When to Use the DictionaryAs a rule, you want to immerse yourself in the text in the target language, making as few lookups as possible. The more you can immerse yourself, the better the reading experience and the more you'll learn. So you should guess at unknown words, where possible, rather than looking them up--at least at first. Sometimes the next sentence will clue you in, so try to finish the whole paragraph before going back to look up words you couldn't figure out. (Don't overdo this, though; there's no point reading if you're not understanding.)
If your command of the language is strong enough, try using the monolingual dictionary instead of the bilingual one. That gives a better immersion experience, but it's also more of a challenge. My own experience has been that when I am first trying to read in a language, I use the bilingual dictionary almost exclusively, but as I get more and more practice reading, I make more and more use of the monolingual. Do what's comfortable for you. (I'll illustrate how to switch between them shortly.)
How the Dictionary Can FailWhen you do look up a word in the bilingual dictionary, you can fail either because there was no entry at all or because none the available entries made any sense in the sentence. If you are looking up a common word, there may be so many entries that it takes too long to find the right one. The monolingual is likely to be much larger than the bilingual, but it can fail for the same reasons, plus, it can "fail" because you're unable to make sense of the definition.
For illustration purposes, I'll use the book Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). You don't need to speak Spanish, since I'll explain everything along the way.
You Don't Always Need to Figure it Out Right AwayAt this point, you need to decide whether it's worth it to research the word now (or at all). In this case, it makes a certain amount of sense to say "Oh well, it's some kind of food" and skip over it.
If you think you'll want to come back to it later, tap "More" and you'll get this screen:
Machine Translation is LimitedIf you look at the previous screen again, you'll see there is a "Translation" option, which automatically invokes Bing translate, provided you have an Internet connection. Machine translation is flaky at the best of times, and it is at its worst when dealing with single words. In this case, here's what it gives you:
Using the Monolingual Dictionary
Normally, when you press on a word, the Kindle shows you a definition from the current dictionary and offers you the option to switch to any other dictionary. For some reason, Amazon does not let you do this when the original lookup failed. You must look up some other word and then you can change dictionaries. At one time, it would automatically default to a second dictionary, but apparently that feature has been removed.
To switch dictionaries, then, simply look up any other common word, cebolla (onion) for example.
Down at the bottom right, it gives the name of the dictionary, "HarperCollins Spanish-English College Dictionary". Tap that and the Kindle offers you a choice of dictionaries:
The monolingual Spanish dictionary is el diccionario de la lengua Española (usually just called the "DRAE" or even just the "RAE"). It is the authoritative dictionary in the Spanish-speaking world, it's enormous, and it's free on the Kindle. Select that dictionary and we get a much, much longer definition for cebolla.
By doing this, we have changed the default dictionary for the book. Now we can close that entry and press on teleras. This time we get a definition! Of course, it's entirely in Spanish, and it's also very long.
Using the Monolingual as a BookSuppose you're not "most readers" and you really, really want to know what bazo means in that definition. In that case, you'll want to open the monolingual dictionary as a book and then use the bilingual dictionary to read it. Start by tapping "More".
If you switch to the bilingual dictionary at this point, it simply offers "spleen" as a translation, which is consistent with the DRAE's second definition, but obviously (we hope) not applicable to the recipe.
Finally, at the very bottom of the screen, the DRAE tells us that pan bazo is a collocation. That is, the two words together mean more than "brownish-yellow bread." Much as "brown sugar" means more than just sugar that someone has dyed brown. To explore this further, we should actually be looking at the definition for pan (bread).
Translation inside the DictionarySince we already have the dictionary open, we can search for pan just by pressing on the word, but before we do that, it's worth trying to use the translation option again. We select the whole sentence this time.
This actually highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the translation option. It can find a lot of information for you, even though the result is comical. It helps the most after you have already taken a stab at understanding the sentence on your own. Sometimes it supplies that one bit of information you were missing.
In particular, it excels at finding collocations, even though in this case it comes up dry.
If we go ahead and look up pan, we'll find an entry for pan bazo which explains how to prepare it, but I'll stop here. As a general rule, trying to hunt down the exact names of local foods isn't a great idea. The truth is, the best translation of telera into English is probably "telera."
I've illustrated how to switch back and forth between the bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, how to use the highlight and translation options, and how to open the monolingual dictionary as a book.
In next week's posting, I'll discuss how to use online resources besides the Kindle to research hard-to-translate words. For example, if we google telera we immediately find that it looks pretty much like we expected it to.