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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 Example sentences are usually taken from standard college-level dictionaries, and are context-free, artificial, outdated, and/or too difficult to understand.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 Stippy.com’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!

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