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Learning Strategies

German Dept.
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PONS online dict.
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What Dictionary should I buy?

What follows is merely my (Hartmut's) opinion: please take it with multiple grains of salt!

This section addresses online dictionaries and provides some general advice for using both online and print dictionaries:

The remaining sections refer to print dictionaries only:

General Advice
Whatever dictionary you buy, you should absolutely do the following three things:

  • At this point, an online dictionary will probably be good enough for most people's needs. Check out especially the PONS online dictionary, which replicates the strengths of a good paper dictionary in an online format (in particular, results are organized logically by categories of meaning, rather than simply presented in an alphabetical list), and the LEO online dictionary, whose comprehensiveness makes it an excellent complement to PONS. LEO's other great strength are the forum discussions at the bottom of the list of results for a given term, where you will often find helpful answers to more difficult translation problems. LEO is also available as a free smartphone app; PONS you would have to pay for (which I'm too cheap to do and so haven't tried).
    • Click here for an annotated list of online German dictionaries
  • Once you have looked up a word in the German-English section, look it up in the English-German section (and vice-versa) to avoid misunderstandings.  Use whatever clues to the different senses of the word are given in the dictionary--and use your common sense!  Then you won't find yourself saying "Dattel" when you mean a "date" on the weekend, or "Arbeitshose" for "overall" when you don't mean "work pants" :) 
  • Don't overuse the dictionary.  If you're trying to understand something, only look up words if you can't make a reasonable guess.  If you're trying to write or say something, consider first whether you could express your idea in a different way using the vocabulary you know before you look up a word or expression.  Puritan guilt culture may have conditioned you to look up every single word you're unsure of--but in fact, you should feel guilty if you do look up everything, because you'll learn less, lose sight of the overall picture, and learning German will feel like a chore instead of a pleasure.
  • If you do buy a paper dictionary, read the instructions in the front telling you how the dictionary is organized: How does it list plural forms?  How does it list irregular verbs?  How does it organize its entries?
Size and Price
Bigger dictionaries will of course generally be more comprehensive, but the bigger the dictionary, the less likely you are to carry it with you and to actually use it when you need it.  I'd recommend that the first dictionary you get be a paperback in the $12-$15 price range, with about 100,000 entries.  Later, if you can afford a bigger dictionary to keep at home, that's great.


  • Webster's New World German Dictionary, Concise Edition (orange; roughly $14)  This is the dictionary I most recommend.  Don't buy the "Compact Edition": it's too small and not worth saving a few dollars.  Strengths: principal parts of irregular verbs (but not, unfortunately, present tense stem-changes) are listed in the verbs entry in the German-English section; typeface is very readable; organization is easy to follow; entries are well chosen and accurate.  Weaknesses: plural and genitive endings are only listed (in the German-English section) for words not following any regular pattern--but you can turn this into a strength by familiarizing yourself with the comprehensive list of noun ending patterns on page xvi, a very useful feature.
  • If you're a beginner and not confident in your skills in navigating the abbreviations and conventions of most bilingual dictionaries, you may like the Harper Collins Beginner's German Dictionary, 5th ed.  This contains a reasonable number of entries (but much fewer than the Webster's dictionary mentioned above), lots of helpful usage examples, and is especially easy to read and use.  It lists articles and plurals with every noun, and irregular verb forms with every verb. The ISBN is 9780061374883.
  • Any of the bigger dictionaries listing "Collins" and/or "Klett" on the publisher page are excellent: the above dictionary comes from that publisher. The "big" dictionary we recommend is the Harper Collins Unabridged German Dictionary.
  • Despite the warning below, the bigger dictionaries from Langenscheidt's are quite good.

Warnings (i.e. I wouldn't buy these)

  • Langenscheidt's dictionaries (the yellow ones)  These should be the best, because this publisher has a long tradition and publishes some great reference works.  Nevertheless, the compact Langenscheidt's dictionaries seem to me to be among the least useful and user-friendly dictionaries available.  But if you get a big Langenscheidt's dictionary and take the time to learn to use it, you will have a reliable and useful reference work.
    • Since writing this, I've gotten one email from someone who's very happy with his Langenscheidt's dictionary: Langenscheidts Taschenwoerterbuch, Revised Edition 1997--ISBN 3-468-11125-8



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