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Dictionary Advice

Online Dictionary Recommendations

  • Especially good are the three linked in the left-hand navigation bar on this page: PONS (results organized by categories of meaning), dict.cc (efficient; great pronunciation samples; option to do wild-card searches) and LEO (efficient, easy access to verb conjugations and noun declinations; great forum section for tricky translations).
  • Click here for an annotated list of online dictionaries

Should I buy a Dictionary or a Phrasebook?

  • An online dictionary will probably be good enough for most people's needs, most of the time.
  • Paper dictionaries can go into more detail, may organize information more clearly, often include more examples, and invite browsing, from which you can learn a lot.
  • Monolingual dictionaries can be a great learning tool for more advanced learners - i.e. once you have reached a level at which you are likely to understand a German definition of a German word. Google "Wörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache" to see some monolingual dictionaries designed for learners of German. PONS, Langenscheidt and Hueber are reputable publishers in this field.
  • A phrase book can be a great learning tool, since it's intended to be a compact compendium of useful words and phrases. Carrying it with you can also be a great conversation-starter when you are abroad (or at home!). There are lots of good phrasebooks available; Lonely Planet is one reliable source.

General Advice on Dictionary Use
Anytime you use a paper or online dictionary, you should bear in mind the following three things:

  • 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! If you're still unsure, use Google or Linguee to see if the word you've found gets used in the context you intend. Then you won't find yourself saying "Dattel" when you mean a romantic "date" and not the fruit, 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?

Print Dictionary Recommendations (**Last updated 2017**)

  • 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-$20 price range, with about 100,000 entries.  Later, if you can afford a bigger dictionary to keep at home, that's great. A good one to start with is the Langenscheidt Standard Dictionary German.
  • 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.  This contains much fewer entries than a standard paperback dictionary, but still covers all the basics. This dictionary includes 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.
  • If you're looking for a comprehensive dictionary, any of the bigger dictionaries listing "Collins" and/or "Klett" on the publisher page are excellent: one reliable option is the Harper Collins Unabridged German Dictionary.



   
 

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