Study Materials: The Dictionary Debate

Everyone owns one.. at least one. Or at the very least, has access to one. People that don’t even study languages own one. Dictionary play a pretty major role in the lives of people of all ages. They’re set a standard for us to follow… sometimes we disagree, and sometimes we all get along. So how can language learners make the most of them?

I’ll steer clear of the descriptive elements and this will be more prescriptive… No, I’m not telling you that you have to follow it, but these are just some ideas that I’ve had from both my own learning and also from observing my students during class.

Paper versus electronic: I love paper books and much prefer them to reading on a screen, that is, with the exception of the dictionary. I much prefer electronic dictionaries. By electronic I mean the portable, dedicated, electronic dictionary and not the web-based dictionary, which I also dislike reading but will use if I really need to. It’s all about personal preference here and relatively straight forward. However, in the class, I prefer my students to have a paper dictionary; they’re less distracting and kids don’t rely on them as much as they do the electronic variety because they actually have to read words (shocking I know!) to find what they are looking for. In any case, weigh up the pros and cons of each and make a decision 🙂

Bilingual Dictionaries: Fantastic for early learners where they don’t have a base strong enough in the target language to decode the meaning. Very easy to use and make it quick to understand a concept. The problems are that they often lack example sentences, so usage can be a little askew from an over-reliance on them. Also, students need to realise that they should cross-check the vocabulary both ways (both ‘to target language’ and ‘from target language’). This will alleviate some of the issues with usage out of context, but not all… nothing is perfect.

Another concern, a minor one… batteries die. But c’est la vie right.

Monolingual Dictionaries: Once a learner has a strong base in a language they should, in my opinion, be moving to a monolingual dictionary. This isn’t necessary the fastest way to find the meaning, but it has the highest overall benefit to the learner. They have something to work from and they have to read and decode the meaning in the target language. More exposure equals more learning right? Plus, moving away from an over-reliance of the bilingual dictionary and using it as a crutch can actually hinder learning. Although, there are obviously going to be times when the learner can’t understand the monolingual definition and in those instances, there’s still the bilingual option to assist.

It should be noted that monolingual dictionaries aren’t just the kind we use as educated adults in our L1, but can also encompass dictionaries aimed at school children. Don’t be embarrassed about it… I own an elementary school Korean dictionary. I take great pride in using it successfully… more so than hitting ‘enter’ on my little bilingual electronic number.

The Circle: There comes a time when a learner reaches a stage when their target language skills are pretty impressive and they can talk about so many things with ease and accuracy. At this point, you may as go back to bilingual dictionaries if you like. Monolingual dictionaries aren’t going to expose you to any more language than you already have (on the whole), and the convenience factor of the bilingual dictionary comes back into play. Of course, you may keep on using the monolingual dictionary because of the feelings of achievement you get from using it successfully.

So… it’s all a vicious circle it would seem.


Author: Andrew

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