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Bilingual Dictionaries

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Bilingual Dictionaries

Êtes-vous prêt à découvrir les dictionnaires bilingues? If you're struggling to understand the question, you might benefit from using a bilingual dictionary!

Bilingual dictionaries are an essential item in any language learner's tool kit, and now you can learn all about them too.

Bilingual Dictionaries Definition

Bilingual dictionaries are specialized dictionaries that translate words and phrases from one language to another. Many bilingual dictionaries are bidirectional, meaning they can translate to and from both languages. For example, an 'English - French' dictionary would allow the user to translate an English word to French and a French word to English.

What's Included in a Bilingual Dictionary?

Inside a bilingual dictionary, you will often find a word's word class (e.g., noun, verb, adjective, etc.), gender (depending on the language), pronunciation (e.g., apple = /ˈæpəl/), synonyms (similar words) and other 'clues' to help a non-native speaker get to grips with a new word.

Unlike monolingual dictionaries, bilingual dictionaries focus more on translations than definitions, but that doesn't mean you won't find any. Many of the best bilingual dictionaries will provide a translation, a definition, and a sentence containing the chosen word in context.

In an English-French bilingual dictionary, the information that accompanies the French word avion includes:

  • The translation in both US and UK spellings - Airplane and Aeroplane
  • The word class - A noun
  • A sentence in each language using the word in context - L'avion atterrit à l'aéroport and The airplane touches down at the airport
  • The word pronunciation using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) - /ˈer.pleɪn/

Some bilingual dictionaries may also include:

  • Shortcuts - these are the acronyms and abbreviations a dictionary may use to save space. For example, the use of M and F to indicate masculine and feminine. Make sure you familiarize yourself with these to get the most out of your dictionary.
  • Idioms and figurative language - Many bilingual dictionaries contain a section on idioms and figurative language as these are often untranslatable.
  • Useful phrases - Some bilingual dictionaries contain a section with everyday useful phrases, such as asking for the bill or where the toilet is.

Bilingual Dictionaries History

It is widely agreed that the bilingual dictionary came after the monolingual dictionary; however, exactly who created the first bilingual dictionary isn't so well known. Some linguists and lexicographers believe the first bilingual dictionaries originated in Tibet and date back to the early 9th century; however, we don't have any evidence to prove this.

Lexicographer - A person who writes and compiles dictionaries.

In more recent history, we can trace the bilingual dictionary back to the East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (the British and Dutch trading companies). Global trade and colonization made bilingual communication more important than ever. Many emissaries (a person sent abroad on a special mission) began composing language glossaries and grammar books which eventually progressed to bilingual dictionaries.

Fun fact - Walter H. Medhurst, the creator of the first English - Japanese bilingual dictionary, wrote the dictionary without ever visiting Japan!

Today, bilingual countries exist in many different languages and can be found in book form and online.

Bilingual Dictionaries, Image of English to Chinese translation, StudySmarterToday, bilingual dictionaries can be used online

Types of Bilingual Dictionaries

There are thousands of bilingual dictionaries in various languages available to purchase today. Unsurprisingly, the most common bilingual dictionaries include English as one of the languages.

Bilingual dictionaries can come in many different formats, such as:

  • Printed

    • pocket-sized

    • large print

    • small print

  • Online

    • software (e.g., an app)

    • website

  • Picture dictionary (often for children)

  • Travel and phrase books

  • Multilingual dictionaries (contain three or more languages)

Bilingual Dictionary Example

Let's take a look at what an entry in an English - Spanish bilingual dictionary might look like.

house

casa, n. (here, the n. indicates that the word is a noun)

pronunciation: /ˈkasa/

1. Dwelling - Casa (feminine)

The house has three bedroomsLa casa tiene tres dormitorios

2. Dynasty - Casa (feminine), Familia (feminine)

the House of Windsor la casa de Windsor

How to Use a Bilingual Dictionary

When used correctly, bilingual dictionaries are a great way to learn and practice a new language and translate texts. Sitting and translating a text word-by-word using a bilingual dictionary probably isn't the best idea as it would be very time-consuming and likely lead to some questionable results. It's best to use bilingual dictionaries as an aid to complement language learning/teaching.

Here are a few ways you could use a bilingual dictionary:

  • Looking up unknown words - This one sounds obvious, but bear with us. Try reading through a text in your target language (the language you're trying to learn) and highlighting any words that seem important but you don't yet know. Next, look at the context and the surrounding words to see if you can decipher the word's meaning yourself before looking it up. Finally, look the word up in a bilingual dictionary and take note of its meaning and a sentence containing the word in context for reference.

  • Search for the base form of a word - Words often come in many forms and it's unlikely a bilingual dictionary will have an entry for each; therefore, you should search for the base form of a word. For example, search for big rather than bigger or to walk rather than walking. As a standard rule, the base form of a word in English is the infinitive form of a verb (e.g., to run, to sing), a singular noun (not plural), and the basic adjective (not a comparative or superlative).

  • Pay attention to word class (parts of speech) - In English, there are many homonyms (words that sound the same but have different meanings) that can be differentiated based on their word class. For example, the word record can be a noun (a disc that plays music) or a verb (to capture something). It's important you know the word class and the role a word plays in a sentence to ensure you're getting the correct translation.
  • Pay attention to figurative language - Many words and phrases have two types of meaning; literal and figurative. Literal meanings can be pretty simple to translate, but figurative language can be a lot trickier - this is because figurative language is often based on cultural context and cannot be directly translated. For example, in English, we often say 'feeling blue' to describe a sense of sadness. When the phrase is translated into French, we get 'se sentir bleu', which wouldn't mean anything to a French-speaking person!

Bilingual dictionaries, two people talking, StudySmarterNot all phrases can be directly translated

It's a good idea to conduct a 'reverse look-up' (i.e., search for the word in both languages) to check the translation you've found is the word you're looking for. Remember, some words have multiple translations, so it is important to look at them in context!

Bilingual Dictionaries Challenges

There are a few challenges involved in creating and using bilingual dictionaries, such as what to include and untranslatable words or phrases. It often isn't enough to simply include words, as these can have different meanings when used within a phrase. For example, the English word pick has several meanings as a word on its own, but when paired with the word up to create the phrasal verb pick up, it takes on another whole new meaning.

Secondly, culture can play a significant role in how we translate languages. Not all words and phrases have direct cultural translations, and something that may sound utterly natural in one country or culture might sound pretty odd in another.

It's important to remember that languages are complex webs of words, phrases, grammar, and syntax, and it isn't always possible to pick individual words out and directly translate them.

Bilingual vs. Monolingual Dictionaries

Here is a handy table outlining the key differences between bilingual and monolingual dictionaries.

Monolingual Dictionaries Bilingual Dictionaries
Contains one languageContains two languages
Focus on providing definitions Focus on translation
Best for competent language usersBest for language learners
Comprehensive compilation of all words used in the languageFocus on the most common/useful words

Bilingual Dictionaries - Key Takeaways

  • Bilingual dictionaries are specialized dictionaries that translate words and phrases from one language to another.
  • Most bilingual dictionaries are bidirectional, meaning they can translate to and from both languages, e.g., English to Spanish and Spanish to English.
  • Bilingual dictionaries often contain the word's class (part of speech), pronunciation, gender (where appropriate), other possible translations, and a sentence in each language using the word in context.
  • When using a bilingual dictionary, it's important to remember that not all words and phrases can be directly translated.
  • Bilingual dictionaries focus on translating the most common/useful phrases in a language, whereas monolingual dictionaries provide a more comprehensive list of definitions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bilingual Dictionaries

A bilingual dictionary helps you translate one language to another. Most good bilingual dictionaries will include a word's translation, word class, pronunciation, and sentences with the word in context in both languages. 

Monolingual dictionaries contain one language and focus on giving definitions for every known word in that language. On the other hand, bilingual dictionaries focus on translation between one language and another. 

A good bilingual dictionary should be bidirectional, meaning you can use it to translate between both languages. It should also include phrases that cannot be directly translated.

A dictionary that translates two languages is a bilingual dictionary.

Bilingual dictionaries are very helpful tools for language learners. They help put new words into context, give a word its word class, and tell learners how to pronounce the word correctly. They can also be quicker to use than a monolingual dictionary. 

Final Bilingual Dictionaries Quiz

Question

True or false, it's always possible to directly translate phrases?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:

Most bilingual dictionaries are _____.

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Answer

Bidirectional 

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Question

What is a lexicographer?

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Answer

Someone who writes and compiles dictionaries 

Show question

Question

Why is it important to pay attention to the word class (part of speech) when using a bilingual dictionary? 

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Answer

Looking at the word class can confirm we are looking at the correct word, and not at a homonym (words that are spelt the same but have a different meaning).

Show question

Question

How is a word's pronunciation usually represented in a bilingual dictionary?

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Answer

Using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:

When searching for a word in a bilingual dictionary, you should look for its ____ ____.

Show answer

Answer

Base form

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Question

How can culture affect the use of bilingual dictionaries?

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Answer

Some phrases are only understood in certain cultures. 

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Question

Which type of dictionary is best for competent language users?

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Answer

Monolingual dictionary 

Show question

Question

Which type of dictionary focuses on translation?

Show answer

Answer

Bilingual dictionary 

Show question

Question

List five things a bilingual dictionary entry would likely contain.

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Answer

  • Translation 
  • Pronunciation in IPA 
  • Sentences using the word in context
  • Gender 
  • Word class

Show question

Question

True or false, it's a good idea to use a bilingual dictionary as the main tool for language learning?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

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