Research shows that dictionary users have a higher vocabulary than those who do not. In a multilingual family it is worth keeping this correlation in mind.
We are greatly helped by the fact that, in parallel with the increase in the importance of language learning in recent decades, the range of dictionaries has also undergone continuous growth and transformation.
You can find versions of paper dictionaries not only for adults, but also for younger age groups in bookshops.
For example, in German schools, children start using their own small monolingual dictionary as early as Year 1. From then on, as part of their lessons, they are regularly given tasks to help them learn their ABCs in this way, initially with a small monolingual dictionary with large letters and different types of words printed in different colors. As they learn to read and write, they also learn where they can look up how to spell the given words according to spelling rules. Their dictionaries grow with them, the font becomes smaller, the number of words increases and then they graduate to using bilingual dictionaries as well. Of course, at first they use basic ones, then intermediate level and so on.
The basis of text comprehension is the vocabulary, and if we take into account that the vocabulary of multilingual children may lag behind that of monolingual children in one of their languages, it immediately becomes obvious that the possible difference can be effectively mitigated with the routine use of a dictionary. It is also true that the meaning of a word in a text can often be inferred from context, and we even get information about its use, but it is worth taking the trouble to look up the exact meaning of words that are not fully understood, and it is worth encouraging children to do so too. But which language should we look up a word in? Any language that the child already speaks. You can switch languages or even use bilingual dictionaries to help you look up the word in multiple languages. The more languages a new word is associated with, the easier it is to store it in memory.
In this regard, learning to prioritize is also an important skill. If you have to use a dictionary a lot when reading a text, then try to pay attention to the key words that would help you understand a lot of it and look them up in the dictionary first, and only then should you move on to deciphering the other terms. You can even leave them for another time, because it is easy to forget where we were in the text when reading a book.
No matter what kind of dictionary you use, printed or online, either one can distract us from the story we are reading, albeit in a different way. In print, it takes longer to find the given word or phrase, and online, advertisements or other emerging information can distract us and make it difficult for us to find our way back to the story we are reading.
However, what is even more important is that we are not satisfied with merely knowing the meaning of a word, but that we also observe its usage in the example sentences, because this provides much more important information. For example, we can learn in what style of communication, with what preposition, or in what syntactic structures the word or expression occurs.
Online dictionaries provide answers very quickly, and their huge advantage is that you can listen to the pronunciation of words. However, they are sometimes less reliable than paper dictionaries. There is a solution to this, namely to always check the meaning is accurate, for example by translating it back to the original language in another dictionary, or by seeing how often the word is used.
Monolingual dictionaries and collocation dictionaries are also very helpful for multilingual children’s independent writing.
In a multilingual family, it is important to have a printed dictionary in a clearly visible place, and to let children see their parents looking up new words.
You can also talk about what interesting expression you found that day, or how a word means something other than what you thought, and how similar or different it is in another language.
The good thing about a multilingual family is that we can ask each other for help if we don’t understand something perfectly. And if the adults demonstrate this often, the children will also be happy to follow their example.
It’s also worth mentioning that everyone has their own reading style. Some children prefer to use dictionaries because they feel more secure when they understand every single word. Others would prefer not to look up new words on their own because this slows down their reading and prevents them from enjoying literature. We can motivate these children by helping them to find a quick way to look up essential words, for example by using an online dictionary.
But don’t panic even if you haven’t found the right word in the dictionary, because it’s better to use the wrong word than to say nothing. This is how we give ourselves a chance to be corrected. And if we do this with sufficient understanding and humor, then we have won.