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Amazing Online Dictionaries: ALC FTW!

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I’m back from my “vacation”–I think I need another one to recover from it. Oh well, on to the topic at hand!

Most EFL and ESL teachers have a few students who rely too heavily on their electronic dictionaries. These dictionaries are limited, and don’t include critical information such as the tone of a word (complimentary? sarcastic? insulting?), formality, etc. Example sentences are usually taken from standard college-level dictionaries, and are context-free, artificial, outdated, and/or too difficult to understand. Slang words, internet jargon, etc., may not be included at all. As a result of these shortcomings, students often do themselves more harm than good when using these dictionaries (much as I used to somehow always pick the most archaic, no-longer-used character out of my dictionary when I was doing my Chinese homework).

Sometimes a dictionary is really necessary, though, because some words are extremely difficult to explain. A client of mine from Japan and an American translator friend alerted me to an amazing online Japanese/English dictionary at ALC. The ALC website offers lots of other things, including Japanese-learning tools, but the dictionary is its “killer app.” Type a word or phrase in the search box toward the top, and click the button just to the right of it.  If you get your query with a red line of text, ALC doesn’t have it, but otherwise, you should get a list of results. If you see a yellow arrow in a blue sphere, that means you can read that example in a longer context such as a short article or dialogue. This is much more useful than the contextless sentences we usually find in learner dictionaries.

The functions and aspects of ALC I use the most are

  • Multiple examples for difficult-to-grasp slang and casual language such as “Guess what?
  • Extended dialogues using the target word, which can be useful for teaching interaction patterns (see this pharmacy dialogue) and simply for context
  • Translations for net slang and other items that don’t occur in standard dictionaries, such as FTW. The entry even notes that it’s often used ironically!

Why is it so good? Well, the source dictionary for ALC is Eijiro, a translator’s dictionary project. Other translators were able to add to and refine its contents in a wiki-like fashion. You can read about it at’s “The Story Behind Eijiro”. Popular though Eijiro may be with professional J<->E translators, the majority of my clients and Japanese friends didn’t know it existed.

I’m not fluent in Japanese yet, so to make sure that the definition I’m pointing at is the correct one, I use the Rikaichan add-on for Firefox to confirm the approximate definition. (Later, I’ll write a post about why I think TESOL professionals should use Firefox. I wrote one around a year ago on “Five Reasons for English Learners to Use Firefox,” but I need to update it for educators and for Firefox 3.)

The biggest drawback of ALC’s dictionary for me is that it’s aimed at Japanese speakers, and it may be hard to use for anyone who’s not fluent in Japanese. Another drawback is that a very small number of the examples contain slight grammatical errors; however, the vast majority of the examples are both accurate and authentic. Most of the errors I’ve seen strike me as the kind that are often written by highly fluent Japanese writers of English, so they’re not critical.

Even if you aren’t able to use ALC yourself, though, I recommend passing it along to your Japanese students, along with a demonstration of why it’s useful.

My question for you is this: Do you know any similarly wonderful online dictionaries for other languages? If so, please leave your recommendation and I’ll compile them into a future post (with credit and a link to your website or blog, naturally!). Much appreciated!

“Tadoku” Means Extensive Reading

TESOL professionals with training in communicative language teaching methods often complain about the state of foreign language teaching in Japan, where grammar-translation, usually called 訳読/yakudoku is still the dominant method. Yakudoku, though, is not the whole picture, even if it sometimes seems that way. In fact, various Japanese groups are working to supplement or replace this outdated way of teaching with more modern teaching approaches.

One technique that has active, passionate supporters in Japan is 多読/tadoku: extensive reading. Extensive reading is something I’ve been very interested in ever since I read Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading (2nd ed.). The research on extensive reading matches my experiences: reading a lot for fun increases your vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing skills in your first and subsequent languages. The key for second language learners is that they should read books that are easy to understand, so they can enjoy the story while painlessly acquiring language patterns.

This approach has caught on with many educators around the world. I was really pleased to discover that the Extensive Reading mailing list has several active members who are working in Japan, including both Japanese and non-Japanese educators. There are several good websites in English and in Japanese about ER in Japan, including this overview of ER in Japan by Furukawa Akio.

It was through one of the ER ML members that I found out about 英語多読完全ブックガイド [改訂第2版]/Eigo Tadoku Kanzen Bukkugaido Kaiteigai 2/Complete English Extensive Reading Book Guide. This book has about 12,000 book titles in it, organized in several different ways including level and genre. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m totally appalled that there is no equivalent resource published in English. I’m still learning Japanese, so I can’t take full advantage of this book. However, book titles are given in English, and the reading levels are listed numerically, so the most essential information is understandable. All you need to do is look up the level of a few books with which you’re familiar, check the ra and then you have a baseline for how their system works.

The books selected include Oxford graded readers, children’s classics (from Dahl to Rowling), nonfiction, and some adult fiction. There’s quite a variety represented in the 12,000 titles! Some even have short excerpts exactly as printed in their books, which is a great way to get a feel for a book. Don’t you wish we could get something like this in English? (Publishing companies, are you listening? A translation of this book or a whole new book along similar lines is something that countless English teachers would love to get their hands on!)

I do recommend this book, but with the obvious caveats. I had to buy this book through mail order from the Kinokuniya in San Jose, and it was only cheap by comparison to textbook prices. If you want to get a little more information about the book, let me know in a comment and I’ll try to scan a couple of pages to give you a better idea of what it’s like. I’m currently out of town, so it’ll be a while before I can do that.

(Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes in the Japanese in this post. More later about how I’m trying to practice what I preach when it comes to my own learning of Japanese!)

TESOL-related news

Where do you get your TESOL-related news? An easy way to keep up with big and small stories is to check’s Headline News Ticker for Teachers. This “news ticker” collects links to all kinds of English-language online news articles and blog posts. Although they generally link only to English articles, the coverage is truly international. In fact, if you’re an ESL teacher working in an English-dominant country, TESALL is a good way to get the big picture about the English-teaching and English-learning situations in other parts of the world. I think it’s important for us to be connected to the larger English education world, since it can help us understand our students and better understand our colleagues. (Okay, some of the stories are funny, too, or just downright strange.)

You can subscribe via RSS or check the website, and catch up on everything from crime to language policy. Note that the articles linked are from a variety of sources, so you may need to look for other sources to verify a particular news item. Ads are also mixed in. But where else can you get headlines about the Portland celebration of the birthday of the first foreigner to teach English in Japan, the move to teach English to first graders in Bahrain, and teaching English and Taekwondo together–all on one page?