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Learners’ Dictionaries

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I recommend a good learner’s dictionary (or two), not just for your students but also for you, the instructor. Naturally, you already know the meanings of almost all words that students are likely to ask you about, but the problem is that on-the-spot definitions (and even written ones) sometimes come out in the vein of “Well, it’s a sensation that…uh, a feeling that you get–well, most people get they’re frightened –oh, do you know frightened? I mean scared…and…”


There’s a reason for the profession of lexicography and the existence of special dictionaries! When I use the definitions in learners’ dictionaries to define words that are a little hard to explain, I find that students often understand the words much faster–I neither spend a lot of time confusing them nor do they have to resort to their L1 dictionaries (and they don’t get confused by the circular explanations, academic vocabulary, and obsolete historical definitions in regular English dictionaries).

I make a point of introducing learners’ dictionaries to my students and owning multiple levels of them. I tell my students that sometimes I use them myself to give definitions, because the dictionaries’ explanations are shorter, simpler, and focus on the useful/common meanings of a word. (I also spend time demonstrating how a good learner’s dictionary can save students from other dictionaries’ pitfalls, as the entries should include connotations like “disapproving”, and other features like collocations.) Anyway, I think they understand why I sometimes use these definitions with them. It would certainly be less than ideal if they thought I had to look up English words in the dictionary, but I don’t think any of them have wound up with that impression.

I think it’s useful to look at the different varieties out there to see which ones you prefer. They all have different features and different styles of defining words. Cobuild started out strong (as it was corpus-based) but has fallen behind the others in features and usability; I prefer Longman and Oxford. There’s also a recent Merriam-Webster dictionary, in “essential” and advanced, which I haven’t looked at. They produced the excellent guide to English usage that was recommended by Language Log, though, so it might be excellent. There’s a Cambridge set, as well.

Anyway, you can make use of these definitions online, too, if you’re chatting with students, blogging, or just testing out the dictionaries.

One word I had to define recently was “trawl” (the verb), because I linked some learners to “Japanese Power Blogger Trawls Seoul for Hidden Gems”. Interestingly, at least one of the dictionaries’ definitions precluded the usage in that headline–so it’s good to try several tricky or multifaceted words to find a dictionary that makes sense to you.

(P. S. I think there are some other learners’ dictionaries that I’m not familiar with. If you know of any that you particularly like, please recommend them in the comments!)

Getting on the Same Page: Book Gifts for Friends and Family

Is it just me, or do friends, family members, and random strangers sometimes make strange assumptions about us once we become English teachers? They may think we support English-only policies, are ashamed of our first languages if we are multilingual, are constantly judging them on their use of English, etc. They may resent us for the positions they assume we take, or they may take those positions ourselves and expect us to join them. This can get pretty awkward at the dinner table. Even if it doesn’t get that far, people often have really strange ideas about English and English teaching (I know I had a few myself before actually starting to study for my certification and MA).

Here are a few last-minute holiday gift suggestions that can introduce the way linguists and language pedagogy specialists think about language to non-specialists in a readable–maybe even enjoyable–way.

Language Myths is a bit of a Linguistics FAQ or “Mythbusters: Linguistics Edition!” in book form, with articles on different topics by different linguists. This is really great for addressing those long-held, “commonsense” beliefs that most people have about language, and can really clear the way for meaningful conversations with your friends and family. Essays in it include “Double Negatives Are Illogical,” “TV Makes People Sound the Same,” “Black Children are Verbally Deprived,” “America is Ruining the English Language,” “Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly Than Others,” and lots more. It’s meant for intelligent laypeople. Most of the topics will be familiar to you; my TESOL coursework covered most of the topics (but not every point). I don’t totally agree with everything that every author writes, and the readability/interestingness varies, but that’s the nature of an anthology like this. I wish they’d publish a sequel, but at any rate, highly recommended.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left, by the outstanding linguist David Crystal. This book uses both history and analysis to show why people who are truly educated about linguistics are rarely the same people frothing in the opinion pages about the decline of English. He has a distinctly British viewpoint (Strunk and White barely make an appearance) and makes a couple of errors regarding American usage, but nearly all of his points apply to American English-language punditry as well as British. Without resorting to Language Log (which I love, but is a little too in-depth for casual readers), this book can explain to your friends and family why you may not be a fan of the English “experts,” like the late William Safire, whose cranky and usually wrong-headed pronouncements they probably expect you to endorse. If you read it, you’ll probably learn a lot too–I didn’t realize how many centuries these specific patterns of nitpicking and name-calling had been going on, or how broadminded Shakespeare was about regional dialects of English compared to other writers!

For people with more specific interests:

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English is an extremely interesting history of how English wound up in its rather odd condition. It’s sometimes a bit rambling and repetitive (it seems to be based on lectures), but still fascinating. Of course, speculation about the origins of English are open for debate, but McWhorter’s theories make a lot of sense. He has an interesting perspective because of his academic background, specializing in the study of creole formation, which I think may help him approach the apparent conflicts and paradoxes in the early history of English in a more fruitful way. And, of course, he has the necessary academic/linguistic chops that popular writers like Bill Bryson are lacking, so he doesn’t repeat unfounded nonsense about other languages in order to prove English’s uniqueness. (I don’t recommend giving anyone The Mother Tongue, because it’s full of things that are not just academic speculation, but outright falsehoods and inaccuracies.) Highly recommended, but not for readers without an interest in the history of English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is one of the only usage guides recommended by the folks over at Language Log. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive; it tells you what the rule is and what people actually usually do and why. It has plenty of real examples, not made-up sentences, and discusses controversial usages and discrepancies between US and British tendencies. (Note the 5-star review by Geoff Pullum if you click through to the Amazon page–that’s the linguist Geoff Pullum.) Handy for teachers and non-teachers alike. Note: this is mostly for looking up words that tend to cause grammar, spelling, or other usage problems; it’s not a general grammar or writing guide.

All of the above good books for ESL and EFL teachers too, of course–you’ll just be more familiar with the background info, and maybe a little impatient when some of the authors use simplified vocabulary to avoid using technical jargon.

I’ll add all of these to the Bookstore link on the right so that you can find them later.

(Sorry for the lateness of this post–I had my own holiday gift-giving time crunch!)

“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!)