Do you remember words the first time you look them up?

How well do remember the meaning of words the first time you look the word up in a dictionary?

I also do not typically forget them after looking them up. The very act of looking them up helps. The time it takes for me to look it up means I stay longer with the word. I once read something about the threshold being seven or eight seconds to stay with something so as to not forget it. The context in the dictionary helps me remember it too. The curiosity of wanting to know the word enough to look it up is also a trigger. Actually I spend a lot of time looking stuff up. I have always done that. Compulsory look-up disorder. And the examples provided lead to more questions about words.

Steve- keep up these discussions that invite to debate. May “we” post such debate points too…sorry was just being facetious. I guess the use of “we” may be stevenesque.

As usual with everything language learning, “looking words up” is ambiguous.

  1. do you look up the word in bilingual or unilingual dictionary?
  2. do you look them up to understand a text?
    a) is this text something you will be rereading or is it important to you in some way?
    b) what % of the words in a text do you have to look up?
  3. do you look them up in the midst of a conversation with someone?
  4. do you look them up for writing?
  5. do you keep a record of the words you have looked up and review?
  6. do you write the words you have looked up?
  7. how much of the definition do you pay attention to? do you have a learner’s dictionary? are there examples?

For me, I never look things up in any kind of dictionary* except on the rare occasion that I am bored enough to do so or the text is vital for me to understand 100%, now. I usually use a bilingual dictionary and read only the English definitions. Because of the rarity, I tend to remember about 30 to 40% of them long term. I do not write anything down.

*except when using LingQ

I agree with Marianne that spending time with the word can help. I often copy dictionary information and additional examples into the Notes in my LingQ box. When I review words I often check examples. However, in most cases I am simply too motivated to finish the text I am reading to spend enough time with the word. I guess it is a matter of quality vesus quantity. I do a bit of both.

By all means Marianne, please post questions. I want our forums, in different languages, to be about language learning, where we can share ideas and experience.

  1. do you look up the word in bilingual or unilingual dictionary?
  2. do you look them up to understand a text?
    a) is this text something you will be rereading or is it important to you in some way?
    I am usually interested in it, and if I am at the early stage in a language I will be rereading.
    b) what % of the words in a text do you have to look up?
  3. do you look them up in the midst of a conversation with someone?
    never, almost never
  4. do you look them up for writing?
    occasionally, from English to the target language
  5. do you keep a record of the words you have looked up and review?
  6. do you write the words you have looked up?
  7. how much of the definition do you pay attention to? do you have a learner’s dictionary? are there examples?
    Normally I just grab the Hint and run, sometimes I check over the examples if there are some

In the beginning and middle stages of learning a language, just looking up a word isn’t enough for me to remember it. Repeating it, drilling it, looking it up again (and again) when reading–one or more of these is necessary before I learn the word, because words simply don’t stay w/ me at this stage. But after a certain point the language is familiar enough that the words “stick” just as they do in English–that is, I almost always remember the meanings of new words. That’s when I know I’ve really begun to know the language. Usually by this stage I use a monolingual dictionary, but it really doesn’t matter what kind of dictionary it may be.

That’s for reading. I don’t have enough experience to say if this happens during convesation, but I expect it will.

I was trying to find the eight second timeframe for long-term memory as mentioned above. However I came across this:

According to “Depth of Processing Hypothesis”, the
more cognitive energy a person exerts when manipulating
and thinking about a word, the more likely it is that
they will be able to recall and use it later
(from a literature review in this paper:

They suggest the deeper involved you are with a word the more chances of retaining it.

I would argue from this, if you look up a word, it would suggest you want to process it/know more. You are curious enough to look it up. This suggests the learner should engage more with the words. This supports the LingQ’s approach but also the dictionary approach.

The struggle is always about how much time to spend either intensively, with each word we look up, or reviewing these words, or looking at examples, or trying to use them in a sentence etc., versus just reading on to start acquiring more words. We have only so much time available for language study. Much of my learning time is just listening while doing other chores, driving, etc…

Some words just stick immediately, I never forget them, and I can recall as well as recognize them after looking them up just once. Some words Ive noticed that I had to look up 4 or 5 times before it finally stuck.

The brain simply learns what it feels like learning.Its up to you to keep providing it stuff to learn from.

It depends on the word and (my understanding of) its role in the sentence. Regardless of my level in a language, I think it’s important (and possible) to know what I can “ignore” and what I “have to” look up.


  1. The car is red.
    Any word is necessary, and I’m pretty sure that I’d remember a word of the same “importance” the first time I look it up.

  2. Introduced with little ceremony, and advancing with fear and hesitation, and many a bow of deep humility, a tall thin old man, who, however, had lost by the habit of stooping much of his actual height, approached the lower end of the board. His features, keen and regular, with an aquiline nose, and piercing black eyes; his high and wrinkled forehead, and long grey hair and beard, would have been considered as handsome, had they not been the marks of a physiognomy peculiar to a race, which, during those dark ages, was alike detested by the credulous and prejudiced vulgar, and persecuted by the greedy and rapacious nobility, and who, perhaps, owing to that very hatred and persecution, had adopted a national character, in which there was much, to say the least, mean and unamiable. (Chapter 5, “Ivanhoe”, Sir Walter Scott)

Quite a few words to describe Isaac of York… If I’m at a level where I can follow this kind of text (in another language), hopefully I recognize what is important and not, and conclude that I don’t have to know each word - and if I’d still look up all of the unknowns, I’d probably forget a lot of them due to their “lack of importance”.

I am pleased to say that I recognised Jeff’s long text by the end of its second line!

Returning to Steve’s question on the other hand, I often forget which word I was going to look up. Words do, however, have a tendency to stick after enough exposure - which, in turn, depends on my level of interest.

My retention rate of new words is really low. Almost certainly never remember a new word after only seeing it once.
Some odd words stick first time. Other very common ones I still need to look up everytime I see them : /

I’ve never kept a word list/gold list type thing for long enough to know if it would help. I’m more interested in getting through a text, I’ll look up every word, and move on to the next text, in the hope that I’ll see these words soon enough again to have them start sinking in. Any type of focused attempts to remember words (lists/reviews/memory association etc) have never worked for me. As others have said, it seems the brain learns/remember when it wants to.

Sinceramente no siempre puedo recordar las palabras simplemente con verlas una vez o buscándolas en el diccionario, but if i save the new word inside a sentence, it´s more easy to me remember that word in the future. it´s very nice when i listen some new word in a conversation because i can get it for the context. Igualmente creo que con el tiempo va a ser cada vez más fácil recordar las palabras nuevas :slight_smile:

There are various approaches when using dictionaries.

  1. When I heard a few new words which are repeated slight slowly many times while listening to news, interviews, etc, I occasionally use dictionaries. These words are maybe keywords in the topics. In this case, I can memorize them quite easily with help of more attention in certain contexts.
  2. When I saw over 10 new words in articles (except for proper nouns), I use dictionaries, but it is quite hard to remember them without audio files. I have to encounter them in different contexts.
  3. When I don’t find appropriate words I want to use before (or while ) writing or speaking, I sometimes use dictionaries. If these words are necessary for me to use, I will remember them. However, I need to encounter many examples to avoid mistakes.
  4. I sometimes use dictionaries when I am not sure that my guessing new words (which are sometimes complex words, etc) is correct. If it is correct, I can remember them easily.
  5. I sometimes use dictionaries in order to know how to use my non-active words.

It really very much depends. As maths said, some words stick, some words don’t.
Some words are really common, but for some reason they just don’t make an easy transition into long term memory. Other words, despite being really rare, go straight in there.
Just looking up words doesn’t seem to help, but if there’s an emotion attached to the reference, or if it’s an easily understandable concept, it’s much easier to remember. Words such as ‘process’ are hard to remember because even though they’re directly translatable, it’s not tangible. However, a word I saw yesterday, ‘apivore’ (bee-eating) in Japanese (hoshokusei), I remembered instantly. And I learnt a new English word at the same time.

As many people have said, it really depends. To me, it also depends on which language(s) I am familiar with and the type of content.

I still remember the case when I learned both Mandarin Chinese and English at the school. For Mandarin Chinese, I would say, I almost recognize 90%+ what I’d looked up w/o going back to the dictionary again except the specialized terms and the vocabulary in Chinese literature, and the Chinese literature was really a nightmare to me. On the other hand, I had to put much more effort on English to remember the words. I still keep loads of flashcards I created at that time in my place. Even though I’ve acquired a certain amount of English vocabulary, I still have problems remembering most of the medical, biological, chemical … terms.

Now I am learning German. I’ve noticed some words stay longer and most of those words have a certain similarities to English especially at the beginning stage. Afterwards, when the vocabulary grows, my brain seems to know how to store words in the proper locations and to retrieve them more efficiently by itself.