Few language students nowadays use printed dictionaries to look up words. Instead, online dictionaries offer a quick and easy way to find translations of new words. In this blog post, an experienced native German tutor compares four popular online German dictionaries- Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo, and Collins- in terms of their pros and cons. Keep reading to find out which one I recommend.
My German students often ask me which online German dictionary I recommend. While no dictionary is perfect as there are mistakes or questionable translations in all of them, I find Linguee and Collins quite useful since they do not only provide the most common translations but also offer examples of how the word is used in context. This is very important when it comes to a language like German because many of our words are very context-specific, often tied to certain grammar topics (like verbs with prepositions or dative verbs in German) and can therefore easily be used incorrectly. The problem with both Linguee and Collins is that their sample sentences are automatically selected and not checked, which means that some examples are not very helpful. Take, for example, their entries on "Fingerspitzengefühl" - a word that is notoriously difficult to translate. While both do a good job by suggesting "instinctive feel or feeling", "tact", "sensitivity" as translations, not all of their sample sentences are helpful.
Let's start with Linguee. While some sample sentences render "Fingerspitzengefühl" into English by using "sensitivity", which makes sense in the context of the first example, others use "tact" and the slightly vague "intuition" in the second and third example, which does not accurately represent the word in context. Worse still, the last sample sentence doesn't translate the word at all.
Collins, on the other hand, offers quite a few useful sample sentences, but none of them have been translated into English, which is precisely what many students need.
So, while Linguee and Collins are useful online resources when looking up German words, be careful when checking their sample sentences and before using the word in your own texts. If it's a really important document you're working on, cross check your sentences with Google and Duden before you include the word.
So what about dict.cc and dict.leo? Both operate on a forum basis not unlike Wikipedia, which means that anyone can post there. This has the advantage that there are helpful discussions on how to correctly translate and use a word in a specific context, but it usually takes some time until errors are being spotted and corrected. Often, both dictionaries offer so many different translations of one single word that you'd have to already know the correct translation to choose the right option. This of course defeats the purpose of a dictionary, especially when students are still at A1 or A2 level and therefore at the beginning of their language learning journey. Dict.leo has the slight edge over dict.cc though in that its translations come with more grammatical information and, for many words at least, there are forum entries and discussions that you can read through if you want to know more about how the word is used in context. Nonetheless, if there are there several entries, it's difficult for a student at the lower levels to pick the correct one.
While no dictionary is perfect and there is still room for improvement, my recommendation is therefore to use Linguee and Collins. Be careful, though, the physical book versions of the Collins dictionary- especially older editions- are littered with mistakes and mistranslations.
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