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).

Google Fight

A couple of days ago I came across a post by Svetlana Kandybovich, in which she shares some great ideas for using Google in an L2 classroom. One of the tips I particularly liked was Googlefighta website that allows users to compare the number of search results returned by Google for two given queries. 

This tool is generally used for entertainment; you type two keywords and click on the ‘Fight’ button. The winner is the one which gets the biggest number of results on Google. So, I originally planned to use the tool in class for fun too, as a warm-up after Easter holidays, but at the same time, I secretly hoped for a sudden influx of sophisticated ideas related to language learning.

What obviously first came to mind was the concept of word frequency. It occurred to me that my students would find it interesting to see the differences in frequency counts of two words belonging to the same category/lexical set. To spice the activity up, we played a bidding game – each student made a bid on one of the words before I displayed  the actual results on the screen. So, for example, we found out that cat got more hits than dog. Those who had voted for cat won a point. But you can go further with this; you can develop this somewhat meaningless game into a useful linguistic exercise. If you check Longman Communication 3000, you’ll see that both cat (as a noun) and dog (as a noun) are in the list of the 3000 most frequent words in both spoken and written English, but dog is a bit more frequent in written English than cat. If you’re brave enough to play with corpora a bit, you can go to COCA, where the word cat gets 17, 284 hits, while the word dog gets 40, 020 hits. Now, you can ask your students why they think it is so. Why the different results? Is it because there are more cats than dogs or vice versa? Does the word dog have only one meaning? Is it always a noun? What about cat? Does the fact that Google doesn’t sort out words according to parts of speech influence the frequency counts? Are the words displayed plural, singular or both? What about various abbreviations and acronyms?

The exact numbers are not terribly important, but through these activities, you can develop in your students the ability to notice some very important aspects of lexis. This can be a nice lead-in to some dictionary work. I personally like working with a paper edition of Dictionary of Contemporary English because the meanings of words are listed in order of frequency, i. e. the most common meaning is shown first. The 3000 most common words in English are printed in red letters, which shows which are the most important words to learn/know. This is a very important piece of information some dictionaries neglect, and as a result, students can’t work with it.

I was very pleased with my students because they asked me some interesting questions during today’s lesson; for example, they asked me to type in pairs such as colour/color, favourite/favorite because they wanted to see which spelling was more frequent. Once again, it was interesting to think about the why. This pushed the discussion into a different dimension. Ironically, here in the Czech Republic we like to say and believe that we teach British English, using coursebooks published in the UK, yet from the global perspective, the American way of spelling of certain words seems to be more common. This finding may subsequently lead to an interesting debate about the role of English in today’s changing world. Some other words my students were interested in were: football/soccer, black/white, film/movie, cinema/theatre, etc.