Memorizing a dictionary through rote learning

The method works in the following way: you read and anotate any unknown word you encounter in the dictionary on a list(separating between each letter is a good idea). After you finish the dictionary, just read the words on the list. You remove the words you recognize and know the meaning, studying the remaining several times until you recognize them in the same way, removing them from the list. And so on and so on…

Can you guys think on a better method for learning a dictionary? This would certainly put the words in your passive vocabulary, potentially on your active vocabulary too. The downside is that it would be grindy, but I don’t think most people in here have an issue with that.

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Yes—spaced repetition is the optimized version of this. It tells you when to review each item so that you do so soon before you’re likely to forget it. This has two effects:

  • It’s more efficient
  • Reviewing an item when it’s difficult means you make stronger neural connections

You can Google spaced repetition, or the various software packages that implement it, such as Mnemosyne and Anki.

Moreover, you should not be learning by passive recall. You should be using active recall as it’s much more effective, precisely for the reason in the 2nd bullet point above.

This is by far the most effective way I know of learning vocabulary for languages.


You might be interested in this if you haven’t seen it.

There might also be some useful tips on these pages:

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I’d say that depends on a few factors as far as the language itself and the kind of dictionary you are using.


  • do you have a basic understanding of the language already or are you starting from zero?
  • how closely is the language related to other languages you speak?


  • are you looking at a monolingual dictionary or one with translations?
  • is the dictionary sorted alphabetically or by word frequency?

The fact of the matter is that people learn new words for various reasons. An odd reason would be to pull a stunt like the one most of @Josh’s links talk about. Generally, it’s not that important to know which page of a dictionary a certain word is on. Native speakers also learn lists of words for standardized test; SAT and GRE comes to mind. In that case you wouldn’t even do it to learn a new language.

Then there is second language acquisition where you might already be at a somewhat advanced level and you can read definitions in a monolingual dictionary. Obviously, much preferable to reading a “book of translations” because you can avoid L1 interference to a much greater extend. Of course, if you’re just a beginner, it’s not so easy to work with a monolingual dictionary.

Consider a Spanish speaker learning about ser and estar in Portuguese. Compare this to an English speaker and maybe the problem already becomes clear. The other way around, knowing “to be” isn’t going to do much as far as understanding conversations in English, unless you also know how the verb conjugates… I don’t think (i) am, (you) are, (he) is will make you think of (to) be if you are new to English.

I’m using Spanish and English instead of Portuguese to English here, simply because I got the link handy… obviously, you could create a similar set of rules for Portuguese and Spanish or Portuguese and English. Either way, this will be much faster… learning by rules rather than by rote.

Now, using an alphabetical dictionary vs a frequency dictionary vs learning some 30 rules is the “what” whereas the “spaced repetition”-approach @Daniel_360 is talking about is the “how”.

Don’t make grammar an afterthought

Just a final note on dictionaries and the notion that word X is simply word Y in another language. Assume your L1 is English and you’re trying to learn French. In French you only have être and avoir as auxiliary verbs, so you won’t find words for would, could, etc. because they’re just different ways of conjugating will and can.

Consider Portuguese one more time… the words ser, estar, ter, and haver easily fall into the Top 50 most frequently used words. From an English speaking point of view, you now know that there are two words for “to be” and two words for “to have”… no idea when or why to use which one though.

Lastly, consider “tem razão” which literally is “you have reason” and not “you are right”. Same issue for Spanish and French when compared to. Just saying, there are limits as to what you can do with a dictionary.

Specifically as far as your question…

What is the language you are looking at learning, how closely is it related to Portuguese and English, and how much of it do you already know?


What is the language you are looking at learning, how closely is it related to Portuguese and English

Nice question. With this method I’m not trying to learn a foreign language, I’m aiming at Portuguese, my mother tongue. Doing something like this doesn’t seem like a good idea at all for a foreign language, unless you have already achieved a pretty high level at it. I’m also trying to learn mandarin chinese right now, I would never think about doing this when it comes to that language.

The dictionary I’m using is Mini Aurélio. Aurélio is the most famous brazilian dictionary(although Houaiss and Michaelis have the reputation of being on the same quality) and this being a mini version, it is cut from about 120k words to 30k. Even with this cut, it still has many nouns for animals, medical terms, nationalities and similar, some very specific scientific terms, etc…

I’m mainly interested in learning adverbs, pronouns, ecclesiastical terms, literary and philosophical terms, though I’m not against learning names for objects that I may simply not know. But I’m doing this for literary purposes, to improve my reading and writing.

Dr. Yip Swee Chooi on Memorizing a 1774-page Chinese-English Dictionary

I’ve seen this, I can’t quite get how he did it so quickly with such an efficiency. I guess he’s really just a master of memory techniques.