Dictionaries can be fun, but are not tasty

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Dictionaries can be fun, but are not tasty

The first few pages of my old English-Korean dictionary are missing. But it wasn’t worn by the passage of time. Following the how-to-master-English tip trend during my teen years, I would rip off a page, then chew on it long enough so I could swallow it. Yep, right down the old gullet. This ritual came after meeting one strict condition ― learning every single word on that page by heart. As urban legend had it, the ingested words would find their way to your brain and stick their forever, safe and sound.
Before you label this rite as some unimaginably barbaric act, consider for a moment that you’re in a country famous for its blind love for the English language. To a naive 14-year-old burning to learn English, the temptation was too strong to push away. Besides, there’s not much you can do when your own teacher touts the theory.
Some linguists have reported that, for non-native learners to memorize a new word in a foreign language, they have to come across it at least 30 times by chance in different texts. Based on this eat-and-learn theory, all you had to do was exercise your mouth and throat muscles a bit. The aftertaste from the paper and ink did not please my palate, but it did have a strong psychological effect. I remember brimming with confidence, thinking I’d literally “digested” the words!
After gnawing on a few pages, however, I came to my senses. From then on, that tome of a dictionary became my best friend, occupying one corner of my desk wherever I went. Rather than eating words, I invented a healthier method for memorizing them. I’d keep a record of how many times I found a word, even noting the dates. It made my day to find the word I was after in a coup. Pronunciation notes were also important. To make this dull task fun, we invented our own lingo. Take the “th” sound, arguably the most challenging pronunciation for Koreans. We nicknamed the voiced one “a pig’s tail” and a voiceless one “a chrysalis.” When our teacher asked, “Which one is it in the word ‘thrill?’” we boomed back, “A chrysalis!”
When we’d wearied of this, we took pleasure in scouring the dictionary’s contents, like finding the longest English word. Back in 1991, it was “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” a type of lung disease. Doctors probably don’t need to know that word. Still, it was fun.
The years have passed and I am no longer so close to my dictionary friend, who plays second fiddle to the handy-dandy online dictionary. Still, I miss the days when young English learners had something to chew on.


by Chun Su-jin

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