Dictionary Advice

Dictionary Advice

Online Dictionary Recommendations

Should I buy a Dictionary or a Phrasebook?

  • An online dictionary will probably be good enough for most people’s needs, most of the time.
  • Paper dictionaries can go into more detail, may organize information more clearly, often include more examples, and invite browsing, from which you can learn a lot.
  • Monolingual dictionaries can be a great learning tool for more advanced learners – i.e. once you have reached a level at which you are likely to understand a German definition of a German word. Seearch for “Wörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache” to see some monolingual dictionaries designed for learners of German. PONS, Langenscheidt and Hueber are reputable publishers in this field.
  • A phrase book can be a great learning tool, since it’s intended to be a compact compendium of useful words and phrases. Carrying it with you can also be a great conversation-starter when you are abroad (or at home!). There are lots of good phrasebooks available; Lonely Planet is one reliable source.

General Advice on Dictionary Use

Anytime you use a paper or online dictionary, you should bear in mind the following things:

  • If you’re using an online dictionary, click on the pronunciation icon next to the German words you find. Hearing the word as well as seeing it will help you learn it, and making a habit of this will give you a better feel for the sound of German. The easy availability of pronunciation samples is a great advantage of online dictionaries. Dict.cc is especially good in this respect, as you can choose from a variety of “crowd-sourced” pronunciation samples for each word.
  • Once you have looked up a word in the German-English section, look it up in the English-German section (and vice-versa) to avoid misunderstandings. Use whatever clues to the different senses of the word are given in the dictionary–and use your common sense! If you’re still unsure, use Google or Linguee to see if the word you’ve found is actually used in the context you intend. Then you won’t find yourself saying “Dattel” when you mean a romantic “date” and not the fruit, or “Arbeitshose” for “overall” when you don’t mean “work pants” 🙂
  • Don’t overuse the dictionary. If you’re trying to understand something, only look up words if you can’t make a reasonable guess.  If you’re trying to write or say something, consider first whether you could express your idea in a different way using the vocabulary you know before you look up a word or expression.  Puritan guilt culture may have conditioned you to look up every single word you’re unsure of–but in fact, you should feel guilty if you do look up everything, because you’ll learn less, lose sight of the overall picture, and learning German will feel like a chore instead of a pleasure.
  • If you do buy a paper dictionary, read the instructions in the front telling you how the dictionary is organized: How does it list plural forms?  How does it list irregular verbs? How does it organize its entries?

Print Dictionary Recommendations (**Last updated 2024**)

  • If you just want a basic, minimal reference to carry with you, I recommend buying a phrasebook (e.g. by Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, or Berlitz). It should have a mini-dictionary in the back, and will include lots of useful phrases organized by topic.
  • Bigger dictionaries will of course generally be more comprehensive, but the bigger the dictionary, the less likely you are to carry it with you and to actually use it when you need it.  I’d recommend that the first dictionary you get be a paperback in the $10-$25 price range, with about 100,000 entries.  Later, if you can afford a bigger dictionary to keep at home, that’s great. A good one to start with is the Langenscheidt Standard Dictionary German.
  • If you’re a beginner and not confident in your skills in navigating the abbreviations and conventions of most bilingual dictionaries, you may like the Collins Beginner’s German Dictionary.  This contains much fewer entries than a standard paperback dictionary, but still covers all the basics. This dictionary includes lots of helpful usage examples, and is especially easy to read and use.  It lists articles and plurals with every noun, and irregular verb forms with every verb.
  • If you’re looking for a comprehensive dictionary, any of the bigger dictionaries listing “Collins” and/or “Klett” on the publisher page are excellent: one reliable option is the Collins German Unabridged Dictionary.