3 Alternatives for Looking Up Words

Certain theories of psycholinguistics postulate that we store words in our minds much like dictionaries do. Linguists refer to this as a “mental lexicon.” There are some obvious parallels between our mental lexicons and the everyday dictionaries we are so accustomed to using. One is the fact that the words in our mental dictionaries are not stored at random.

We recognize words based on what they mean (the definition), other words that mean the same thing (synonyms), words that mean the opposite (antonyms), the function of the word (part of speech), as well as how a word is said (its pronunciation). All of these same pieces can be found in a traditional dictionary.

Where our minds differ (and what cannot be found in traditional dictionaries), however, are associations. One theory describes words as points connected with each other in our brains. Some believe that words are retrieved from our mental dictionaries through “spreading activation.” What this means is that we chronicle words via related or similar concepts.

While there are many different interpretations as to what kind of associations occur in our minds exactly, it is very likely that each one of us has an individual and unique representation of a given word based on our own life experiences and observations.

Given that associations are a plausible way by which words are stored and retrieved in our minds, it could be said that being exposed to such representations is also a helpful way of acquiring new word meanings. A learner may be more likely to remember a word when presented with a stimuli of various words related to a particular word’s meaning.

That being said, I would like to share a few non-traditional and alternative online dictionary options that may help facilitate your language (and particularly vocabulary) learning endeavors!

1) Wordnik

Wordnik is a dictionary community. It has some features that are not ordinarily available in standard dictionaries.

These include:
- Examples of sentences using the word embedded within a relevant and recently generated content (with a link for you to see that context)
- A list of words found in the same context
- A list of rhyming words (same terminal sound)
- A tag feature : user generated categorization of words (to get an idea of some of their associations, which could be similar to yours!), as well as tagging by Wordnik
- A reverse dictionary showing words that contain the target word in their definitions
- Lists (such as vocabulary lists) made by users that contain the given word
- When you scroll to the very bottom, you can also find visuals and sounds

2) Snappy Words

Snappy Words calls itself a “free visual online dictionary” where searching a word gives rise to a dynamic diagram.

Its features include:
- An interactive concept map that features color coded parts of speech as well as draws associations between words and concepts using parameters such as ‘is a word for,’ ‘is a kind of,’ ‘pertains to,’ etc
- The ability to search both one word items as well as two word items such as ‘lexical entry’or ‘Columbia University’

3) Panlexicon

This simple interface allows you to search a word which will then yield a list of other words related to it (as deemed by the Panlexicon algorithm). The cool thing about this search method is that once you search a given word, you can select another from the provided list and in turn narrow down your search for similar words related to both of those words.

Militza Petranovic
Militza is a Pedagogy and Research intern at Voxy. She is currently finishing up her master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at Columbia University’s Teachers College and received her bachelor’s degree in Theoretical Linguistics from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 2012. Militza is interested in researching all aspects of how web technology can help facilitate learning, particularly language learning.

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Twisted tongues

Tongue twisters are sentences that repeat the same phonetic sound at the beginning of each word over and over. They usually rhyme and this makes them easier to memorize and remember.

These tricky little things are a great and fun way to practice the English you have learned with Voxy and to improve your pronunciation. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what the words mean, focus on they way you are saying them. Tongue twisters can be very difficult and almost everyone makes mistakes saying them, so it’s ok if you can’t do it the first time. Keep trying until you get it!

To master a tongue twister, you need to begin slowly. Say the words one by one and try to pronounce them as clearly as possible. Once you feel comfortable with the sounds you are producing, try to say the sentence a little bit faster. And then faster, faster, faster! Remember that you have to say the tongue twister many times!

Let’s begin with some easy ones

  • I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. (Check your pronunciation here.)
  • Knife and a fork, bottle and a cork, that is the way you spell New York. (Check your pronunciation here.)
  • Four furious friends fought for the phone. (Check your pronunciation here.)

These are a little bit harder, give them a try!

  • Can you can a can as a canner can can a can? (Check your pronunciation here.)
  • Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair, Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? (Check your pronunciation here.)
  • If two witches would watch two watches, which witch would watch which watch? (Check your pronunciation here.)

Alright, these are a even harder. You can do it!

  • When a doctor doctors a doctor, does the doctor doing the doctoring doctor as the doctor being doctored wants to be doctored or does the doctor doing the doctoring doctor as he wants to doctor? (Check your pronunciation here.)
  • I wish to wish the wish you wish to wish, but if you wish the wish the witch wishes, I won’t wish the wish you wish to wish. (Check your pronunciation here.)

Now that you are a tongue twister expert, try the hardest one in the English language:

  • The sixth sick sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick.

Tricky, right?  Even English native speakers have a hard time, so don’t be discouraged! If you don’t believe us, check out this video!

All audio clips: Download-ESL


Mariana Aguilar Ramírez
Mariana is a Pedagogy and Research summer associate at Voxy completing her Master’s degree in Learning, Media and Technology at UMass Amherst with a Fulbright- García Robles grant. She is passionate about instructional design, educational technology and has been teaching ESL in Mexico for many years. She has studied foreign languages all her life and is now tackling German. She loves to travel and spends a lot of time in the kitchen perfecting her ice-cream making skills.

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Have you ever heard the word “shibboleth?” Does it look a little weird to you? Does it seem like a word you’d never be able to pronounce? Well, that’s actually the whole idea. A shibboleth is a word that is used to distinguish native speakers of a language from non-native speakers; shibboleths have a sound or combination of sounds that are extremely difficult for learners of the language to pronounce.

The term comes all the way from biblical times. According to the story, there were two tribes, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, who spoke two different dialects. The Gileadite word “shibboleth” was almost impossible for the Ephraimites to pronounce, because the Ephraimite dialect did not have the “sh” sound — just the “s.” So, when the war broke out between the two tribes and the Gileadites wanted to kill all of the Ephraimites, they used this word as a tool. Gileadites would ask people to pronounce the word “shibboleth,” and based on a person’s pronunciation, they’d know whether he or she was an enemy. If the person pronounced the “sh” sound, they were a Gileadite and therefore they were safe. On the other hand, if the person could only make the “s” sound, the Gileadites knew they were in the presence of an Ephraimite and they would kill him or her.

Though the origins of this word are pretty violent, the term can still be relevant today. As a learner of English, are there shibboleths that you feel you can’t pronounce properly? Do you think people know that you’re not a native speaker because of the way you say certain words? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!

Maya Barzilai
Maya is a Pedagogy and Research summer associate at Voxy. She recently graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in Linguistics and Arabic. She loves not only learning foreign languages, but also learning all about the different languages of the world and what they have in common. Maya is passionate about sharing her love for languages with others and watching as more and more people become empowered by the knowledge of another language.


10 Interesting Facts about the English Language

Have you ever wondered what the little dot on top of an ‘i’ is called, or what the only two words in the English language that end in ‘-gry’ are? No? Well, get ready, because you’re about to!

In the English language, …

…the shortest word containing all five main vowels is ‘eunoia’, meaning ‘beautiful thinking’ or a state of normal mental health.

…the longest word with only one vowel is ‘strengths’ (9 letters long).

…there are only 4 words that end with ‘-dous’: ‘tremendous’, ‘stupendous’, ‘hazardous’ and ‘horrendous’.

…the oldest word is ‘town’.

…the longest one-syllable word is ‘screeched’.

…the longest word with all the letters in alphabetical order is ‘almost’.

…the only two words that end ‘-gry’ are ‘hungry’ and ‘angry’.

…the longest word without the main vowels is ‘rhythms’.

…the dot on top of the letter ‘i’ is called a ‘tittle’.

…the most commonly-used word in conversation is ‘I’.

Gabi O’Connor
Gabi is a Senior Associate of Pedagogy & Curriculum at Voxy.  She received her BA in English Literature and French Translation at the University of York, her M.Phil. in Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin, as well as certification from the University of Cambridge TEFL program. Having lived in eleven countries and learned several languages as a result, she has a passion for expanding her and others’ cultural and language horizons.


False Friends: English-Spanish

Because of the English language’s roots, there are often many similarities between it and other languages.  Words sharing the same root are called ‘cognates’, and they often help language learners understand the other word’s meaning.
Example: ‘family’ [English] = ‘familia’ [Spanish]

Sometimes, these 2 cognates don’t have the same meaning and are called ‘false friends’.
Example: ‘assist’ [English, meaning ‘to help’] ≠ ‘asistir’ [Spanish, meaning ‘to attend’]

In this post, we’re going to focus on English-Spanish false friends.  Here are some more examples!

English: ‘library’ [meaning: a place where you borrow books]
Spanish: ‘librería’ [meaning: a place where you buy books]
Example:  The New York Public Library is one of my favorite places to read and borrow books.

English: ‘topic’ [meaning: a theme or subject]
Spanish: ‘tópico’ [meaning: cliché]
Example: Last night the conversation turned to many topics, including the war in Iraq, the economic crisis and universal healthcare.

English: ‘informal’ [meaning: casual]
Spanish: ‘informal’ [meaning: unreliable]
Example: Our workplace is very informal; we’re allowed to wear anything we want!

English: ‘particular’ [meaning: specific]
Spanish: ‘particular’ [meaning: private]
Example: In Catalunya, particular emphasis is placed on learning catalan.

English: ‘content’ [meaning: satisfied]
Spanish: ‘contento’ [meaning: happy]
Example:  I’m content with the progress we’ve made on our project.

English: ‘to realize’ [meaning: to become aware of]
Spanish: ‘realizar’ [meaning: to put into effect]
Example:  It took a long time, but the Bush administration finally realized that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Can you think of any other English-Spanish false friends?  Let us know!

Gabi O’Connor
Gabi is a Pedagogy & Curriculum Fall Associate. She has spent the past several years teaching ESL in Ireland, Spain, France and the U.S., most recently as a Featured/Recommended Tutor for NYC-based startup Tutorspree. Gabi received her BA in English Literature and French Translation at the University of York, her M.Phil. in Popular Literature at Trinity College Dublin, as well as certification from the University of Cambridge TEFL program. Having lived in eleven countries, and learned several languages as a result, she has a passion for expanding her and others’ cultural and language horizons.