What to do when you don't know a word?

Recently, reading this article: http://www.kansai-u.ac.jp/fl/publication/pdf_department/01/Hunt.pdf, and others like it, have made me reflect generally about the ubiquitous question “what should I do when I don’t know a word?”.

As an adult, at the beginning stage of learning a new language, I think L2 (the language you want to learn)-L1 (a language you know) dictionary translation is ok. I also think that switching to L2-L2 dictionaries, as soon as possible, can have some advantages.

I also use the concept of “not knowing is ok”, and try to just guess the word, and quickly move on, knowing I will see it later, at some stage (and believing that the “not knowing and guessing” seems to make my brain work better for acquiring words, anyway). But you need to be at an ok level already for this to really be useful.

Other things that I will do, include: skip the dictionary definition altogether (be it L1 or L2) and just use a programme that gives me ten sentences from the internet that use that word. I also use google images, from time to time.

But I don’t know what is optimal, and I haven’t seen any research that really addresses this well.

Maybe: L2-L1 dictionary translation early on, followed by use of L2-L2 dictionaries but with a preference for “guessing and moving on” is best?

I’m not sure if any of that made sense, but interested to hear from others.


I agree with you that “not knowing is okay”. I only tend to look up words I don’t know if I really can’t understand the phrase or sentence without knowing them. Otherwise I will just mostly ignore them, knowing they will come up again. But I am of a different opinion than you when it comes to dictionaries. I love my bilingual (or L1-L2) dictionaries and I use them for all languages. Whenever I learn a new word in a language, if I can translate it to an equivalent word in German or English that I know well, it’s like I am “attaching” the new word to the old word in my head. But if I look at a picture or a description of a word and just have a concept of what it means but no other word to attach it too, I have to “create” a whole new “link” in my head to remember that word. So translating helps me a lot. But I guess everybody’s head works differently that way :slight_smile: I would also love to hear some other opinions on this.


I don’ t think there is a best technique but the ones you are using seem to be excellent. I use some of them myself but we are all wired differently so what works for us might not work for everybody. Has anybody else had that a-ha moment in which you keep meeting a word over and over without knowing the meaning until, suddenly you understand it quite clearly and will never forget it ? It is a priceless ! I would love to hear different ideas on the subject as well !


I tend to look the word up, go through it a few times, then try other words or other material. I know the same word will come up again so I dont give it too much attention. I get thrown off a sentence when I dont know a word, but I know not everyone is like this.

"I agree with you that “not knowing is okay”. I only tend to look up words I don’t know if I really can’t understand the phrase or sentence without knowing them. Otherwise I will just mostly ignore them, knowing they will come up again. " - agree absolutely. But then I felt a bit different when you’ve written about the dictionaries. And this "But I guess everybody’s head works differently that way :slight_smile: - is completely truth. But, I suppose that if several languages share the same ancestor language (like Latin), therefore it’s obviously easy for native speakers of these languages to learn other language of the same group of languages. I think there not exist many obstacles for english people who want to learn the french language, or italian. For example, I feel pretty easy when I’m acquiring the turkish language, or whatever of the turkic languages. And also it doesn’t much matter for me to learn ukranian or any other Slavic language. Because it’s as you said: “if I can translate it to an equivalent word in German or English that I know well, it’s like I am “attaching” the new word to the old word in my head”. But I’m learning english only by “L2-L2” method. Because, when I translate any english world into russian, for example, I have to remember how it translates into the language which I could speak perfectly, but when I learn how to use it on its own “land”, I feel much better, because I simultaneously learn other words, or even the whole phrases.

and I’m terribly sorry if you can’t understand clearly what I’ve written and hence feel nervous.

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It’s fine, you are talking about complex topics after all !

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Husan, your are completely right (and expressed yourself very well and understandably). And you are right when I think about it :slight_smile: I like to use my L1-L2 in the beginning, when I first come across a word which I cannot make out at all. But as soon as I have some concept of what the word might mean, I try to find out its meaning in the context and learn it “attaching” it within the language it comes from. But I do always like that initial aha-moment of seeing a version of the word in a language I know.

I think everybody is right. It probably just depends on what works best for you :slight_smile: Personally, I like the feeling of not knowing a word, but having a rough idea of it, then seeing it a couple of other times, and then finally sneaking a look at the definition and realising “I knew it all along”…I also like it when I get “lost” in a monolingual dictionary looking up a word then finding new related words and chasing them around within the dictionary…

I am now returning to medium-sized L2-L1 dictionaries. I think that they are more useful than L2-L2 dictionaries in order to understand the differences between the two languages. This is helpful when I write in English, which is L2 for me.

I cherish my paper dictionaries, L1-L2, L2-L2, the heavier, the better, although I rarely use them these days. I, too, am content to remain blissfully ignorant. Following the trail of a particular word across the various languages is fascinating. I particularly like using L2-L3 dictionaries, but one has to haunt the charity shops for those.

I wonder which language is your L1. I suppose you have more than two L1-languages.

That’s a point. I don’t make a difference between L1 and the other L1, though. So L2 and/ or L3 get attached to one (or both if I am lucky) of the L1s. Weird!

I actually have an excel table on my computer in which I record lots of words in ALL the languages I’m learning. The languages are put next to each other according to their relationships and so I can go through the same word in German, English, Dutch, all the Romance languages etc. and trace its evolution :slight_smile: I’ve done this for a few hundred words so far and I feel it helps me remember them. At first I feared I would get confused but that hasn’t happened.

The optimal strategy probably involves adapting to your current goals and the text you’re reading. Strategies can be divided into Extensive and Intensive reading. In Extensive reading, you look up few words in the dictionary. You pick a text that is easy enough for you to get the gist without a dictionary, and you read it quickly. The goal is to get a lot of exposure to the language, meet known words many times, and learn frequent words through repeated exposure. In contrast, Intensive reading involves looking up unknown words until you can understand the meaning of each word in each sentence. This is a slow process, best done when you have mental energy for studying. Intensive reading allows you to learn rare words (good for advanced learners) , and allows you to work with texts that are too difficult for extensive reading (good for beginners). Ideally, you do a mix of both. As for how you look up the words, whatever way allows you to most efficiently grasp the meaning of the word in context is probably best. For me that’s L1-L2 until I can understand virtually all words in L2-L2 definitions.