dictionary surfing

I decided that I should write more about my daily language learning, which I hope will help people more than just ranting about various theory topics. Today I’ve been doing what I call “dictionary surfing”.

This is an activity that I started doing while I was in China in 2007. I had a nice big dictionary that was only one direction: Chinese to English. What I would do is start with some text that I was reading (a textbook, a book, any source of your desired language), and I’d pick any word that I didn’t know. Then I’d look it up, and (here’s the important part) read the example sentences or phrases listed for it.

This part is why I mentioned that the dictionary was one direction; I’ve found that generally in a one-direction dictionary, they’re not so worried about cramming in every possible word, so they usually add better entries. A dual direction dictionary has half the space, so they typically have fewer details (although there are exceptions, of course). As a side note, my favourite online dictionary for Chinese is nciku because it has plenty of example sentences.

So, I find a word, I look at the example sentences. Somewhere in those example sentences there’ll be other words that I don’t know. Whichever words are somehow interesting or useful, or otherwise catch my eye, are then looked up themselves. I just repeat this process as a way to “surf” through the dictionary by following whatever interests me.

When I was in China, I hadn’t yet discovered the wonders of SRS software like Anki, so I would just write down neat phrases in my notebook and try to review them later. Now that I have the advantage of an SRS, I enter any interesting phrases into Anki and then it’ll tell me when to review them so I don’t have to worry about remembering them.

This is what I’m doing right now for Swedish. I really want to be able to read these Stieg Larsson books that I bought in Sweden, but there’s lots of unknown vocabulary. In order to build my vocabulary a bit more, I’m trying to do some dictionary surfing every day to find new and interesting words. I flip open the book to a random page, and start looking for words that I don’t know. I’m just using the book as a starting place to find words, but I don’t have to stick to only the words I find in the book. Typically I’ll find 4 or 5 more words through surfing before I hit a dead end and go back to the book. I’m looking them up using the Norstedts online dictionary, which has plenty of example phrases.

I find that with this method, I can quite comfortably learn 10 new words every day. Sometimes I can do a lot more, but 10 is an easy number. As long as I have them entered with an example sentence in Anki, then I don’t have to remember to go back and review them later. They’ll just come up naturally in my daily review session, which I usually do every morning as soon as I wake up.

As long as I keep doing a little bit every day, then I know that I’m making steady progress. Some days I do more, some days less. I can adjust according to my mood that day. I don’t need to feel guilty about the days where I do less, because I know my number of cards in my Anki deck is still steadily increasing.


3 Responses to dictionary surfing

  1. Natalie says:

    You’re going to read Stieg Larsson in the original? I’m jealous! I adore his books. Once my Russian improves, I’ll have to consider picking up Swedish…

  2. William says:

    Your technique works even for your mother language. As a kid I used to do a little dictionary surfing myself, discovering old words and hidden meanings.

  3. Γλαύκος says:

    Great , I also started using Anki with the intention to enrich my vocab …Not anything impressing so far, but I feel that in the long run things will be better.
    I prefer Smart.fm sometimes because of the audio files that it provides for every phrase …Have you ever used it?

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