Stop translating!

One of the handicaps to becoming a proficient user of English is over-reliance on your mother tongue.  At this level, you should really avoid using translation dictionaries for everything except names of animals or plants, for example.  It’s more difficult to explain what a birch tree is than to simply translate it, but it’s vastly more helpful to your overall understanding of English to look up most words in an English dictionary to see the different ways they are used.  Phrasal verbs and collocations are usually explained better by monolingual dictionaries as well.

Free Online Learners’ Dictionaries


Have you ever looked up a word in the dictionary and then had to look up three or four more words in order to understand the definition?  This is why these publishers have written learners’ dictionaries.  All of the definitions are carefully written using clear, simple language so they can be easily understood by people whose first language isn’t English.  Each dictionary has a unique style with their own advantages.  Visit their home pages and look at the different activities and exercises they have to get a feeling of which dictionary you like best.

Use the dictionaries together with the reading practice section

A dictionary should never be your first resort when you come across a new word, always try and guess the meaning based on the context you find it in.  The most important thing to do when you read is to understand the whole piece, which is very difficult if you are constantly stopping to check the dictionary.  There are great resources for learning new vocabulary this way in the reading practice section.

See words in their natural habitat: context and corpora

Sometimes it’s difficult to really understand the exact sense of a word without seeing it in context.  For example, the words chance, opportunity and possibility.  They all have quite similar meanings but they all have particular situations in which they can be used.  If you visit the British National Corpus and type the words into the search box separately, the corpus will show you 50 examples of that particular word or phrase from a range of written and spoken material in Britain.  So now can you see the difference between possibility and opportunity?

Web Corp is another corpus which searches the worldwide web for the language you want to examine.  Remember that there is a lot of very poor English written by native speakers on the Internet!  This tool is more useful for finding informal expressions than the British National Corpus.