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Five ways to read in other languages without a dictionary

4 min read

If I listed the top three questions I get every week on social media, one of them would definitely be how I read better in other languages than Portuguese, my native tongue.

I wasn’t surprised when I asked about what you wanted to read here this month, and four people asked me to write about how to read in English without translating or looking up the dictionary all the time.

So, I have three easy tips and two not so easy, but still very helpful.

1. Learn basic vocabulary

I know it’s kinda obvious, but sometimes we forget to learn common words. It’s impossible to learn every word there is. Not even native English speakers know them all or how many are they.

But the common words are always everywhere. Check this article on Oxford Dictionaries. Out of 2 billion words computed in the Oxford English Corpus, they found only 100 that make the most commonly used ones.

2. Observe more

When you watch a movie, a series, or talk to someone in English, it’s important to pay attention to how the language is used and what words are chosen.

You see, they call a “chair” that thing we sit on, or “water” that thing that we drink from a glass.

That’s, by the way, the same process we use for learning how to speak when we are kids. We watch our parents calling objects something and using verbs and adjectives to change that something somehow.

3. Do not translate

Most words have their equivalent in our mother tongues, but what makes languages unique is exactly what’s not equivalent or logical.

If we try to translate everything all the time, we’re not learning the language, and we’re just converting words to our monolingual brain.

Instead, let your brain get used to the other language. Let it think in English. That means that, with every common word you’ve learned and everything you observed, you have the tools to guess or even learn a new word without having to translate it.

And if you have to look up a dictionary, don’t go to a bilingual one where it’s gonna give you the equivalent in your language. Prefer a monolingual dictionary where the words are defined, not translated.

4. Learn a little word-formation theory

Here are the not-so-easy-but-very-helpful tips. Word formation is a series of linguistic methods to create a word, like borrowing (or loanword), derivations, compounding, blending, acronyms, calque, neologism, and back-formation.

If you know the common words, it’s an excellent first step. If you were born in a country with a language derived from Latin with some Greek pinches, that’s a plus. And if you understand those word-formation methods and sum it all, it’s perfect.

I’m gonna give you an example. The word “buffalo” in English comes from the Portuguese “bufalo” that comes from the Latin “bufalus” that comes from the Greek “boubalos”, which means “antelope” or “wild-ox”.

But beware of false friends, words that sound like a word you know but have different meanings. If you know the French word “magasin”, you have to know it’s a store, not a magazine.

This leads us to the fifth and final tip.

5. Look at the context

If you know the English word “read”, and you know the French word “magasin”, you know that if someone is reading a magazine, it has nothing to do with reading a “store”.

That’s where the context is essential. When you put words in a context, it not only makes more sense of the word but also changes its meaning.

Let’s use the word “magazine” again.

If you read a magazine, it means you look at a periodical publication with articles and illustrations, and you understand them.

However, if you get a gun and a spare magazine, it means you’re getting extra storage of ammunition. You know when you watch shooting scenes in movies, and someone gets out of bullets, and they take something out of their guns and replace it with a new one with more bullets? That’s a magazine.

Oh, and that may be relate to “store” or “storage” too. So, I guess this wraps it all.

But I have a bonus tip.


Create your list of words with two simple methods and memorize them using them in sentences or writing something down, or even talking to yourself daily.

The first method is by actively listing the words you use more and find their equivalent in English or any other language you’re studying.

The second method is to list the new words you find in whatever you read and do the same.

What you’re doing here is to add more to the word bank you’ve built in the first tip.

Using them when you write or when you speak, you memorize them better because you’re not translating. You’re using them in a context, and it all makes more sense when we do that.

So, I hope this blog post is useful for you, let me know if you have any question.

— Beard Between the Lines

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