November 30, 2010 | German

Dictionary Addiction

I am trying not to look up words every two seconds.

This is the last day of German, and in honor of it, I am going to come clean about my dictionary addiction.

It is pretty obvious by now that I am addicted to Pimsleur, but I haven’t yet confessed about the dictionaries.

I Finished This!

I Finished This!

When I was a German major, and also when I was studying comparative literature in graduate school, I compulsively looked up every word I didn’t know.

In literary works, that meant a lot of words were being looked up. I would carefully pencil the meaning of each in the margin of the book. So, if I was reading Goethe’s Faust, or Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the book would be absolutely covered with tiny, neat vocabulary notes, to the point that I could hardly focus on the literature.

I was so concerned about missing a detail, or misunderstanding something, that I couldn’t pass a word by when I wasn’t positive of its meaning, or shade of meaning. But you simply can’t do that when you are reading in a foreign language. You have to be willing to deduce some meanings from context—give the writing, and your brain, a chance. 

My approach made reading quite a chore, as one might imagine, and wasn’t in the end terribly productive for my language skills: I was constantly interrupting the flow of the text and overriding what were probably pretty good instincts about the meaning of what I was reading.

One Dictionary Is Too Big, and One is Too Little; Maybe I Should Just Go Electronic

One Dictionary Is Too Big, and One is Too Little; Maybe I Should Just Go Electronic

Four days ago, when I bought this 255-page book I mentioned previously—Föhn mich nicht zu, by Stephan Serin—I knew that I needed to put away the dictionaries if I was going to make my way through the book by today. I didn’t have much faith in myself, to be honest.

But I was curious about the book, and really curious about my reading abilities in German, so I tried.

I am happy to report that tonight, four days later, I finished the book. I looked up relatively few words, and I understood most of what he was talking about anyway.

I’m not going to say I got everything—I didn’t. I know I missed things. But I let that go for the larger pleasure of reading a book from one cover to the next.

One day at a time, folks.

Comments (1)

James • Posted on Fri, February 03, 2012 - 8:43 pm EST

I have found that I can retain vocabulary much better if I learn it in context. There eventually came a point where I just put the dictionary aside, and I found that I could at least get the drift of the whatever I was reading. Only if I was totally stumped did I open the dictionary.

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