXT / USAGEMEANING
blijvencombined with location / place / preposition “in”to stay

used as auxiliary verbto continue to
liggencombined with location / preposition “in”to lie down
combined with topographical locationsto be situated in
combined with the preposition “aan” (as in the expression: Dat ligt aan…)to be dependent on something

GENERAL TIPS

  • With online dictionaries, there’s no need to look up the base form of the word as the dictionary will automatically recognize what word you need. For example, if you type in “sliep” (the simple past of “slapen”) the dictionary should automatically give you the infinitive. The same goes for plurals and diminutives in the case of nouns, adjectives that are decleansed or in the comparative or superlative form.
  • If you’re using a print dictionary, you’ll need to do the conversion to the base form of the word. This can be tricky and depends very much on your level. In that case, I would advise you to use an online dictionary to check on the base form of the word. Then you can look it up in the printed dictionary of your choice.
  • Try to avoid using a dictionary immediately whenever you don’t understand a word. First see whether you could actually determine the meaning of the word by looking at the context of the text. You could then use the dictionary to (hopefully) confirm your suspicion.

Check out my video below for a very lively explanation of how to use dictionaries correctly.

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