Using an English Dictionary for Speaking
I once heard of an Australian man in France, who had an amazing memory. He could remember large numbers of words. He succeeded in memorizing a whole English-French dictionary. If someone asked him the meaning of a word, he could tell them. However, he could not have even the simplest conversation in French! Learning words from a dictionary, by itself, cannot help you to speak, but a good dicationary is an important tool if you use it well. How can we use a dictionary to improve our speaking? Just follow the rules below:
1. Be sure of the "part of speech".
Sometimes, when you look up a word in the dictionary, you find more than one meaning. How do you know which one to choose? One thing you can do is see if the word is a noun, verb, adjective or adverb. If you find "fast" as a verb, it means "to not eat anything for a period of time". On the other hand, if you find "fast" as an adjective, then you know it means "quick".
2. Look at BOTH the English to Chinese meaning AND the Chinese to English meaning.
Another strategy, if you're using a Chinese-English dictionary, is to use a "reverse search". By "reverse search", I mean you should go to an English-Chinese dictionary to confirm the meaning. (If you're starting with an English-Chinese dictionary, then you should check the meaning with a Chinese-English dictionary.) Many times I look up an English word, and find a Chinese word that I THINK is good, but when I look it up the opposite way, I find that it's a rather rare word that I should not use in spoken language. By using both methods, you can get a better understanding of the real meaning of the word.
3. Buy a dictionary that shows how to use words.
Look at any sample sentences if your dictionary has them. If your dictionary doesn't include sample sentences, perhaps you should consider buying a new one. "Learners Dictionaries", available from Oxford University Press or Longman, have many sample sentences to make the meaning of the word clear. The main thing is, be careful about using words that you have found in a dictionary. Until you've seen the word in context (in some kind of sentence or story), you cannot be sure that you are using it right. We need to see vocabulary in context, so that we know HOW to use the words. Some words go together well, such as "play" and "instrument", but others do not, such as "beautiful" and "man". Experiment in using new words, but be aware that you might be making a mistake. Then you can adapt your vocabulary in the future.
4. Be flexible. It might take time to find the right word.
Sometimes, dictionaries give old meanings, or rarely used meanings. For example, my students often look up the Chinese word "dofu" in their dictionary. Dofu, as you know, is very delicious to eat, and nutritious too. My students usually come back after looking in their dictionary and talk to me about "bean curd". Although "bean curd" is the dictionary meaning for "dofu", it's not what we say in real life. In real life, we say "tofu"! If you go to a supermarket in another country and ask for bean curd, I don't know what you will get. If you want "dofu", you have to ask for "tofu", even if your dictionary tells you it's "bean curd". That's why you must wait until you've heard words in context before using them. Then you'll know what people really say.
5. Do not translate directly when speaking.
Words cannot always be translated directly in another language. For example, "play" is not the same in Chinese and English. It always sounds funny in English to say that you spent the weekend playing. It's all right for children, and we can play a sport or a musical instrument, but to just play, it would be better to say something like "have fun", "enjoy yourself", or give specific examples of what you did.
One of my students gave me a sad example of mis-using a word by using a dictionary. He told me that I am a good "impersonator" of a teacher. I'm sure he was trying to say something good, but an impersonator is someone who copies another person but is NOT that person. So I felt like my student was saying I talk like a teacher, but I am not a real teacher! I was very disappointed to hear that, but then I realized he didn't really know how to use that word. Dictionaries can only give you some information, you must be careful when you use that information!
6. Move up to a "monolingual" dictionary as soon as possible.
I know it seems easier to use an English-Chinese dictionary. Using a monolingual dictionary, where the definitions are given in English only, is very difficult at first. However, if you keep trying, you'll soon get used to it. When I did that in French, I found that, after a while, I started THINKING in French. Then your English will really start to take off!