The following article first appeared in the CPF Alberta News.

Those who attended the workshop “How to be a great immersion parent” at the CPF Alberta conference in October 2005 appreciated an opportunity to open up a French-English dictionary and find out how to use it effectively.

First, they learned that bigger really is better. Bigger means more words and phrases, including more variations of meaning.

Many words don’t translate directly between languages. In other cases, a word can have several different meanings, and choosing the wrong one can cause real confusion.

As a simple example, look up the French word livre. There are two quite different translations. It’s a masculine noun meaning “book, register, or journal.” It’s also a feminine noun meaning “pound” (the measure of weight). Now look up the English word pound to see if you can find the correct equivalents for (a) 16 ounces, (b) hit or beat, and (c) an enclosed place for keeping animals or automobiles.

Better dictionaries will provide all the possibilities. Whether you’re using the dictionary to look up something in your child’s homework, or your child is using it because he’s stuck for a French word, it’s always important to read through the entire entry!

A good dictionary gives more than just the translation. You will find the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), gender (masculin, féminin), examples of usage, and perhaps even some history of the word. It will also provide a phonetic spelling of each word and, at the beginning, a guide to the symbols being used.

Can’t find a word? It might be because:

• you’re looking up the article (le, la, un, une—which mean the or a/an)

• you’re looking on the wrong side of the dictionary

• you’ve spelled the word incorrectly

• it’s a conjugated verb.

In French, verbs change to match the person(s) doing the action: I, you (singular), he/she/it, we, you (plural), and they. French also has far more “irregular” verbs than English-verbs that change in unpredictable ways (like to be becomes are, is, was, been).

For this reason, French dictionaries list each verb only by its “root,” called the “infinitive.” It’s like finding write but not writing or wrote. Most French infinitives end in er, ir, oir, or re. (By the way, as your child moves into the upper elementary grades, a verb book—Bescherelle is the most common—becomes an essential resource.)

Don’t assume your child has learned these strategies in school. Look up words together from time to time to ensure he knows how to make the best use of a French-English dictionary.

Finally, remember that students in French immersion don’t translate: they think and work in French. Their primary reference should be an all-French dictionary, with the French-English dictionary as a backup. Talk to your child’s teacher about an appropriate dictionary for his grade level.