Page 1 of 3

Best dictionaries for learners-opinions & REVIEWS

Posted: Wed Aug 04, 2004 2:42 pm
by Duncan Powrie
The REVIEWS begin from the >>>>> symbols - please feel free to skip the opening opinions! (Some important points are made between the #####...##### symbols, however).

I personally would not insist that students invest in monolingual learner ones in preference or even in addition to any bilingual ones that they might already own, especially since "there have been no long-term investigations (i.e., at least the length of the language course) comparing the language proficiency of L2 learners who used (GENERALLY prefer using?) a monolingual dictionary with those who used (GENERALLY prefer to use?) a bilingual dictionary..." (pg 124) (My added thoughts in italics - I spy a dichtomi! Controlled "experiments" ahoy!) (Folse, K.S. (2004). Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press).

Folse candidly admits at the opening of the chapter from which the above quote is taken (entitled, "Myth 7: The best dictionary for second language learners is a monolingual dictionary") that, "After more than two decades of learning foreign languages, I do not own a single monolingual dictionary" (pg 107); many other teachers are the same, he notes, but quite a few of them still insist (rather hypocritically) on "making strong statements about dictionary use when they themselves do not follow (their own) advice" (pg 119).

It takes more effort to use a monolingual one than a bilingual one, and there is always a lingering doubt that one has misunderstood (even when one has not!). (Folse makes the (rather obvious) points elsewhere in the book that learning can only really take place when we are certain, and also draws attention to studies that suggest that having more to work through, especially in the foreign language, can adversely affect retention (at least as measured by discrete point test results)).

That being said, however, Folse seems to make no explicit distinction between near or fully "native" monolingual dictionaries and monolingual "learner" types in his use of the term "monolingual", and as a consequence hardly does justice to the innovations of recent monolingual learner dictionaries (MLDs); although he is presumably alluding more to MLDs rather than native monolingual ones (given the concerns of his book - vocabulary learning in EFL/ESL), what he describes with the following brief words would seem to be more the native monolingual variety:

"However, the kind of English that is in most dictionaries is rather special in that it consists of definitions, single words and short phrases. The amount of increased L2 proficiency that could result from this particular kind of linguistic input cannot be that great." (pg 119)

Special?! What does that mean?! :? And rather special doesn't sound too complimentary either! And what of the numerous examples MLDs now contain?! (To be fair, however, the purpose of his book is not to provide a survey of MLDs).

I suspect rather that MLDs do have some advantages to offer, not least that reading their definitions (if they are written with a limited defining vocabulary, consistent regarding style, and non-circular!) would help learners develop strategies for "eliciting/making understood unknown words by defining with easier words". They also have a wealth of examples, collocations, phrases, information on usage and pragmatics etc etc.

#####One general way that students can obviously use MLDs is to check that what they have in mind (perhaps from consulting their bilingual dictionaries) and want to say does actually accord with attested contexts of use; in so doing they will reduce the risk of producing any inappropriate (or worse, totally incomprehensible) "translatese"; it is hard with bilingual dictionaries to be totally sure that the individual words or short phrases they contain will not shift in meaning when combined with other words (even when the process of combining them was careful and considered, not "willy-nilly").

Some dictionaries (Longman's Contemporary, and Active Study; and Oxford's Advanced Learner’s) are available in fully bilingualized versions in e.g. China and Hong Kong (in Chinese, they are called "Ying-Ying-Han cidian", English-English-Chinese dictionaries); there is also a new Z-Kai bilingualized version of Oxford's 2nd edition Wordpower dictionary available in Japan (it is fun to browse through it and see how "defining" works in Japanese!). Basically, these are dictionaries that offer pretty much full translations of the the full original monolingual text; with this kind of dictionary, the kind of word-for-word "translation" errors that learners sometimes can make with bilingual dictionaries will therefore be much less likely, because they will be able to compare many idiomatic "equivalents" literally side by side and thus become more aware of the phraseological nature of e.g. functional expressions and discourse markers in each language (presuming, of course, that the translations supplied are in themselves reasonably idiomatic). The only problem is, these bilingualized versions are almost never of the latest edition of the MLD concerned (except for the aforementioned Z-Kai release). For example, only the second edition of Longman's Contemporary has so far been translated, even though the monolingual version is now already in a fourth edition; so a lot of the useful information regarding e.g. the pragmatics of speech (as unearthed in the spoken component of the BNC, and incorporated into the third and now fourth monolingual editions) has not yet been "bilingualized"! You will certainly want to check what edition it is of before considering buying any bilingualized dictionary.

Ultimately, though, I see MLDs as mines of information and ideas for TEACHERS, that could well help fill holes in any kind of course, be it structural, functional, topic-based etc etc (the CD-ROMs that now accompany many dictionaries offer amazing possibilities through their various search options). Dictionaries also complement and can possibly even substitute for grammar books too (for example, when learners now ask me e.g. what the uses are of "would", or for guidance on articles etc, I am tempted to give them a photocopy of the relevant pages from my LDOCE4, the breakdown is so clear!).#####

The best way to decide which MLD is best (remember, not necessarily for students!) is probably to just familiarize yourself with the products on offer and read any available reviews. However, I suppose I should at least give you an indication of what my personal favorites are, in rough "from fave to less fave" order, before directing you to online dictionaries, reviews etc (it might help you save time in making a decision should you decide to buy anything). Almost all the MLDs listed below are full-size "flagships" that provide FULL surveys, not partial/provisional "learner"/intermediate ones (what use would they be for a teacher, unless the teacher is wanting to give super-serious consideration to, or needs explicit guidance regarding “basic” e.g as contained in Longman's Wordwise dictionary, versus “intermediate”, then “advanced” criteria for selection?!).

(Note also that several of these "flagships" have been released in very attractive and portable compact, flexible vinyl-covered slipcased editions (with accompanying CD-ROMs) for the Japanese market at least, and that these are well worth getting hold of compared to their bulkier, western counterparts).

>>>>> MOST COMPREHENSIVE RESOURCE: Collins COBUILD on CD-ROM (This includes COBUILD's Dictionary, Thesaurus, English Usage, Grammar and 5-million word Wordbank). The Usage guide is especially impressive. The disadvantage of the CD over the separate books is that you can't browse through them on the CD: you only get the results shown for your specific search item. It would therefore help to be familiar with the numbering system of the chapters of the Grammar at least (it is still very hard to browse even if you do have a rough idea of which numbered section in the Grammar you'd need to enter, however). If you just had a single resource on a CD, such as the Dictionary, it would probably enable you to see "real time" search results for every word that begins with each successive letter you type, and you could therefore save time by scrolling down and selecting the word you needed without having to type it in full. Other CD-ROMs definitely have better search options - but then, they don't offer so much! CONCLUSION: Great if you have a firm idea of what you are searching for, and are prepared to rephrase the search keywords and/or spend time opening up menus. (review of above product) (reviews the less comprehensive 4th edition of the paper dictionary, which can also be bought as a set with a CD-ROM containing said dictionary, and perhaps also the Wordbank, if memory serves correctly. NB: The older 3rd edition paper dictionary is not available in a dictionary+CD-ROM set; you can only get a CD-ROM version of the 3rd edition dictionary as part of the more expensive – but also more comprehensive – CD-ROM "bumper" resource pack of the title above. I don’t know if a newer version of this resource pack containing the 4th edition of the dictionary has been released - not that I'd be rushing out to buy it if antimoon's comments on the 4th paper dictionary/dictionary+"limited" CD-ROM set are anything to go by i.e. if you want the full resource pack CD-ROM, make sure it is still the 3rd edition!). Phew!

BEST BOOK-PLUS-CD-ROM SET: The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary has an excellent CD-ROM (its SMART Thesaurus is superb), and the book a nice "phrase" index (that allows you to look up idioms, phrases and collocations from any of the main words that are in them), but overall the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (4th edition) has to take pride of place, because to me the book is based on sounder editorial policies (explicit ordering by frequency, which the Cambridge does not make explicit at all, and breakdowns of frequency in speech versus writing, are two of the book's strongpoints). The CD-ROM isn't half bad either (and made very attractive by the addition of Longman's Language Activator, and added British and American "cultural" entries from Longman's other dictionaries). Visually, the Longman is by far the most attractively designed book, and its use of full color means that it is very easy on the eye (the Cambridge's use of two-tone green/black, and the MEDs two-tone red/black printing may give you a headache!). (CUP’s online dictionaries) (access to Longman Web Dictionary) (review of LDOCE4)

RUNNER-UP SET: Macmillan English Dictionary with CD-ROM. The CD-ROM is very easy to use, and has quite powerful search options; indeed, some of you might like it so much that you might choose to put this set in the "Best" category above, and "demote" the Cambridge down to here instead (especially since the MED is the better book - see "NOT GOT A PC?" section below)...but like I said above, I really think the Cambridge CD's SMART Thesaurus is something special! (and Cambridge's CD doesn't have the pain-in-the-*ss 30-day copyguard of the Macmillan which, if you forget about it, eventually will insist you ALWAYS have the CD-ROM in the drive, meaning you'll probably be wanting to reinstall it and start over every month!). The MED gives cutting-edge treatment to collocation (a strength of the LDOCE above, too) and metaphor; frequency is also indicated by means of a 3, 2 or 1 or no-asterix system, and sense menus help you locate the required meaning quickly. Lastly, the definitions seem to describe functions very well, and the uses of different parts of speech are well presented. (compares MED CD-ROM with Cambridge Learner’s).

HONOURABLE MENTIONS (BOOKS ONLY - you don't want to buy the current sets!): Oxford Advanced Learner's 6th edition (2001) and COBUILD3 (see "MOST COMPREHENSIVE RESOURCE", above, especially the antimoon website). Oxford really need to improve their CD-ROMs if they are to stand a chance - I was NOT impressed with it! Not even a "jump" function!? The book, however, is excellent, but the fact that it is similar in many respects to the LDOCE3 (1995! but also still a good book - did it really need to be replaced so soon?), except that no frequency stats are given, proves that Oxford is perhaps lagging behind a little. Nice signposts, though. As for COBUILD, whilst I respect the innovations they made (particularly the use of stylistically-consistent, full-sentence definitions), I really do not understand why they insist on not separating differing parts of speech into separate entries - it must make finding the correct entry very slow for learners who have already intuited that they are dealing with e.g. a noun rather than a verb! (The Cambridge dictionary referred to above takes a similar approach, but its use of signposts helps alleviate the problems involved in access somewhat); nor do I understand why COBUILD chose to make the changes it did with the 4th edition (see antimoon's comments). Other dictionaries have got the balance of tradition and innovation right, and have been quicker to add new features (or retain those older ones) that would seem to be of benefit to learners. (OALDCE6 online)

All of the above dictionaries make use of "Defining Vocabularies", at or under 3,000 words (you'd need to check the exact figures; also, be aware that those with smaller totals may be "cheating" by allowing more affixation or derivation etc); and, apart from the COBUILD, they all make use of signposts and/or sense menus.

NOT GOT A PC? The above recommendations are based on the assumption that most people have access to a PC, and will make full use of the CD-ROMs that accompany the books for what is very little extra money (the book plus accompanying CD-ROM only costs about 10% more than book alone does); it would be ridiculous to write reviews that assumed otherwise. It might be helpful, however, to give a further, very clear indication of the strengths of the books alone, as each CD-ROM is based to a large extent on the book's content, and there will often be times when the book is referred to by itself, and judged on its own merits alone, BUT STILL, the following book-only ranking should NOT be taken to suggest that it is "better" to buy whichever SET (Book+CD-ROM) on the basis of book A "alone" being better than book B "alone"! :twisted:

Best book: LDOCE4
2nd place: MED
3rd place: OALDCE6

4th place: COBUILD3
5th place: CADE (or, for the book ONLY, perhaps more the older CIDE?)
6th place: COBUILD4 :lol: (thanks,! Moneysaver!! :wink: )

Miscellaneous supplementary dictionaries: Oxford Collocations; Oxford Phrasal Verbs (better than Longman's); Oxford or Longman Idioms (Oxford is slightly more comprehensive, but Longman has some hilarious "variations" study boxes e.g. "The lights are on but nobody's home" > "The wheel's spinning but the hamster's dead". This kind of thing should help make learners aware of the creativity of language users! NB: The "hamster" phrase has not, as far as I'm aware, found its way into any dictionary as an actual entry yet!).

Finally, Oxford's Pocket Learner's is very dinky, whilst Longman's slightly larger Handy Learner's seems a tad better coverage-wise; neither are really more than portable substitutes for the above "flagships", however, and if its portability you want, there are many pocket electronic dictionaries that offer flagship MLDs, thesauri, bilingual dictionaries and much more besides, often a dozen books in one little machine! (in Japan, the best are by Seiko and Casio). These electronic dictionaries are expensive compared to CD-ROMs, however, and offer only very basic search options, but they are very convenient - you can't lug a PC into class with you - and allow the user to jump between different languages, which is something that all the above CD-ROMs obviously cannot do. Be warned, a new, sleeker model usually comes out at least once per year!

Best native-speaker monolingual dictionary: The (New) Oxford Dictionary of English. Some might question this decision, but I defy them to not agree that the sister The (New) Oxford Thesaurus of English is not the best available! ("Using computational techniques to analyse real language collected in the BNC and the database of the Oxford Reading Programme, the editors were able to determine better than ever before how words are really used and thus to give better-matching sets of synonyms." - quote from the paperback abridgement, The Oxford Paperback Thesaurus, seems v. similar to the Concise). I also like Encarta's dictionaries (especially their use of signposts - an innovation borrowed from learner dictionaries!). There is probably more room for subjective opinions and likes/dislikes in this area than with MLDs.

Apologies for the lack of MLDs of American English, but often the better among them are heavily based on, and very similar to, their British English "parents". Here is a short list of the good ones currently available:

Longman Advanced American Dictionary

Macmillan English Dictionary (for Advanced Learners of American English)

Cambridge American Dictionary of English (needs to be expanded in terms of coverage, though, it's a bit too small/intermediate level)

Other interesting websites: ... omuro.html (a bit dated, but good comparison of collocations in MLDs) (reviews of books that provide overviews of the “Vocabulary Control Movement”, dictionaries and teaching) (review: Jackson’s Lexicography)

This post is based upon one that originally appeared in the Applied Linguistics Forum's "Macmillan English Dictionary hamstrung?" thread.

Readers might also want to refer to the "How to use a bilingual dictionary...?" thread in this, the Bilingual Forum.

Posted: Wed Aug 04, 2004 2:52 pm
by Duncan Powrie
Which advanced (monolingual) learner's English dictionary do you recommend to your students, and why?

Posted: Mon Nov 22, 2004 12:59 am
by woodcutter
Good Idea Fluffy, to drag this old one up. If everyone hates hearing the same old topics again, then the good threads should never die!

Especially if, as in this case, a worthy discussion never got going. Let me lower the tone for you - that seems to help....

Looking stuff up in a dictionary is a time-consuming pain. If you do it, you want a result, not a synonym that you don't understand. Therefore nearly everyone on this planet uses a bi-lingual. Most of us above the age of 10 are not complete retards, and realize that the definitions may be imperfect.

Posted: Mon Nov 22, 2004 1:04 am
by woodcutter
Ah, it's in this forum. That'll be why then!

Posted: Tue Nov 23, 2004 2:41 pm
by fluffyhamster
Yes, it might be better to repost what you've said here over on the AL "Teacher, how do I learn zee good Ingleesh?" thread...then again, I don't want to hijack that thread totally (even if it was JTT who brought the subject of dictionaries up there). ... hp?p=11554

Sure, people are going to be more confident that they have "basically" understood what a word means when they use their trusty crusty bilingual, but they are missing out on a lot of information about collocations and phrases, and meaning generally (especially on pragmatics) if they never refer to the increasingly well-written definitions on offer in monolingual learner dictionaries (all of which is fully translated in recent "bilingualized" dictionaries - see above reviews. A user of such a dictionary can be absolutely sure that the translation equivalent is the most appropriate item to be had, because the compilers of the bilingualized edition have had to consider not just one word, but every word in the English definition i.e. the likely context and function; using such dictionaries "either way" is therefore an absolute pleasure - clear, doubt-free, informative, you name it).

Even if you don't accept that there is ultimately much of value in the definitions, I think you have to admit that the in-depth treatment given to frequent collocations (boxed in the Macmillan, shown in bold font in the examples in most other dictionaries), antonyms, and synonyms in MLDs just isn't to be found in pocket-sized bilingual dictionaries (and what about frequency information, and phrases, and...?!).

Talking of synonyms, I believe that books such as the 4th Edition of the Longman Active Study (with its "integrated thesaurus boxes"), the Longman Language Activator, Oxford's Wordfinder, and The New Oxford Thesaurus of English can really help a student expand their vocabulary (and become more aware of the meaning of what they "know" in relation to a wider network of terms). Talking of the NOTE, the companion The New Oxford Dictionary of English provides a very clear and logical breakdown of meaning, from basic to extended (figurative).

Posted: Tue Nov 23, 2004 4:48 pm
by lolwhites
I don't object to bilingual dictionaries so long as they are used with caution. The biggest problem is when students just look up a word and use the first translation given, but any half decent teacher can put together a worksheet on how to use a dictionary properly.

Last week my students of Spanish had to write about their last holiday. One visited a friend in Spain and met several of her female friends. Stuck for a word for meet, he went for the dictionary and found satisfacer (to satisfy i.e. meet a requirement). You guessed it - he wrote satisfice a muchas de sus amigas. :shock:

Posted: Tue Nov 23, 2004 5:03 pm
by fluffyhamster
:lol: Very satisfying, "meaty" anecdote there, lol!

You'd've thought just the familiar form of satisfacer (=satisfy? Duh!) would've clued him in as to what it might NOT mean! :roll:

Posted: Tue Nov 23, 2004 5:14 pm
by lolwhites
This is why when people look up a word in the L1 to L2 section, I advise them to double check it in the L2 to L1 section before they write it down. Not that they take any notice... :roll:

Posted: Tue Nov 23, 2004 11:58 pm
by woodcutter
We always worry too much about these kind of silly students. Consideration for hopeless fellows only clouds the issue.

The issue is a motivational one. It takes an iron will to bother with the mono-lingual, comprehensive as it may be, given the possibility of not getting any kind of answer you understand. To encourage students to do something deflating, which we ourselves do not usually do, is dodgy, lop-sided teaching.

Posted: Wed Nov 24, 2004 3:55 am
by woodcutter
Furthermore, a decent bilingual dictionary will come with a range of examples so that you are able to add the fine tuning to the rough definition you are given.

The electronic ones, which never seem to do this, are admittedly a bit rubbish.

Posted: Wed Nov 24, 2004 5:12 am
by fluffyhamster
Well, I don't (and can't!) insist that students get an MLD, but I think the advantages of the bilingualized versions especially are so obvious that I would be a bit surprised if students didn't rush out to buy one (and they only work out at about 15-20% of the price of an electronic dictionary, none of which are truly bilingualized yet).

Still, a lot of the better electronic dictionaries (the better ones start at 20,ooo yen here in Japan, that's approximately 200 dollars) include at least one MLD, coupled to a jump function into the Japanese-English dictionaries, so working through the English-only entries (especially search results for the entire machine's examples!) won't be as painful as it might be with the paper versions. The English-Japanese dictionaries they contain do have Japanese translations supplied for the English example sentences (as do the J-E versions - they often offer exactly the same examples, just in reverse format).

The one advantage of bilingual dictionaries is that they are often quite comprehensive regarding abbreviations, literary allusions etc, and are therefore more "encyclopedic" than most British English MLDs (that being said, the bilingual's coverage of more recent words and phrases can be a bit lacking).

Anyway, the one group of people who really could gain from owning an MLD are teachers; it's amazing how few have even a grammar book, let alone a dictionary to help "fill in the gaps" in a course. Many teachers seem to depend on what is available in the school's resource library, and would doubtless be at a loss to justify their use of the few available free books compared to others (the other, potentially better ones being available at the local bookstore, for a price).

I still reckon any student of English above a certain level should consider investing in at least one of the thesaurus-like English-English study aids referred to above. 8)

Posted: Wed Nov 24, 2004 10:31 am
by lolwhites
Woody - if my student could satisfy as many women as he claimed then clearly he's not hopeless in some areas! Admittedly dictionary use isn't one of them...

Actually, I'm a bit concerned at a teacher saying we shouldn't consider our "hopeless" students. It sounds too much like writing people off. Better to show them why they're hopeless, and maybe they'll start getting the right end of the stick.

Posted: Thu Nov 25, 2004 1:04 am
by woodcutter
I'm brewing a thread on that very issue.

In this case, people who have not grasped that you cannot grab the first translation you see and stuff it any old sentence in are beside the point. OK, those people need to be taught otherwise, not written off. The fact that such silly students exist should not, however, tie everyone else down to an inappropriate dictionary using methodology, in the vain hope that such silliness will be stamped out. That is a very odd thing to argue in my book, but in teaching that kind of argument is often advanced.

I'm sorry I'm not getting my teeth into the technicalities of various dictionaries, but I think while I could possibly make a recommendation locally, I wouldn't want to tell the world at large which bilingual to go for. As to monolinguals I would only recommend a learners dictionary, and I have never seen one which struck me as inferior.

Posted: Wed Feb 09, 2005 2:44 pm
by fluffyhamster
(I used this post to kick off a thread that I entitled 'The right kind of example. Cobblers? Or, 'Cobblers!' over on the AL forum a short while ago. I thought it would be appropriate to post it here too, though, because it concerns what most people surely consider to be one of the main advantages and strengths of learner dictionaries: their carefully chosen examples. In his paper at the link immediately below, Cobb seems to be saying that the choice of examples is not only too limited, but too careful and considered too, and he makes an interesting if slightly odd/counterintuitive argument in support of having more (in terms not only of quantity but also "quality") "less well-contextualized" examples. For any newbies here on Dave's, if you've got this far in this 'best dictionaries' thread, and also now find what Cobb says intriguing or even just plain silly and feel like responding, it's probably best to post your answers on the AL forum thread, because you'll get much more of a response there :wink: Anyway, by following the link immediately below you'll be directed to a point in that thread on the AL forum that picks up from where the this post here ends). ... 4276#14276


You'll need to plough through this at some point (but I think it's a good paper, and therefore worth it):

Sorry about its length (and the length of this post too!). You should perhaps just skip down to the highlighted section (between vvv and ^^^ symbols) below in this post! The main question I want to ask everyone is to be found there, anyway (that is, everything before the vvv/^^^ bit is just "for your information", just a summary of the less contentious parts of Cobb's paper with a few additional comments from me). 8)

Summary: After the opening preamble for his paper (entitled 'Do corpus-based electronic dictionaries replace concordancers?' - incidentally, he is talking about online, free versions of learner dictionaries, not versions on CD ROM or in pocket-sized machines), Cobb asks four questions before reaching his conclusions.

The answer to the first ('What is the quantity of examples in an online entry?') is obviously going to be 'Much less than a concordancer', with the equally obvious corollary that there will be more waiting for an 'enterprising discover' than can be fitted into a dictionary (I haven't checked though to see if the findings he points out in relation to collocates of the complain word family are in fact 'vague or absent even from a good dictionary', especially a paper version). His fourth question is pretty much a refinement of the thrust of his first.

The main thing of interest to me in his answer to his first question were his comments about the relative merits of each of the then* available online dictionaries. Cobb initially (in this section of his paper) compares the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 3rd Web edition with two substantially smaller learner ones (the Cambridge Learner's and Collins COBUILD Student's Dictionary Online [CCSD Online]) - no prizes for guessing which of these emerges as the best.

However, Cobb then goes on to point out the advantages and flexibility of concordances over dictionaries in answering his third question ('How accessible are the examples in an online dictionary?'), and in doing so, leads into a short discussion of the superiority of Cambridge's advanced learner dictionaries (the CIDE, and now the CALD) for his purposes (providing students with/directing them, as homework or correction of other homework, to the exact information - "tailored feedback" - that they need, in the form of specific subentry/submeaning URLs, rather than links which in the case of the LDOCE 'have to be an entire page', that is, a whole dictionary entry with all its potential subsenses):
Unfortunately, all three of the dictionaries under investigation would be quite poor for the purpose of giving learners highly specific examples, because their pages can only be accessed whole and not via particular examples or any other page components. Suppose a learner had written, "He complained about he was never allowed to speak*," and his or her document was returned with the error marked and a link to the LDOCE entry in Figure 3. The link would have to be to the entire page, since the individual pieces of information (even complain, complain about, complain that) cannot be accessed separately. Which part of the entry is the learner supposed to look at?

None of the three dictionaries have separate URLs leading to complain about or any other piece within the entry, i.e. they do not allow targeting of specific lexical or grammatical information. Searching for complain about will either generate an error, or else lead to the general entry for the first word. A concordance, of course, can target very specific information, whether of several words, or parts of words, or either separated by still other words. The dictionary pages are precast wholes, while concordance pages are constructed dynamically, from small pieces, on demand. But is this dictionary limitation one of principle or just of current technology?


A recent addition to the Cambridge online series offers greater accessibility than any of the three dictionaries we have focused on hitherto, as well as greater exploitation of the Internet medium. This dictionary, the Cambridge International Dictionary of English (CIDE, 2002), is not strictly classified as a learner dictionary, but it has much in common with the Longman LDOCE including the within-entry hyperlink (click any word inside the entry and you are led to that word's definition), and this technology will no doubt be re-used in the long awaited Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. The CIDE has structured its information in far smaller pieces than any other online dictionary, and it has given the pieces their own URLs. The prospects for finer-grained access may be good.

As can be seen on the left side of Figure 6, the main CIDE entry for love (to take a fresh example) asks the enquirer to refine his or her search into one of three directions (love somebody, love something, and love as a tennis score). The main entry is accessed via a URL of the usual kind ( ... hword=love), and each separate sense has its own URL (e.g., love something is via*2+0), as do each of several multi-word units involving the term (love triangle, labour of love, and 18 others). In all, the entry has been broken into 23 separate Web pages all with their own URLs. All of these can be fairly easily found, copied, and embedded into a learner's text to provide information about a revision. For example, the learner who writes he is "in love with ice-cream" could be sent to the like something sub-page for reasonably specific help with a revision.
Cobb's observations still hold true even though Longman now have the 4th edition of the LDOCE Web version up and running. The Cambridge dictionaries provide URLs, whilst with the Longman, you are confined to jumping around in a pop up box sans address box (actually, although Cobb says - see above quote - of the LDOCE that 'Suppose a learner had written, "He complained about he was never allowed to speak*," and his or her document was returned with the error marked and a link to the LDOCE entry in Figure 3. The link would have to be to the entire page, since the individual pieces of information', how would one even supply the link to the entry beyond the Web dictionary homepage when there is no address box to copy it from? Come on, you PC whizzkids, or do learners just have to manually type in each word and wade through potentially long entries?). Also, there are a host of other dictionaries available to also browse on the Cambridge website. One thing, however, that the Longman does provide is frequency information in both "speech" and "writing" (relative to the size of the corresponding corpora); both dictionaries seem to be "interactive" to similar degrees (e.g. you can click on any word you don't know to be automatically directed to the relevant entry).

(No mention of the Oxford (OALDCE6), but then it wasn't available then. In a nutshell, it is also a pop-up window type, and it doesn't even have that "click away with the mouse" function...a bog-standard LDOCE, in other words).

The most interesting part of Cobb's paper must, however, be the answer to his second question ('What is the quality of examples in a learner dictionary?'). I can understand him saying that meaning shouldn't be 'made too evident', that language often passes learner completely by (if it is all very clear and contextualized), but it seems counterintuitive to suggest that a learner's first encounter with a word should be (made) a difficult one, the word a rarer form of the lemma in an only sparsely clued context, and even if it makes total sense to you, would your learners appreciate you adopting this sort of approach? (I for one can see it leading into blissful infrequent oblivion at least).

What do you guys think? Any comments? I was imagining that browsing dictionaries would be a great way to learn words in very adequate (authentic, not too contrived nor too uncontrolled contexts/example sentences), surrounded by a lot of supporting information, but it seems I was wrong - when Cobb says 'What learners find in their learner dictionaries is, of course, a small number of very clear examples', he means it to be damming.

But of course, if, as Cobb concludes, 'the ideal electronic resource for language learning...a blend of dictionary and concordance' is developed as hoped and expected, students will have the best of both worlds available to them at the puch of a button.

Just a few comments on his 2001 study: If you look at words in the most and least learned categories that have the same number of occurences e.g. 2: sow vs. oars and sheep, or 4: plow vs. drew, are the differences in the mean 'Contextual Support Rating' that high? (I'm not a statistician and its been a while since read anything even remotely technical, so I'm not quite sure how to interpret the s.d. - standard deviation, right?). The thing that seems really obvious is just the raw frequency, the number of times the words were met. It seems a leap to go on from this study to imply that it is the mix of context support levels (i.e. less optimal contextual support), rather than frequency (or, for that matter, clarity) that is the deciding factor in retention.

That being said, I have said at least once elsewhere on Dave's that:

I'd actually be more interested in hearing how you would propose the most frequent 2000-3000 words or so be taught, because they do not form a simple, basic and discrete orderly list of items to be ticked off one by one, but reoccur and recombine much like DNA to produce a wonderful and complex myriad of linguistic forms. In contrast, the more advanced (i.e. less frequent) words are probably easier to acquire simply by virtue of being so much more distinct (they "stand out" more); and they may ultimately only be understandable not so much from context but more by paraphrase (definition) using the more basic words. ... 3131#13131
(The 'An argument for reading in the target language' thread started by Atreju( :oops: :wink: :D ))

Still, all I really said there was that less frequent words might be more "distinctive" or memorable meaning if not context-wise, and who's believes that so-called easy words in boring old everyday contexts don't constitute a major challenge and don't just pass learners by without incident or, for that matter, the occassional appreciation?

Hmm, I guess we need to distinguish between the complexities involved in both speech and writing, and understand in more depth exactly how they differ or are similar, and to what extent vocabulary might cross over from one to the other (and in the process be transformed). It's a dinstinction I didn't make clearly enough in the above quote, and one which Cobb himself doesn't either (perhaps we are just to assume from him quoting mainly SL reading studies 'that show that when new words are easy to interpret in fully redundant or "pregnant" contexts, they are often not noticed let alone retained' that he sees the challenge and acquisition opportunities as more lying in written texts, printed or electronic, than speech (but obviously, speech can be transcribed),whereas I tend to always be prioritizing on strenthening speech, to form a stronger basis for literacy, and in turn assured and perhaps as a consequence faster reading and writing development.

*The Cambridge Learner's has been superceded by the International and now Advanced versions, although it is still also one of those available at Cambridge's website; and the CCSD Online still seems to be unavailable through the university link I tried (due to server overdemand/overuse).

Posted: Wed Mar 30, 2005 8:13 pm
by fluffyhamster