Quality versus Convenience: Comparison of Modern Dictionaries from the Researcher's, Teacher's and Learner's Points of View
With the growing popularity of electronic dictionaries, the confusion and frustration of EFL reading comprehension students is increasing, as time and again they realize that the meanings offered by the electronic dictionary do not match the text. On the other hand, the dictionary's speed is an advantage that cannot be ignored since it not only facilitates use, but also encourages the user to read more in the foreign language. Other types of dictionaries offer the students other types of advantages, but, just like the electronic dictionary, each one has its own disadvantages. Some types of dictionaries are more favored by teachers, while others are preferred by the students. This article compares the advantages and disadvantages of most types of modern dictionaries both from the teachers and researchers' as well as from the students' points of view, and shows that if clear distinctions are made between learning, test-taking and reading for pleasure or extensive reading, each type of dictionary can be used either by itself or in combination with another dictionary, depending on the type of activity.
"...technology often forces us to choose between quality and convenience." (Alan C. Kay, Computers, networks and education, Scientific American, September 1991).
The questions sound simple, but the answers are not. In fact, it could be said that there are no clear-cut answers to these two questions. The electronic dictionary certainly does not meet all the [-1-] students' needs; nor does any printed dictionary. In fact, there is no one dictionary that has all the possible advantages for EFL students. The classical controversy between students on the one hand and FL teachers on the other has been about the choice of the bilingual compared to the monolingual dictionary. Most students prefer a bilingual to a monolingual dictionary (Baxter, 1980; Bensoussan, Sim and Weis, 1984; Atkins and Knowles, 1990). They also prefer the electronic format to the printed dictionary. In fact, these two preferences give the students the same advantage, namely that of speed: the bilingual dictionary enables them to understand (or to believe they understand) the meaning of the word quickly and almost effortlessly, and the electronic format enables quick search, compared to the printed format.
Contrary to EFL students, most EFL teachers, language educators and researchers prefer their students to use the monolingual dictionary (Yorkey, 1970; Baxter, 1980; Ard, 1982; Snell-Hornby, 1984; Bloch, 1985; Hartmann, 1989; Soekemi, 1989 and Stein, 1990). One of the reasons for the educators' preference for the monolingual dictionary, according to Yorkey (1970) and Snell-Hornby (1984) is that "BD [bilingual dictionaries, S.K.] are counterproductive because they culturate the erroneous assumption that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the words of the two languages" (see Aust, Kelley & Roby, 1993, p. 66). As for the second point of disagreement, teachers usually prefer the printed format (see Sharpe, 1995) for reasons that will be described later.
The question which dictionary is best for EFL students, monolingual or bilingual, is well recorded in the literature. Bloch's (1985) book about dictionary use explicitly demonstrates the preference for a monolingual dictionary by thoroughly exploring almost every possible learning point that the monolingual dictionary can offer. Walz (1990, p. 84) describes two opposing views. The first is that of Ard (1982), who prefers monolingual dictionaries mainly because bilingual dictionaries do not handle meaning distinctions of equivalent translations well. The second is that of Thompson (1987), who prefers bilingual dictionaries mainly because in order to use monolingual dictionaries, "the student must know what word to look up, a process not possible while encoding". Another reason for Thompson's preference of bilingual dictionaries is that the monolingual dictionary has circular definitions. Walz mentions several more researchers, all preferring monolingual to bilingual dictionaries. Yet, although Walz supports the use of the monolingual dictionary, he claims that if the bilingual dictionary is used, a first step is to look up a word in both sections (i.e. FL-NL; NL-FL). Ducroquet (1994) shows the insufficiency of bilingual dictionaries for professional translators. She claims that "very few translation problems can be solved with the help of those dictionaries. Worse still, the use of bilingual dictionaries can be positively damaging" (p. 48). Although her population is not that of EFL students, the arguments she raises can support those EFL [-2-] teachers and researchers who prefer monolingual dictionaries. Stein (1990, p. 40) shares the same opinion. He says that "the most natural progression seems to be from the bilingual to the monolingual English learners' dictionary to the monolingual general-purpose dictionary." Stein recommends the learner's monolingual for the intermediate level student. It could be inferred that the monolingual dictionary should be recommended for advanced learners.
Baxter (1980) argues in favor of the monolingual English dictionary. Yet he prefers a learner's dictionary, not just any monolingual dictionary. In a study he conducted, he found out that among university students, only those who were English majors actually bought a monolingual dictionary. Still, few of them use it daily. In his conclusion, Baxter recommends the use of both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Similarly to Baxter, Piotrowski (1989) claims that students of all levels use bilingual dictionaries, but those who are advanced use both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries. Like Thompson, Piotrowski also says that monolingual dictionaries are inherently circular, which means that they can be used only by native speakers. Piotrowski believes that learners can benefit from EFL dictionaries, which try to avoid this circularity. Like Baxter, Piotrowski's conclusion is that both types of dictionaries, i.e., bilingual and monolingual, are complementary and both offer something else to their users.
Another problem of monolingual dictionaries is raised by Nesi and Meara (1994), who show that while using learners' monolingual dictionaries, many adult learners systematically misinterpret dictionary entries. Therefore the authors question the effectiveness of definitions in EFL dictionaries. There are two reasons for that (Nesi and Meara, 1994, p. 14): (a) "dictionary users latch onto a part of the dictionary definition, without really understanding how it relates to the word they are looking up." (b) "the dictionary entries were actually misleading given the starting point of the user." In spite of these problems, the authors do not suggest to give up the use of the monolingual dictionary. They hope their study will help dictionary writers to improve their dictionaries, and teachers to train their students in using the dictionaries. A similar suggestion is made by Nation (1989), who analyzes problems that language learners have with vocabulary learning with the current monolingual dictionaries, and calls for improvement of the dictionaries, since, in his opinion, this will make learning a language easier.
Along the same lines, that the dictionary cannot solve all the learners' problems with vocabulary, Scholfield (1982) says that if we think that learners open the dictionary and are provided with words to fit the context, we are mistaken, since it's not so simple. To avoid making mistakes, Scholfield, (p. 188) advises the users to follow Underhill's (1980) advice: "Scan all of the definitions in the entry before deciding which is the one you want." [-3-]
Bensoussan (1983) also points out the difficulties EFL learners have even if they consult the dictionary. In another article mentioned earlier, Bensoussan, Sim and Weiss (1984) conducted research in which they showed that no significant differences were found between the scores of dictionary users and non-users in either of these experiments. The obvious question is then why use the dictionary at all. Bensoussan (1983, p. 345) answers this question by saying that "valuable language skills are learned when a student uses a dictionary" and that "using the dictionary can sensitize the student to the possibilities in the text". Bensoussan (1983) claims that the dictionary cannot help weak students. What they actually need is a specific glossary pertaining to the use of the word in a particular context. This glossary will enable them to see the exact meaning of the word they need, without having to infer it from the variety of meanings in the dictionary and the context of the word in the text.
Like Bensoussan, Aust, Kelley and Roby (1993) also show an easier solution to the classic monolingual dictionary. Their idea is that of a hyper-reference text on the computer screen, where each word can be clicked, thereby causing its dictionary explanation to appear on half of the split screen, either in monolingual or bilingual form. In a study conducted by these authors, in which they compared the reading of a hyper-reference text in monolingual and bilingual form, it was found that there were no significant differences in comprehension, but there were more consultations of the bilingual than of the monolingual hyper-reference dictionary. The study also compared printed dictionaries -- monolingual and bilingual. Again, no significant differences were found in comprehension. But bilingual users looked up more words and completed the task of writing what they remembered in less time. It could be inferred then that the easiest dictionary for the users is probably a hypertext bilingual dictionary. Moreover, in view of Bensoussan's suggestion of glossary, it could be further inferred that a bilingual hypertext-referenced glossary would be even easier, perhaps the easiest possible way to get along with FL texts. The question is whether the idea of a hypertext-reference dictionary or glossary is also useful for foreign language learning in general, not just for understanding a specific text. It seems that it is not, as will be explained below, but there is no answer to this question in the literature.
What are the answers or solutions then? Which dictionary can an EFL teacher recommend to his or her students? We can summarize the ideas raised in the literature described above in five categories or five possible solutions:
(a) Use several types of dictionaries together. We have seen that Piotrowski (1989) favors this idea. It is good for learning a foreign language since a student who uses both types of dictionaries [-4-] (monolingual and bilingual) will get the advantages of both. The disadvantage of this suggestion is that looking up each word in two dictionaries is a tiresome task and not very likely to be adopted by students.
(b) Use a monolingual dictionary, but only a learner's monolingual. Stein (1989, p. 25) mentions the three hallmarks of EFL (monolingual) dictionaries to support his view. They are: "(a) the explanations of meanings; (b) specifications of a word's grammatical behavior and (c) the illustration of the meaning and the syntactical use of a word with real language examples." According to Stein's view, using a learner's monolingual dictionary would probably be easier for the language learners than using a regular monolingual dictionary because the learners will have fewer problems with the vocabulary of the definitions. However, practically speaking, the learner's monolingual dictionary is not the learners' first choice. Experience has shown that they prefer bilingual dictionaries.
(c) Use a two-path bilingual dictionary, following Walz's (1990) compromising suggestion (e.g. English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English). Although this technique gives the user more information about new words than the one-path search, it still does not give them enough information for full understanding and correct usage of the words. Furthermore, practically speaking, EFL students who study only reading comprehension and need to know word meanings just for comprehension, are not likely to adopt this approach, which is probably more suitable for students who major in foreign languages, and need to know new words for use or production.
(d) Use glossary, as Bensoussan (1983) suggests. This is probably the easiest way to understand new words in a specific context since it saves the learner all the difficulties of connecting the word in the text to the dictionary definitions and usage in the monolingual dictionary. It also saves him or her the problems of inappropriate translation in the bilingual dictionary. However, reality is such that very small amounts of the material students read in a foreign language is glossed. Advanced EFL learners usually read unedited authentic material, written for the native speaking audience, and FL teachers are not likely to prepare a glossary for each and every article they teach. In addition, if one of the aims of the EFL teacher is to prepare the student for a future reading in English after the completion of the course, the glossary idea is utopian, since the student will not find any glossed, authentic material to read in the future.
(e) Use hyper-reference text with monolingual or bilingual 'dictionaries' (following Aust, Kelley and Roby, 1993). Again, this is an efficient way of getting quick meanings, but it cannot replace conventional learning or reading of printed material. Even if, theoretically speaking, every EFL student had a computer at home [-5-] with hyper-reference texts, it is doubtful that sitting in front of the computer and reading hyper-referenced texts would be a replacement of reading printed material. Heavy computer users report tiredness after working with the computer for a few hours a day, and reading a text on the screen cannot substitute the "feeling" of flopping of paper that many people need, not to mention the ability to browse the whole text that a printed text enables, whereas a computerized text does not. There are two more solutions available nowadays which have not been described so far (though the second has already been mentioned). The first one is the "bilingualized" dictionary, a term used by Laufer and Melamed (1994) for the mono-bilingual dictionary, i.e., the English-English-Hebrew dictionary. The second is the electronic dictionary.
The "bilingualized" dictionary is a combination of the monolingual and bilingual dictionaries and has most of the advantages of both. The Hebrew version is a dictionary that gives both the translation into Hebrew of the English entries as well as the English explanations of, and examples for, the same entries. Unlike most bilingual dictionaries, this type of dictionary gives very few translations of each word, mostly one or two words per entry. On the other hand, the information it gives in English about each entry further helps the reader get the precise meaning and usage of the word once the translation has been understood. Thus deep understanding and knowledge or usage is attained through the English part, i.e., the definitions and examples, whereas a quick and general understanding is obtained through the Hebrew part.
In their study comparing the three types of printed dictionaries -- the monolingual, bilingual and "bilingualized" -- Laufer and Melamed (1994) show that the "bilingualized" dictionary is more suitable than the other two types for learners of all levels as a learning tool in comprehension of EFL texts, and for all except the lowest level in production of writing answers to questions.
The use of this dictionary seems to be a solution that compromises the two views, that of supporting the FL monolingual dictionary (i.e., the teachers' view) and that of preferring the bilingual dictionary (i.e., the students' view). However, in the last few years this preferred solution has given way to a serious competitor: the electronic dictionary, which is the second solution available nowadays for dictionary problems. The electronic dictionary, which is usually a bilingual dictionary, is now the EFL students' first choice because of its main advantage, which is speed. It has other advantages, such as a parallel and multi-path (multilingual) search, but these functions do not seem to be very important for EFL students who study reading comprehension and use the electronic dictionary mainly for finding the meanings of the English words in their native tongue. The disadvantages of this dictionary are mainly of two types. The first is that the user views only the entry and its translation (plus part of speech label), but [-6-] usually nothing else. This construction narrows learning since the only thing one can learn in such a situation is the one or two translations given for the entry. Contrary to the electronic dictionary, a printed bilingual dictionary enables the user to see a whole page with other words from the same family, plus idioms, common phrases and phrasal verbs related to the same entry. The example below will demonstrate this wealth of information.
Example of the word family of "intense", taken from The Megido Modern Dictionary, English-Hebrew (1975), edited by E. A. Levenston and R. Sivan, Tel Aviv: Megido Publishing Co., p. 579: intense, intensely, intensification, intensifier, intensify, intension, intensity, intensive, intensively, intent, intent on revenge. All of these words except for the last expression which is an example of usage, are from the same family, and all appear as entries in the Megido dictionary.
Thus a good printed bilingual dictionary lends itself to learning more words of the same family at a low "cost" of memorizing one meaning, whereas the electronic dictionary enables the learning of one word, one meaning at a time. The second disadvantage of the electronic dictionary compared with the printed bilingual dictionary is that most electronic dictionaries give the students much less information than printed dictionaries. Very few of the current electronic dictionaries give more than merely spelling, part of speech and one or two translations.
Zahner, Gupta and Olohan's (1994) criticism of the electronic dictionary is that it does not exploit fully the computer ability to process and display lexical information in a flexible way. It cannot be modified and offers only limited facilities, usually translations. On the other hand, the advantage of the electronic dictionary, according to Zahner et al is its improved search and look-up abilities.
Teachers usually prefer their students to use printed, rather than electronic dictionaries. This view is not just a preference, but also a policy in Israel, as expressed by Steiner (1994, p. 72), who is currently the chief inspector of English: "types of information such as varieties of word meanings, word families, parts of speech, tense, usage and idioms etc. are not available yet in most electronic dictionaries. All these are benefits of the print dictionaries as a learning tool".
However, the current attitude to electronic dictionaries may change with the invention of better ones that will offer the user far greater advantages than printed dictionaries. One idea for such an electronic dictionary is described by Zahner, Gupta and Olohan (1994). Comparing the mental and the computer lexicon, the authors suggest (p. 77) an electronic dictionary which will be able to provide "a much more user-friendly interface with all information [-7-] spelled out and additional help information on the meta-language provided where it is required." The user will be able to (p. 79) "browse through different functions and explore a word's relationships with other words, its occurrence in set expressions of common idioms and its place in multi- dimensional semantic networks." The authors suggest to incorporate this dictionary in CALL programmes and to enable the user to add more items at his or her own choice. Another type of dictionary which is worth mentioning is a new (Israeli) invention that was released in Eurpoe in March 1997. It is the bilingual "scanning dictionary," shaped like a pen, which, when marking a word (in the same way as a colored "marker" is used), shows its spelling and translation on a small screen. The advantage of this invention is speed -- the use is much quicker than that of the electronic dictionary since there is no need to type the word. The instrument "reads" the word by itself. Reading FL material with this type of dictionary could be highly facilitated for all levels of learners since the meaning of all the new words could be revealed within fragments of seconds. This instrument can greatly encourage learners to read more FL material. Still, the problems of this type of dictionary would be similar to those of the electronic dictionary if not more.
Another future dictionary is described by Sobkowiak (1994). It is a phonetic-access dictionary ("beyond the year 2000"). In this dictionary (Sobkowiak, p. 509), "the isolated spoken word is looked up directly in a phonetically transcribed lexicon either in the traditional hard-copy or the more flexible magnetic-media form." Again, this type of dictionary is likely to have the advantage of speech, but it depends on correct pronunciation of the entry, which is problematic for FL students.
In view of the above types of dictionaries, and relating only to those that are currently available, what should the EFL teacher do? The first piece of advice is to train the students in dictionary work and show them what each dictionary can give them, what it cannot, and what its most efficient use is.
Tickoo (1989) claims that guidance is necessary for appropriate use of monolingual dictionaries. He stresses the fact that even the creation of better dictionaries has not reduced the need for individual judgment. This means of course that a wise use of the dictionary is essential.
Walz (1990) gives several arguments showing why dictionary use should be taught. He says that first of all (1) the dictionary is the essential source of information about words; (2) it can be a tool for lifelong learning since students will add to their vocabulary throughout their entire lives. Therefore it is worth learning the skill; (3) it is not a dull, dry reference book and it can be used for more than just practicing "safe lex." Walz mentions three of the most frequently asked questions concerning dictionary [-8-]use: (1) whether to use a monolingual or bilingual dictionary; (2) when to look up a word while reading, and what is the 'best' dictionary of each type. Among other ideas for teaching dictionary use, Waltz (p. 90), says that "teachers can direct the use of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries so that students learn how to use them in a judicious manner finding correct meanings and equivalents." So far we have seen some recommendations for teaching dictionary use. How can a teacher apply them?
Soekemi (1989), in his article titled: "How to use a dictionary," makes an extensive detailed list of all the types of information available in the dictionary, such as its division into three parts (introduction, body, appendices), spelling, syllabification, parts of speech labels etc., including explanations and examples of each category. In addition, he also explains how to use a dictionary in teaching speaking, reading and writing. Bloch (1985) also describes almost everything one needs to know about the use of the (monolingual) dictionary.
Some authors focus on one property of EFL dictionaries. For example Herbst (1989) explains the grammatical information in dictionaries. The author favors Soekemi's idea because it fits in with what the author does every year with her students. The policy of this author, who is an EFL teacher of advanced students, is to show these students at the beginning of the year what they can gain or lose by using each type of dictionary. For this purpose, on a certain day in the first month of the academic year, the four types of dictionaries that students use are brought to class (the students usually bring 2 or 3 for each of the four possible categories), and with the help of the students, the chart presented below (Table 1) is made on the board by the teacher. The students find examples in their dictionaries for each type of information that appears in the chart. A key is provided below.
The names of the printed dictionaries are abbreviated in the following table: English-English: EE; English-Hebrew: EH; English- English-Hebrew: EEH (the "bilingualized" dictionary). The (+) means that the dictionary has the property, while the (-) means that it does not have it. "f" means that few dictionaries have the property.
EE EH EEH Electronic 1. MEANING a. explanation + - + - b. translation - + + + c. synonym + - + - d. antonym f - - - e. example + - + - f. picture + - - - 2. ENTRY a. spelling + + + + b. syllable division + - + - 3. GRAMMATICAL INFORMATION a. part of speech + + + + b. past, past participle + + + - c. irregular plurals + + + - d. count-noncount nouns + - + - e. transitive/ + + + - intransitive verbs 4. OTHER MEANINGS a. idioms + + + f b. phrasal verbs + + + + 5. PHONETIC INFORMATION a. pronunc. + f - - b. stress + - - - 6. ETYMOLOGY f - - -
This particular chart represents the information found in several dictionaries in a particular year. This information varies sometimes because there are variations among dictionaries belonging to the same category just as there are developments of dictionaries with time. It can be anticipated, for example, that the electronic dictionary will get more +'s in the next few years.
To demonstrate some of the points in the above comparison table, see how the word "nevertheless" appears in samples of the four types of dictionaries as presented in Table 2 below: [-10-]
When the chart is complete, the students realize that the monolingual dictionary has most of the advantages, while the electronic dictionary has the fewest. Yet because of their strong preference for translation on the one hand, and indifference to the advantages of the monolingual dictionary over the "bilingualized," namely the antonyms, pictures and phonetic information, they settle for the "bilingualized" as the best for their needs. They also become aware of the advantage of being able to easily browse and see what comes before and after the entry, and thus learn the word family with hardly any effort. The amount of the advantages of the "bilingualized" dictionary is what makes it so qualitative, compared to the electronic dictionary (the students' first preference until that lesson), which has so few advantages. This information relates to most of the present electronic dictionaries. There are new developments, however. One of them is described by Gefen (1995), in his report about the electronic Oxford Student's Dictionary (which has been recently released), that seems to be much better than other existing electronic dictionaries. [-11-]
Other issues that come up in the lesson are (1) the fact that printed dictionaries help to learn words, whereas most of the electronic dictionaries help to find words, and (2) the fact that retention of words is likely to be better with a printed dictionary. The latter idea is also mentioned by Sharpe (1995, p. 50), who claims that "One fear... expressed by teachers... is that the speed with which these [electronic dictionaries, S.K.] retrieve information (an obvious attraction to the users) may not necessarily aid the memory's retention of the information for language learning purposes". It seems to the author, based on experience, that the reason for this probably lies in the fact that while looking up a word in the printed dictionary, the reader has to think about the word for a longer time since it takes longer to find the word than when working with the electronic dictionary, but this point needs further research. In addition, the printed dictionary enables the user to see the word family, thereby exposing him or her to more varieties and uses of the same word. The very fact that the user sees this variety can contribute to his or her retention of the meaning. (3) The third issue that arises is that different types of dictionaries are useful for different purposes. The electronic dictionary is useful for exams, where speed is important (though the user risks miscomprehension due to lack of sufficient translation or explanation). Therefore, the student should rather use it with another dictionary. On the other hand, the printed dictionary is good for homework, where the aim is (hopefully) to learn, not to finish a task quickly. Another possible use of the electronic dictionary is in traveling, when it is helpful to find meanings of words quickly, or while reading stories or magazines in the FL for pleasure, not for learning. In the same way, other types of dictionaries are good for different populations. Monolingual dictionaries are useful for people who major in the FL or for translators; bilingual dictionaries (the use of their both sections) are good for those who want to use the language actively but for some reason are reluctant to use monolingual dictionaries, and electroni plus monolingual or bilingualized dictionaries are a good combination for everybody.
The students find this lesson to be very important for them. Afterwards, they never argue about the necessity to bring a monolingual or "bilingualized" dictionary to class. They have the option to bring any dictionary they want (which is the answer to their question number 2, namely, "Can I use the electronic dictionary?"), but they know they should rather use the monolingual or "bilingualized" dictionary if they want to get the maximal benefit from a dictionary (which is the answer to their question number 1, namely, "What dictionary should I use?"). Experience with FL texts shows them time and again that the current electronic dictionary is insufficient. Eventually they end up using two types of dictionaries for texts and questions and especially for the final [-12-] exam: the electronic plus the "bilingualized" or monolingual dictionary. Their teacher is pleased....
The electronic dictionary requires different skills or habits than those required by the printed dictionary. These skills resemble "computer skills," which usually do not take long to master. Among them are, for example, the habit of seeing information pop up after clicking some buttons without really having to search, contrary to the "dictionary skill," which demands lots of skimming and scanning as well as reading, especially in the monolingual and "bilingualized" dictionaries.
One last word of warning about the electronic dictionary: the "dictionary skill" can also help when using encyclopedias, telephone books, specific dictionaries for special uses or terminology, and various kinds of guides. If electronic dictionaries widely replace printed dictionaries and cause teachers to neglect practicing those basic skills such as the alphabetical search, the students will have great difficulties in using all of these guides and books when they need them later in life (unless those are also replaced by machine-readable resources). Still, being aware of technological development, especially as far as computers are concerned, the author believes that together with an expanding use of the electronic dictionary, electronic dictionary makers will probably improve their dictionaries until they are capable of supplying very similar information to the monolingual or bilingual dictionaries. Moreover, in view of Zahner, Gupta and Olohan's suggestion for an improved electronic dictionary, it makes sense to assume that electronic dictionaries will some day be even better than printed dictionaries.
To sum up, we cannot and should not fight against technological progress, because it is a lost battle. In a world where convenience, more than quality, is the name of the game, as can be seen in every aspect of our lives, such as industrially processed food, fast food restaurants, microwaves, communication, Internet and fax machines, it does seem likely that printed dictionaries will be obsolete once their electronic counterparts do their jobs more efficiently. As Sharpe (1995, p. 49) puts it, "the advantage of the electronic dictionary and the familiarity of today's young people with electronic devices will eventually relegate the printed notion of 'dictionary' to a secondary sense." What responsible teachers should do meanwhile is point out the advantages and disadvantages of this technological product compared with other, more traditional tools, and let the adult student reach the conclusion that both should probably be used in tandem, in spite of his or her original tendencies or biases. [-13-]
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