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I am a non-native English speaker/learner and one of the problem I have ever had was how should I search for an English word when I know it in my native language and I also know its meaning. Does anybody know if there are any online resources for helping me with that? Or do you have a specific/personal practice?

EDIT : I am not asking about a traditional dictionary; what I want is something similar to a dictionary, but it should give you the English word based on the meaning that the word you are searching for has in your native language(e.g. : if you search 'a place with doors and windows', then the outcome should be 'house')

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    Let me get this straight: you know the equivalent in your first language, but you want to (reverse) look it up using the definition in English? What problems do you face when you use a simple bilingual dictionary? Anyway, for genuine reverse-look-up problems I sometimes use the word crossword after describing in a succinct way the word I'm really looking for. Another method is looking up a more general or related word and looking at the synonyms section either on lexico.com, or directly on Google, and then slowly narrowing it down from there. – user3395 Dec 23 '19 at 22:04
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You are searching for OneLook Reverse Dictionary where you put a phrase and the dictionary returns you a word.

This is the dictionary: https://www.onelook.com/thesaurus/

Example: search for the phrase -

person who can work with both the hands

You get: ambidexter as one of its results

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  • That is not a bilingual site. – Lambie Jan 20 at 18:25
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The process should be "search in a bilingual dictionary" followed by "check in a regular dictionary" or "broaden your search with a thesaurus".

If you know the word in your native language (or in any other language) then a bilingual dictionary is the right tool to start with:

I know the word in French is "maison", what is the word in English.

This can be supported by a conventional English-English dictionary, which can help you decide between "house", "home", "dwelling", "domicile", or any other word which can be a translation for "maison" in some context.

If you don't know the word in your native language, then it probably doesn't exist in English.

What is a specific word for a drinking vessel made out of metal? Like "glass" but for metal. Not "cup" because that could be made out of plastic or pottery.

There are cases where a word exists in English, but doesn't exist in some other languages. For example, "sibling" doesn't have a convenient short translation in French. But if you don't know the word in English, and have been able to work around the meaning in French, you probably don't need to ask "How to a say 'brother or sister' in one word." The question won't even occur to you.

It is practically impossible to have a true reverse dictionary. There are so many ways that you could define "house". Should it be "Place where people live" (but that could also be a home, a flat, a dwelling, a town, a city, etc." Or "A place with windows and doors" (but churches, offices, shops, etc have windows and doors), or is is "a building with windows and doors" or "a construction with windows and doors".

A thesaurus can be helpful if you know some similar words, but want a specific one. A thesaurus search on "brother" will find "sibling". A thesaurus search on "cup" will find many words, but none that means "a metal drinking vessel" (suggesting that no such word exists).

Finally, if you have looked up the word in a bilingual dictionary, but its translations are inadequate, or you know that the word should exist in English, even though it doesn't exist in you native language, then a good thing to do is to post a question to English Language Learners Stack exchange. But be sure to give a clear summary of your prior research, and the reason that the bilingual dictionary doesn't help you.

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  • You mean "conventional French-English dictionary". – CJ Dennis Jan 2 at 8:03
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    no, The F->E dictionary may give several translations for "maison". To select one, the definitions in an E-E dictionary can be used. – James K Jan 2 at 9:16
  • I've never heard of an English-English dictionary. Why would you need to translate English to English? – CJ Dennis Jan 2 at 9:17
  • An English English dictionary is a regular dictionary, that has English headwords with definitions written in English. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and so on. – James K Jan 2 at 9:23
  • So it's just an English dictionary? Or is there some subtlety I'm missing here? – CJ Dennis Jan 2 at 9:24
  • No subtlety, but English dictionaries with definitions in French also exist. By saying "English-English" I remove that (potential) ambiguity, especially as I've just been talking about a bilingual dictionary. I wanted to emphasise that a bilingual dictionary can be used in combination with a monolingual one. – James K Jan 2 at 9:26
  • OK. I've seen those (not for French) and I'd still call them English-French dictionaries, or one-way English-French dictionaries. All the French-English dictionaries I've seen have been both ways. Anyway, you've already said "conventional" (although you misspelt it), so "a conventional English dictionary" would be unambiguous. – CJ Dennis Jan 2 at 9:53
  • "If you don't know the word in your native language, then it probably doesn't exist in English".=false. There are tons of words I don't know in my native language or the four other ones I speak fluently.... – Lambie Jan 20 at 18:26
  • If you are unable to express something in your native language, then why would you think it can be expressed in English? If you have never needed to express something in your native language why do you need to express it in English? If you have answers to these questions that's great. But if you don't then the answer to your question is probably "There's no word for that in English". – James K Jan 20 at 20:42

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