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Q&A: Is it true that you can not use the dictionary to learn new vocabulary?

Question: 

I was struck by one video where the Russian teacher said to learn only phrases and not words, this makes all kind of phrase books important; also she said not to place emphasis on grammar books and dictionaries. To try to gather the meaning from the context. I often read the dictionary, not much now, as with very restricted vocabulary, difficult to grasp meanings.
 
Is it true that you can not use the dictionary to learn new vocabulary?

Answer:

I think that learning phrases at the beginner level is very important. If you practice listening and repeating them they will "roll off your tongue". If as a beginner you are learning just words out of context, it would usually take you time to build the structure or the sentence and to try and come up with all the proper parts. When you learn the phrases and you learn them in context it will help your speaking, even though you might not yet know exactly why everything in that phrase is that way.

However as you progress in your studies, learning individual vocabulary words is always very important. You will also keep on building up your knowledge of grammar and will become comfortable with the basic structures, the way the sentences are constructed and endings are changing in Russian. Once you reach that level it would be easier to use the words you learned individually in the proper places and forms.  You will be able to apply the grammar rules without truly thinking about them, they will just become a natural way to use that word to express your thoughts.

However learning words in context is best and easiest at any stage of your language study, because there are certain ways each word is used. It can even change its meaning depending on context. I also ran across a common issue the students encounter: some words are not used the way they think they should be used, frequently because they are influenced by their native language(s) or the language(s) they are already fluent in. So they need to abandon the expectations at first and just memorize the words in phrases in context until they develop the “feel” for the language. But that comes much later in your Russian studies.

Reading a dictionary when you come across the word you do not know if always useful and helps you find out the meaning of the word. Reading a dictionary to memorize random words is unhelpful for the majority of people. There are however a certain category of people who find it easy and useful, but they would be an exception to the general population of the language learners and usually at a much more advanced level in their studies.

So to summarize, my advice would be not even use the phrase books and definitely not dictionaries to learn the language. Especially as a beginner to intermediate level student, use materials/textbooks:

  • with easy but natural texts that present the words in context,
  • that offer a lot of audio support to those texts,
  • that have exercises for you to practice the new grammar and vocabulary
  • where the new grammar and vocabulary are presented within a cultural context,
  • that present the new information gradually (both vocabulary and grammar), allowing you to internalize them before you move on.

And my favorite advice to beginner-intermediate level students is: if you want to memorize more new words and feel comforable to use them in conversation, then spend a lot of time on listening/comprehension and listening/repetition activities!

Listen to the same texts, dialogues that you have studied as many times as you can. Do it while you are not technically studying anymore: during a walk, a drive or commute somewhere, when you do things around the house or walk with your pets – that really helps you to start using that material “automatically” without trying to put things together. You know you have reached that point when you can almost predict what the next phrase/sentence is.

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