Beginner’s mistake: overusing the dictionary

Today, I will talk about another common mistake that language learners make: the excessive use of the dictionary. It’s okay to have a dictionary to solve doubts, but this should not be the main/most important material used.


Unfortunately, this is a mistake that many beginners make. It is common to see students with a dictionary under their arm, looking for the meaning of each word they see in from of them and trying to learn vocabulary like crazy. Don’t do that!

But I need to learn vocabulary

Yes, learning vocabulary is important, it is always good to know more words, but that doesn’t mean that you should learn all the words that appear in front of you. Sometimes, it’s more important to know 1,000 words than 20,000.

All languages ​​use certain words more often than others. Some words are used every day by anyone regardless of education level. Usually, they are words like: hi, good morning, fine, night, yesterday, tomorrow, to be… And, prepositions, articles, numbers, conjugations, adverbs of frequency, intensity, mood, etc.

Other words are rare and hardly used or known; do you know what nodal means? Bondstone? Trehalose? If so, congratulations, I don’t, I never used them and probably I never will. These words are used by people of specific professions, and must be learned if you will study or work in another country. So, a biologist may need to say “trehalose” in another language, but not the “standard” student.

Therefore, we come to the conclusion that we don’t need to know all the words. We need to learn words that are used often. The amount will depend on the proficiency level you want to have. To the B1 level, I recommend 2,500, to the B2 3,500 words, to the C1 5,000 words and to the C2 level over 10,000 words.

To that, you can use dictionaries or lists with the frequency of words. Always try to know the origin of this list; some are based only on written texts, look for one that also includes words commonly used in oral communication. In this link, you can find several lists of frequency, most based on subtitles.

As stated before, if you will study or work in a country, look for specialized dictionaries, the most common are to lawyers and doctors. If you don’t find a dictionary, try to find a book on the matter. Another tip is to search blogs about what you like in the target language; there are many blogs on computing, design, fashion, literature, music, etc.


It was contextualizing that you learned your first language and that’s the best way to learn a second language. Don’t learn words in isolation, the ideal is to learn through dialogues and texts that are in context. Some words have just a plain and simple meaning, but most of the words have more than one meaning. For example, the word “ficar” (stay) in Portuguese, can have 13 different meanings.

Others words form so many expressions, that it would take hours to memorize all, such as, the Spanish word “echar”.

Echar in my dictionary

Echar in my dictionary

What context use?

At first, I recommend learning books as Assimil or similar, where in the first lessons the dialogues are slower, but still real. Repeat the dialogues as often as necessary to know at least passively the words.

Then you can start to use other sources such as podcasts, movies, series, books, blogs, newspapers and obvious, speaking to natives. Speak is what will make those words solidify in your memory. Unless your goal is to just read in a foreign language, it is essential to talk to convert them into active vocabulary.

Main points:

  • Learn the most common words
  • You don’t need to know all the words
  • Learn through context
  • Use the words you’ve learned to solidify them in your memory

About Nathalia

Polyglot Nerd creator, love foreign cultures and learning languages. Speak: English, Portuguese and Spanish. Learning: French
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