I’ve been using the Internet to improve my English for a good number of years, especially when it comes to finding out meaning of new words and figuring out how to use them in context, what other words they collocate with, and what idioms there are containing those words.
Sure, you can use Google and other search engines successfully to find relevant information; however, there are two websites that just can’t be beaten in terms of the sheer amount of information they provide when it comes to English vocabulary.
Also, they are brilliant when explaining how that vocabulary is used in context, and you have to bear in mind that it is crucial for all foreign English speakers. Learning new English vocabulary out of context – just memorizing separate words – is going to do you little good simply because you won’t know that particular word is used by native English speakers. There’s so much more to speaking fluent English than just sticking separate words together, and these two websites will provide you with countless examples on how new words and expressions are used in the English language.
Last but not least, those websites will explain you meaning of new English words through English language using dozens upon dozens of synonyms, and this is also of the utmost importance for us, dear fellow foreign English speakers! Why? It’s quite simple – you should build your English vocabulary ONLY through the English language to prevent you from translating from your native language in your mind which can have a terrible effect on your ability to produce fluent and coherent speech!
Well, I guess I’ve piqued your interest with describing how good those websites are, so now let’s look at them so that you can start using them in your English improving routine!
The two websites I want to tell you about today are among the top three Google search results under a search term ‘online dictionary’:
For reasons I can’t explain, I don’t use the top Google listing – Merriam-Webster.com, so I can’t really say how good it is in terms of providing relevant information and user-friendliness. Anyway, it can’t possibly be much worse than my favourite one – Dictionary.com – once it comes up as the top Google listing under ‘online dictionary’, right?
OK, so now let’s look at my favourite online tool for looking up new English words and finding synonyms!
Dictionary.com is the biggest online dictionary website, and I’ve been using it ever since I got myself a broadband connection all those years ago.
What I like about this website is that it shows you plenty of examples of how the word that you’re looking up is used in a sentence along with a thorough explanation as to what the word means. As I already stated previously, it’s crucial for us, foreigners, to acquire new English vocabulary through English only, and such contextual learning is just invaluable!
Here’s a screenshot of Dictionary.com where I’ve done a lookup for a word ‘askew’:
As you can see, Dictionary.com gives a number of meanings of the word, and they’re explained using very simple language followed by a sample sentence. I can’t stress this enough – this is the ONLY way you should learn new English vocabulary and look up words whose meaning you can guess but you’re not 100% sure what it means! Forget about using dictionaries where English words are explained in your native language because it won’t facilitate your ability to think in English which in turn is crucial for English fluency.
I believe any foreigner – beginner, intermediate and advanced English speakers alike – just can’t fail to understand the most sophisticated words explained in such a way. I think that any excuse to get your native language involved in the process can be always boiled down to two simple reasons – fear of trying out something new and perceived necessity to translate directly across two languages just because you’ve bought into the stereotype precipitated by the traditional English teaching industry.
In fact, to speak fluent English, you don’t have to be a capable interpreter; I’d even suggest keeping both – English and your native language – in completely separate compartments in your brain.
But let’s go back to the above screenshot. On the left hand side column you can see a synonym section displaying a number of synonyms for your search term. It is quite useful because every single extra bit of information will help you understand the meaning of the word you’re looking up, and if you click on the ‘Thesaurus’ link below the synonym list, you’ll be taken to Dictionary.com sister website called Thesaurus.com – and it’s got huge synonym and antonym resources to help you even more with your English improving efforts.
While you’d use Dictionary.com to look up new words and see their contextual usage, Thesaurus.com is ideal to find English words that you know, but you just can’t think of at this very moment. Personally I use it when I’m engaged in creative writing because that’s when you need to make your language sharper and more refined.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say for instance, you have a feeling that there is a better fitting word describing something that is complex and beautiful at the same time, but you just can’t place it. Well, just open Thesaurus.com, type in ‘complex’ and see what’s coming up:
When you come across the word ‘elaborate’, it suddenly rings a bell with you because that’s the word you’ve been trying to remember but it just kept escaping you. As you can see, there are plenty of synonyms and also antonyms given for your search term, and Thesaurus.com also gives you a number or different meanings for your search term with their respective synonyms and antonyms – if there are any, of course.
All in all, the combined resources of the two sister sites – Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com – offer everything you need for building your English vocabulary, looking up words when reading English fiction, and finding the right means of expression when writing in English!
TheFreeDictionary.com is the other website I recommend to all foreign English speakers. It’s a MASSIVE online dictionary offering information in more than a dozen different languages, interesting articles and a whole lot more I haven’t actually explored yet, but then you already know my approach to information – being selective and choosing only what suits me.
But now let’s look at which parts of TheFreeDictionary.com I use and how it can help you improve your spoken English.
You can see in the above screenshot that I’ve done a search on an English word ‘tenacious’ and just like the other dictionary website – Dictionary.com – TheFreeDictionary.com explains the meaning of the word using other, simpler English words and it also gives you relevant sample sentences with the word ‘tenacious’ in them.
‘A tenacious material’ and ‘tenacious mind’ are very relevant English collocations containing the word ‘tenacious’ so it’s a very good idea to write them down in your dictionary along with the description so that you can repeat them, memorize them, and make them part of your active English vocabulary that can be used when having real life conversations with other English speakers.
Many of those synonyms in turn have relevant sample sentences next to them, so I think you have to agree that there’s not much more in terms of explaining word meanings that any dictionary website could provide you with.
At the very top of TheFreeDictionary.com you can see a menu with a number of special dictionaries such as medical dictionary, financial dictionary and others:
One of them – Idiom dictionary – is very relevant for us, foreign English speakers, and I use it very regularly. You see, much of the English language consists of idiomatic expressions and idioms, and there’s no avoiding them if you want to be a fluent English speaker. Let’s see what comes up when you do an idiom search on an English word ‘interest’:
The idiom list containing the word ‘interest’ is quite extensive, and what’s good about these idioms is the fact that they reveal a great deal about how the particular word – in this case ‘interest’ – is used. For instance, while you may want to say ‘to attract interest’, the idiom list reveals that native English speakers actually use a phrase ‘to draw interest’. So it’s all about how words are used in context, and what phrases you should learn to speak more like a native English speaker rather than a foreigner who just sticks English words together.
The idiom search engine is also great because it will search English idioms based on any word they might contain; it comes in handy if you’re not sure how the actual idiom sounded but you do remember some words of it.
For instance, you know that there is an expression containing the word ‘light’ to describe the process of something being clarified, some facts revealed, but you’re not sure exactly how it sounded. Well, all you have to do is enter the word ‘light’ in the Idiom Free Dictionary search bar and hit the search button!
Go through the idiom list until the right one jogs your memory – it will most likely happen because you’ve heard the phrase before; you just needed to be reminded of it.
‘Shed light on something’ is the idiom you were looking for, and when you click on it, you will get a thorough explanation and at least a couple of sample sentences containing that idiom.
UPDATE! Recently TheFreeDictionary.com have added on another section to their website called FreeThesaurus.com – and I’ve got to tell you that it’s a perfect tool if you’re looking for some word that has just slipped your mind! Just type in a similar word, and presto! – it will give you dozens of synonyms one of which is most likely going to be the word you’re looking for! Also, it’s got a “phrase” function whereby you’ll also see results returned based on associated phraseology which is obviously super-important for us, English learners! 😉
P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!