Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh
Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh
I’m a language teacher, which means that my dictionary needs are usually short notice, on the fly checks to save face when I can’t remember a word or help a student out with a word or phrase that I’ve never needed before. My copy of Le Petit Robert is great for teaching me words like « fenestron », but… okay, I was going to make fun of never needing to know this word that I found at random, but it turns out it’s the same word in English, and now I’m lost in thought about translation and aeronautics and translation in aeronautics.
Regardless, I think my point is a clear one. I usually don’t need my Le Petit Robert, and I have very few incentives to haul its nearly 3000 pages up to campus twice a week just in case I do during French class. I’ve learned to use a number of other resources, though, and I’ve been surprised a few times at just what websites have been helpful. Here are two of my “go to” sources, which both happen to be wikis:
Wikipedia: There are two great ways to use Wikipedia when trying to jump a language gap, though. First, if I encounter a word I don’t know in French, I’ll often look it up on French Wikipédia to see what’s going on. Instead of the couple of lines I’d find in a dictionary, I often get a whole article; if I’m lucky, I’ll even get a picture to make it even clearer! Second, Wikipedia has an amazing function that invites you to read an article in another language. I’ll often look something up on English Wikipedia and then use that function to see what the French version of the article calls that same thing.
Wiktionary: I don’t know if it’s cheating to put two wiki services on this list, but I think people already underuse Wiktionary in their first languages. It’s a surprisingly rich dictionary with a lot of helpful information on etymology, pronunciation, and (you guessed it!) translation. If you type an English word into the French Wiktionnaire or a French word into the English Wiktionary, chances are that a page will pop up letting you know what that word translates to.
In addition to being helpful language tips, I hope this post will serve as a reminder that most of the tools we have around us can be easily repurposed. These websites weren’t designed primarily as translation tools, and while Wiktionary seems to have embraced some of that, Wikipedia is still meant as an entirely different kind of reference site. Technology has a lot to offer education broadly and language education in particular, but we often have to be flexible and creative to recognize that.