How to use a dictionary - a guide.
Let's learn how to use a dictionary and make the most from this valuable tool!
Google translate is a superb tool, however, it cannot compare to the wealth of information you can get from a word when you look it up in a dictionary.
As a student of Portuguese language, you already know that some words in Portuguese will be "masculine" or "feminine" - this will be decisive when choosing between "do or da" (when you mean "of" or "from") or "no and na" (when meaning "in the") . Moreover, the way some words (nouns and adjectives) change when we speak them in the plural - all this and more you will be able to find out if you are using a dictionary.
To make things even more practical, some dictionaries will have a special version for mobiles and tablets with a built in audio facility that gives you the correct pronunciation of the word! These mobile dictionary versions also come with games and extra tools like "bookmarking", word lists etc.
Whether it is a paper dictionary or an electronic version, it is important that you know how to:
find the word you need;
understand the information given;
select what piece of information is relevant for your needs
what to do when the word you need is not listed in your dictionary.
How to find the word you need:
Words are listed alphabetically, so use the guide words at the top of each dictionary page - it takes practice to improve your speed in finding words quickly so keep practising until you can find any word within 10 seconds. You should also practise finding words in your own language in your bilingual dictionary. If you use an electronic dictionary, take some time at home to learn how it works and, again, practise finding words quickly.
Use guide words to save time
Know and use proper alphabetical order
If you don't find the word
Check the spelling - sometimes it is easy to mistake "sc" for "ss", or "ch" for a "x", for instance.
Check if the version of dictionary you use is the most complete. Concise, gem and pocket dictionaries will not be appropriate for students after their first year.
If your word ends in "s", it is likely it is a plural form of a noun or adjective or it can also be a verb conjugated in the 2nd person. If the word is not a verb: try to look it up without the "s" ending. Example: if you look for the word "cadernos", you will find "caderno", which is the singular form. However, if you are looking up the word "lições", you will find "lição". If the word is a verb: Look up the root of the verb, instead of the whole word. If you need to find the meaning for the verb "compraram", try to look up the beginning part "compra" - that is, remove anything you think is part of the conjugation ending.
When you find the word:
Dictionaries will almost always give you more than 1 meaning for the word you look up. This is not a special attribute of Portuguese language, it happens with all languages: the way we use words, the meaning we give to them are not always the same across languages.
Substitute the meaning you find for the word in the sentence. Be sure you select the most appropriate meaning, not merely the first one you come to.
If you are using an electronic dictionary, bookmark it. Some dictionary mobile applications offer the possibility of adding the new words onto a "favourite" tab. Make use of it. If you are using a paper dictionary, write down the word on a separate small notepad. Record each word you look up and try to recall them in the future.
Don't just read the information about a word, apply it.
Pronounce the word a few times. Electronic and online dictionaries bring a pronunciation sample for each word. Use it to practise your speaking skills. As you listen, repeat it.
Observe the way the word is spelt. Practise writing and spelling it out, and most importantly use it in context. You can create your own example sentences, highlighting the word's meaning as a way to consolidate its meaning.
Watch out for abbreviated labels next to the word. These labels can indicate that a word is used in a certain region, for a specific subject, or that it has a special usage such as slang, informal, nonstandard, archaic, obsolete, vulgar and so on. In Portuguese language, some dictionaries will bring the abbreviation BRA or BR for Brazilian words and EU, POR, PORT for the words or spellings of Portugal.
Some words that are used exclusively in informal settings, may bring the abbreviation (inf) next to them.
Hunt around for synonyms of words. Observe the words your dictionary uses to describe the word you looked up. Write down one or two of these definition words and look them up as well. Check if they are related words, write them down next to the original word.
Observe the entries near the word you looked up. It is likely your dictionary will bring derivative words or related words near the word you looked up. Don't hesitate to take an extra minute to explore them.
Note the way the Portuguese word works
Compare it against its equivalent in your mother tongue.
Do they work in the same way?
Take for instance the word "toalha".
Does it work in the same as in English?
You will find out that "toalha" can be used in the same way you would use "cloth" in English, as in "table cloth". However, if you use it to wipe your face when you wash it, then it will bring the meaning of a "towel". Any other object related to the English "towel" you can think of?
Maybe you thought of "Kitchen towels", "dish cloth" or even "Kitchen tissues" - In Portuguese we would say "papel-toalha" for the paper tissues, especialy the kitchen ones, but if it is used to wipe the nose, then the word "lenço" comes to play. Lenço de papel. If the "toalha" is used to wipe the body after shower, then it will be a "toalha de banho". What about the rags we use when we clean the house?
What about the ones we use to place on the floor of the bathroom?
Did you get the idea?
Explore the words whenever you can.
Make a "word chain" - one will always lead to another
If you are looking up a word that will be related to description of people, places, objects, why not looking up for its opposite? Found "happy", then look up for "sad". What is the person is feeling "very sad", then maybe you want to look up for "depressive".
Does the Portuguese use the word "content" in the same way English language does?
Don't rely only on your classes, your class material, your teacher to introduce you to new words.
Be an independant learner.