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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!)

Redefining the Dictionary (Again)

by holder at morguefile

Dictionary upgrade?

I really want Wordnik, a new web-based “dictionary,” to work. Although I love an old-fashioned, unabridged, doorstop of a dictionary, traditional dictionaries are not that great for my students. Their examples are archaic and stilted, their definitions use words that are just as difficult as the word being looked up, they include too many almost-never-used synonyms, and they don’t include connotations. Learner’s dictionaries are better–for example, they may note that “childish” is insulting while “childlike” is neutral; they use simple definitions; they highlight most frequently used words in red or blue; they often include collocations such as which prepositions are usually used with a verb; and they use easier/shorter sentences. The definitions are more realistic, too. You’ll note that in the example below, several traditional dictionaries link the word “awesome” with the word “awful.” Really? Now, outside of the Bible or Tolkien, when was the last time you heard or wrote “awesome” and immediately thought “awful”? I wonder. I’m aware of the “awe” connection, but we just don’t use it that way on a day-to-day basis anymore. That’s why the Longman Dictionary of American English (the closest learner’s dictionary) says “very impressive, serious, or difficult” and “(spoken) extremely good.” It doesn’t mention “awful.”

Wordnik looks like it might be even better than learner’s dictionaries, someday, although possibly just for advanced learners. On the FAQ page, it says “Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context.” Ah … hmm … sound familiar, teachers? It pulls examples from novels and Twitter, definitions from several dictionaries (no learner dictionary, alas, since there aren’t any free ones online), images from Flickr (since let’s face it, that’s a much better way to define things like food items, colors, items of clothing, types of buildings, etc.), pronunciation files from American Heritage, and the thing I think is the coolest, statistics. The statistics function really fell down on the first word I put in, “awesome.” Check out the cool timeline under statistics–and notice how it says you might expect to see this word once per year. Hmmm. I don’t think that’s right!

Well, things are still under construction, so the statistics feature has the potential to be cool. When English learners are writing an e-mail or essay and are trying to pick the right new word, one thing that often trips them up is that they inadvertently pick a rare or archaic word, and it sounds out of place. (OK, I do this in Japanese and Chinese too–trying to pick the appropriate word out of an electronic dictionary, in particular, is like throwing darts at a dartboard!) Being able to look at a chart and tell that a word was often used in the 1800s but is rarely used now would be pretty nifty, I think. I hope this function gets up to speed soon.

Another nice function mentioned on the About page is collocations and associated vocabulary: “For instance, cheeseburger, milkshake, and doughnut are not synonyms, but they show up in the same kinds of sentences.” That would be really neat, but if you view the entry for “cheeseburger,” it hasn’t been implemented yet (though a LOLcat does currently appear in the Flickr entries).

Wordnik is collaborative and, since it’s brought to you by a group including Erin McKean, the speaker in the the TED talk on lexicography I linked to previously, they’re not picky about what’s considered a “real word.” If you’d like to contribute, sign up! Otherwise, keep an eye on it and we’ll see how it develops. I’m not going to link to it yet on my blog for students (ReadableBlog), but I’m hopeful–especially if someone can develop a CC-licensed learner’s dictionary. (Maybe I can get a grant…I’d actually really love to work on a project like that.)

Delightful Lexicography

I think a lot of people have already seen this video from last year, but if you haven’t, it’s well worth it! Erin McKean is a lexicographer who gives an entertaining and surprisingly funny overview of the descriptivist (as opposed to prescriptivist) approach to dictionaries and lexicography. It’s made for non-linguists, so it’s a good one to show to your non-TESOL friends and family who may be still stuck on the notion that “it’s not a word if it’s not in the dictionary.”

Amazing Online Dictionaries: ALC FTW!

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!