Are we done with paper dictionaries?

When you enter our living space on the second floor of our family house, you’ll find yourself in the kitchen. Apart from the usual electrical appliances, there are five huge dictionaries sitting on a shelf near the window. You may be wondering why I keep them on display in the kitchen. Well, it’s because that’s where my small working space is (and because they are so big that they don’t fit in any cabinet), but also because seeing them there kind of makes me feel proud. Whenever a visitor enters the kitchen, they can immediately tell that I am someone involved in the English language. And judging by the sizes and amount of the books it’s almost certain that I am an English teacher. Add to that that on top of the pile of dictionaries there is a pair of reading glasses and I am made once and for all.

Anyway, the emotion stemming from other people’s assumptions about me owning five huge paper dictionaries tells me that it feels good to be an English teacher. Some may say that the teaching profession is not prestigious enough to feel that way but I’ve never suffered from an inferiority complex. I reckon it may be because I’m an ENGLISH teacher at a SECONDARY level of education. Or maybe it’s because I respect the ELT community myself and I simply believe we are worth it. We are good folks, we English teachers are.

So, my collection of dictionaries is, to a certain extent, a reflection of what I do but most importantly, what I like doing. The trouble is that now, they are a mere decoration and to be completely honest, I can’t even remember the last time I opened any of them.

Here’s the thing … back at uni they told us that real books were always more reliable than online sources. This was also true of dictionaries. They advised us to own at least one big monolingual dictionary to be considered proper English majors. So I own five now (two of them are bilingual dictionaries). By the way, I used to have even more of them but since some of them were duplicates, I donated them at some point.

So why is it that their primary function is to collect dust? Well, the reason is obvious. While at uni they could tell us that online resources may be second-class, the truth is they these days, they are more practical, up-to-date and quicker to work with than my ‘proper’ dictionaries. Plus, I don’t think they are deficient anyway and I have proof of that. I sometimes like to conduct a little experiment: I compare a paper dictionary entry with the entry available online (oh, that’s when and only when I actually open the dictionaries, nerdy me). Take the word putz around, for example. While it takes me a few seconds to find the meaning of the verb online, it takes me considerably more time to find it in my paper dictionaries (because even though flipping through the thin pages may feel good, it *is* simply more time-consuming). And guess what … my oldest dictionary doesn’t even list the entry. And while my more recent monolingual dictionaries do contain the expression and explain it in about the same way the online dictionary does, the amount of detail provided by the paper dictionary is obviously incomparable to the amount of information available online.

For example, what my paper dictionary doesn’t tell me is the fact that since 1800, the use of the noun putz has been on the increase. While one of the more modern dictionaries does mention what putz means in vulgar slang, the other one only says it means a stupid person. So, come to think about it, if you want to have a complete understanding of a word (and be really safe), you do need several paper dictionaries. Or you can just go online and have it all.

This brings me to a more serious matter; I have clearly demonstrated that I can make do without paper dictionaries. And so can my students. But here’s the thing … during their final state exam in English here in the Czech Republic, they are only allowed to use paper dictionaries. These are bilingual and of a small size. While the stronger students do not usually need those at all (they would probably be much better off with a more advanced, monolingual version anyway), the weaker students are totally lost when using them. For example, the Czech word svést (svézt) can either be translated into English as seduce or give a lift. So, in the worst-case scenario (and this really happened), the student may produce a sentence like: I can seduce you if you want instead of I can give you a lift if you want. My point is that the exam setting doesn’t reflect the real-life situation. In other words, students rarely use paper dictionaries (and thus can’t really work with them) but are encouraged to use them during their final exam when everything is at stake.

So, as a teacher I have several options; I can teach my students how to deal with the exam situation without a dictionary or I can prepare them for the fact that they may not be able to find what they want in the dictionary available (the latter option is, in fact, the same as the former one). So, during the production stages, I urge them to circumvent any unknown language item by using synonyms or replacing the item with what they already know. This, in my view, is a far more valuable strategy under the given circumstances than looking for a translation that may finally turn out to be totally inappropriate for a particular context.

All in all, to be able to work with a dictionary effectively, some practice, as well as experience, is needed. Also, the more advanced a student is, the more they can find out and thus the more they are likely to learn. So the growth is exponential. While a beginner will probably only mess things up when working with a dictionary, a C1 learner will learn an immense amount of information by researching just one expression.

But, back to my question … are with done with paper dictionaries? Well, it depends on who is using them; they are an invaluable source of inspiration for an ELT blogger but for a regular L2 learner, they may well be a waste of money (and time).

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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

6 thoughts on “Are we done with paper dictionaries?”

  1. I think we are done with them (I know I am!) All the reputable publishers have their dictionaries available online for free! Plus you can also download their apps if you want to be on the go.

    I always check the use of a word in a sentence and this normally isn’t shown in a paper copy.

    Your post reminded me of those “electronic” dictionaries that were popular 20 years ago! I remember having one and putting random words to see their English translations 😂 (shame it only showed one word answers without the proper pronunciation. Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun with it)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree, Joanna. Apart from the fact that they look good on a shelf, paper dictionaries can’t offer anything that online ones can’t (at least in my context). I remember when I first worked with a corpus – I was amazed at what it could do. To me, online tools are simply more dynamic and although I actually prefer to read paper books, I think I’m done with paper dictionaries as a language learner and teacher for good. However, it will probably take some time before I finally get rid of them completely. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Hana, the dictionaries I regularly use are: Czech Etymology Dictionary, Czech Dict of Foreign Words, Fronek’s En-Cz dictionary and the English Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs without which I could not live. They are also in the kitchen next to my “work station” 🙂 But I do feel it’s a lost cause with my sts. Everyone uses G Translate of full sentences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kamila. I’ve just realized that I actually do work with a paper version of Slovník spisovné češtiny and Slovník cizích slov. Ironically, I don’t trust online sources when it comes to the Czech language. 🙂 As far as Google Translate is concerned, although it can be useful, I think one needs to have some knowledge and experience to be able to use it properly (which lower-level students who love it so much usually don’t). Maybe the effort we put into teaching the students how to work with paper dictionaries would be better invested in teaching them how to use online sources such as Google Translate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a good question to ponder. I’d say most definitely yes if we take the dictionary barely as a source of info. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be so categorical. The paper dictionary is a great memory tool as it employs other channels besides vision – touch, smell, etc. – plus some additional time needed to turn pages, look through the book, etc. This all helps remember words better. As an experiment, think of 3-5 hardest-to-spell words, split sts into 2 groups and ask one group to find the words online, while the other group will have to look them up in the dictionary. Then test their spelling. Any guesses as to whose spelling will be better?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting points, Svetlana. I’m not sure, though, that smelling and touching can help me with my L2 learning. After all, all the pages smell and feel the same, don’t they. 😉 Also, the fact that looking up words in a paper dictionary is more time-consuming is a drawback rather than a positive, at least to me. Regarding the experiment, I wouldn’t be too optimistic either. In order to yield some reliable results, I would have to split students into groups with identical skills/knowledge/experience. I mean, if Group A (the paper dictionary group) got better results, would it be because of the resource or due to the fact that the group simply consisted of better spellers? If you wanted to conduct the experiment with one student (to find out what works better for that particular student), you’d obviously have to give them two different (sets of) words – one for the paper dictionary and a different one for the online version of it. But, again, the better result may simply mean that one set of words was easier/more memorable. Mind you, I do get what you mean. 🙂 I’d add that paper dictionaries may be better for some students while online dictionaries may be more beneficial for others. Overall, though, paper dictionaries are a bit like dinosaurs to me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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