What makes WordReference.com so good?

Founded in 1999, www.wordreference.com is perhaps the internet’s leading online multilingual dictionary. It will be familiar to anyone who uses more than one language, from schoolchildren to professional translators. It offers dictionaries in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, as well as Arabic, Japanese, German, Polish, Russian, Greek, Chinese and more. But what makes it so great?

I remember years ago when I was doing GCSE Spanish we were given a stark warning: do not use internet resources. This was partly to discourage cheating but it was also certainly true that the language resources available online at the time were fairly poor. For a start, they were usually based on the knowledge of one person and, more often than not, created by education professionals as a teaching aid. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, but it tended to result in a rather specific focus. There was no general, comprehensive, high quality resource, and finding information invariably meant trawling through page after page of rubbish before finally finding something that looked right… only to discover when your work was marked that it was wrong.

WordReference.com changed that. Its first major coup was incorporating the information from reliable, professionally compiled print dictionaries. By combining this with the ease of use of a search engine it created a powerful tool. The Spanish-English dictionary, for example, now searches two dictionaries that are in print, allowing for comparison to get a more accurate result.

However, what really makes the site amazingly useful is its forums. When you search a term in one of the bilingual dictionaries, a parallel search takes place in the site’s language forums. No dictionary can ever hope to cover all the ways we use a word. Getting in touch with a native speaker, on the other hand, can do this easily. Furthermore, the forums are well organised and well moderated, making them haven for people who genuinely want to help. Discussions never descend into abuse!

Essentially, what WordReference.com has achieved is the perfect integration of professionally produced, high quality content and user generated or crowd sourced content. It’s a powerful combination, and there is surely a lot to learn from this example.