Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dictionaries for students

By Dick Tibbets - Macau, China

Most of our students have a monolingual dictionary but a large number do not use it because they cannot understand the meanings given to them when they search for a word. I try to get them to find a monolingual dictionary at their level (see below) but often, as they are studying in an English medium tertiary institution, a dictionary at their level does not carry the vocabulary they need. They have been, for a number of reasons - financial, status etc. placed in an impossible situation and can only cope by using a translation dictionary. I recall my Chinese colleagues in a Hong Kong school used to insist all students used the Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary. But they all used translation dictionaries.

What I now do is to to suggest horses for courses. For comprehension, what students usually need is a quick fix. They need a passive knowledge of a word in order to get through the passage. For this a reasonable electronic dictionary is more or less OK. A paper monolingual dic. like the advanced learners is better, but slower to find a word and understand the meaning, and heavier to cart around.

Yes, you can talk about using context, and we try that first, calling on the dictionary after we've finished reading the passage, but guessing from context does not work nearly so well in real texts as it does in the examples carefully chosen for EFL textbooks. Writers for native speaking audiences only add marked context clues when they thing a native speaker might need one. Electronic dictionaries are getting better every year and there are some that do not appear to have any gibber. Some also have an English-English option that students can and do use to get a clearer idea of meaning and usage.

Students will rarely carry a heavy dictionary from class to class, although I see them with economics/maths textbooks three times the weight. This is because although they have lessons every year in school on how to get the best from their dictionary, they find from experience that what they get in practice is not worth the effort of lugging it about. The information it gives takes too long to comprehend in a classroom situation, and 99 times out of a hundred, all they need is a meaning accurate enough to get them through the text they are reading, which, by the way, is just what they get by guessing from context when there really is enough context to guess from.

So the big monolingual dictionary is at home or in the locker for reflection and consolidation of new vocabulary encountered that day.

Mind you, even then I don't think dictionaries give enough information for a learner to take a word encountered once in class and use it confidently after studying the dictionary meaning and examples. Dictionaries can't give enough collocations to give a real feel for the new item and can't go into the statistical nances of usage that are so important. for this one needs a concordancer.

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