Deliberately reading (books) without a dictionary

My problem with reading novels is that ‘guilt’ over not having looked up unknown words, stops/slows me from moving on to the next page/chapter etc. Even when I can understand the plot fairly well. As a result, I never get enough momentum going to feel truly immersed in the story. I know it’s good practice NOT to look up every single word, but I still find it hard to not feel like I have to!

So as a kind of experiment to trick me out of the guilt, I was thinking of reading an entire novel on the condition that I’m not allowed to use a dictionary i.e. either deduce meaning from context or do without.

I’m wondering though how effective this would be in terms of learning new vocabulary? I imagine I would learn significantly less new words than if I’d read the same book with a dictionary - but presumably more than if I hadn’t managed to read the book at all.

But has anyone done this before? Any thoughts on how effective a method it might be? Or am I just being lazy :slight_smile:
The book would be one where there are at least 90% known words, and a fair amount of dialogue (probably a crimi).

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Most, if not all, people do something like this with their native language , especially between 5-12 years. I was watching my 12 year old niece read Huxley’s Brave New World, the other day. She asked me about a couple of words (like “soma”), looked up a few (using a monolingual dictionary), but, mostly, just plowed on guessing/skipping/absorbing. I think when you are 90-95%+ you kind of know words that are unknown just by the context and repeated exposure.


I have recently started reading my first novel outside of LingQ. I am currently reading the second book in the “Divergent” series, but in a Spanish translation. There are a lot of words that I do knot know, but I try to guess the meaning to the best of my ability. If there is a word that I just cannot figure out, I will look up the translation. The good news with that is the fact that the word is more likely to stay in my brain. I think that it is good to not look up each word, but not allowing yourself to look up words which you see frequently is also a problem.
Hope this helps!

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You can do it, but first 1000 wsords you have to know in any case like a base for further guessing.
Maybe for the first novel you can use the same text in the foreign language and your native language in order not to look up in the dictionary, but in a difficult place you can compare two texts.
And finally, I see you’re learning German.
I remember when I for the first time opened a novel by Thomas Mann, I saw that I hadn’t understood 25 words from the page one though I had an Intermediate in German.
But on the page 50 I had only 2 unknown words because each writer has his own preferable vocabulary and the most of words are repeated.


Not lazy, but brave. It might get tedious after a while - you might want to allow yourself an emergency exit option.


"So as a kind of experiment to trick me out of the guilt, I was thinking of reading an entire novel on the condition that I’m not allowed to use a dictionary i.e. either deduce meaning from context or do without. "

Why do people seem to think in extremes most of the time?

You do not have to make a choice between “looking up every…single…fricken…word” and “not being allowed to use a dictionary”, you know?^^ You could try looking up some of the words.


I think Paul’s absolutely right here. Looking up every unknown word or not looking up anything makes the same mistake: it treats all words as though they are equal. In reality we all know this isn’t the case. You will want to look up words that help you understand the narrative, and you will happily skip rare obscure adjectives that are less important. Just as Iaing said, this is what we do when we start reading in our native language, i.e. guess/skip a lot of words and look up those really important ones. Happy reading!


Maybe one book that you read “normally” (just for fun) and then one you import to LingQ (looking up words). Don´t have to be the same. I do it this way.

What I do is to read a book twice. First I read without dictionary and then I reread with a dictionary. But, the book must be the good one! This is what I’m doing right now.

Read a chapter and write down each word you don’t know. Then get to your keyboard and type all these words down, if you type 80 WPM then you can translate 80 WPM, but if you use a dictionary it’s like 5 WPM if you’re a dictionary ninja and 0.5 WPM if you’re drunk reading.
EDIT: and don’t forget to re-read the chapter when you’ve memorized the words

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Thanks everyone for the responses. Okay, so it seems the overall thought is I’m being somewhat unnecessarily extreme :slight_smile: And reading between the lines, that that would be counterproductive. But I didn’t mean that this would be my intended method for reading every book. So I think I’ll do something like cribbe suggests - read a (longer) book just for pleasure, but for shorter ones, look words up, and maybe even re-read. And if I’m burning to know a word in the former, I’ll let myself look :slight_smile:

I think I’d have to keep it to shorter books for intensive reading though, otherwise it’s just too glacial. What I currently do is read a whole chapter, circling unknown words, then write the definition on the page in pencil, so I keep it in context but not too strong on the eye. But somehow I never seem to get around to looking the words up till days later. Anyway, thanks again everyone.

I think, also, there’s a difference between when you are reading at less than 80% known, 80-95% known, and 95%+. You can get to around 80% known pretty easily just by looking up all of the unknown words you first encounter, and this isn’t a bad idea, imo. This will get you about 5,000 words, most of which will be the high frequency words.

But then a lot of language learning is really all about tackling the 5,000-40,000 known words step. And for most of this journey you will be somewhere between 80-95% unknown.

For example, if you were to just import Oprah Winfrey chat show transcripts to lingq you will find the first 50 episodes can quickly take you to 80-85% known. Another 100-150 episodes will take you to about 85-90% (consistently). Then another 250+ episodes are required to take you to 95%+ (consistently). Such that each gain requires a (relatively) exponential increase in volume of input.

You will also find that the first step (the first 50 episodes) is no fun, and it is just a lot easier to use simpler, shorter material (or at least “mix” these in). Further, the second step (episodes 50-200) is not always a lot of fun either (even, if you really like Oprah). Even at 15% unknown, it is a real slog to read, no matter how you go about it. But, I think, it is helpful to try to read through a sentence or a paragraph and not (straight way) look up words here.

Also, this is where the real magic of transcribed audio comes in - being able to listen and read - it helps a lot to get through the slog, I think. The brain seems to latch onto and focus on different things, plugging gaps, and reinforcing words.

You learn a native language, generally, in this order - listen, speak, read, write. The distinction with lingq is that learning a second language, generally, becomes - listen, read, speak, write. You generally don’t have 24/7 tutors, complete immersion and all the time in the world, when learning a second language. You also know a few things - like the value and art of reading, what sentences are etc - so reading can come a lot earlier to aid. But, then, what is the best way to incorporate early reading when each sentence has a bunch of words you don’t know?

lol, I have no idea where I went with all that…


Personally, I don’t think that is thinking in extremes. Sometimes you need to do stop doing something completely because if you don’t you may end up right where you began. Besides, you can always read novels without using the dictionary at all for a while and then do some lingqing with some other text.

When reading paper novels I won’t stop to look up every unknown word. I’ll try to guess most of them from context, and then highlight those that seem to be important, useful, interesting or that reappear often enough. Once I get 10 or 20 such words I’ll stop reading, then go back to look them up, maybe adding them to Anki or something with a bit of surrounding context. This way it doesn’t interrupt your reading flow, but also doesn’t overload you with new words in a single day.


I believe you are right.

I had an interesting experience today; I’ve been reading novels that are geared towards young adults/adolescents in French, really getting into the stories but not understanding every word…just getting the idea from the context. I have a large Post-it note in the front cover and write down words I want to learn, (which is not every word I don’t know). Someday I should put them into Anki, but haven’t yet.
Today in the car I had a French radio station on, and the guy being interviewed used a word that I had just looked up and written on my list a couple of days ago. Because I had done that, I understood his entire anecdote. I was thrilled! Half my mind was listening and understanding and the other half was jumping up and down with joy!
Cheap thrills!

Sometimes I just plough on and keep reading through when there are words I don’t understand, and then I decide to go back, re-read, and look up the words I didn’t know, and I can’t find any…


“Also, this is where the real magic of transcribed audio comes in - being able to listen and read - it helps a lot to get through the slog, I think. The brain seems to latch onto and focus on different things, plugging gaps, and reinforcing words.”

It’s interesting the interaction between audio and visual. I guess the more common notion is that visual (reading) assists with audio/listening in terms of plugging the gaps etc. I don’t like reading books online, so I wouldn’t have the audio. But I’ve been surprised sometimes when I’ve had both and realised that something that I didn’t grasp the meaning of purely from reading, I was able to understand better just through listening, even though I may have even missed some of the words being spoken.

Maybe sometimes the brain actually gets complicated/confused by the unknown words/grammar it sees on the page, whereas with listening it just picks out the words it DOES not know and makes a logical inference that is often right - especially if the speaker emphasises words in a way that also helps emphasise the meaning. It surprises me when it happens though - that sometimes less is more!

I don’t think my known words count is higher than 5000 (though it’s higher than what my LingQ profile says). But I’d say the books I have in mind would be minimum 90% known, say around 10 unknown words per page.

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I love those cheap thrills! The mountain of UNknown words can seem so monumental when you still only have a few thousand under your belt (as I do). But it’s such a boost when you realise that knowing only one little word can sometimes totally transform a situation from babble to enlightenment - even if it is only an anecdote!

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“But then a lot of language learning is really all about tackling the 5,000-40,000 known words step. And for most of this journey you will be somewhere between 80-95% unknown.”

I see your point about the flattening curve of new words… though I guess if you imported something like Oprah you’d also be making your task harder from the outset since you’d be choosing a vocabulary source that wasn’t very rich to start with? So beyond the first 5000, the most efficient way to obtain new vocab would be to read literature and content from more specialised sources (e.g. documentaries), but also a wide range of them?

I think the best way to learn is with books showing the most difficult words. So no need to look for in a dictionary and the word is translated in the right context. I did that recently with an amazon eBook “Les Jumelles” from Dan Def and it helps me a lot to memorize French words. I think that’s a good way before trying some more difficult works to read. After learning English a few years at school, I also read some books with vocabulary in front, it really helps me to understand then the meaning of words and to be able to use some of them.