Death of the dictionary? 2

Three years ago, at a British Council seminar in London Michael Rundell, editor in chief at Macmillan Dictionaries, posed the question “Who needs dictionaries?” Certainly the idea of payiDictionaryng for a dictionary is something that is rapidly looking outdated, as there is a wide range of free dictionaries available on the Internet, some specialising in specific fields, others aimed at different types of learner. In addition, there are corpora and search engines, which we can train students to use in researching language, whether these are general purpose search engines (e.g. Google), tools aimed at specialists in linguistics (e.g. Sketch Engine), or tools aimed at meeting the needs of teachers and students (e.g. Flax).

My own feeling is that paper dictionaries are pretty much dead, but that there is still a lot of mileage in the e-versions of dictionaries such as the LDOCE, OALD and MED (which I refer to as e-dictionaries). I also have the impression that the big ELT dictionary publishers are desperately trying to work out an effective financial model for distributing these dictionaries. They make available on the Internet a free version that includes key features, but many of the really useful features (info on collocations, lots of example sentences) are available only in the paid-for e-version. The publishers used to sell the e-versions as CDs or DVDs, sometimes packaged together with the paper dictionary. Now they seem to be focused on selling these as subscriptions to web-based versions, a format which may be unattractive to some users. I have to say Longman, OUP and Macmillan are all poor at promoting their e-dictionaries, so it’s very difficult to get a good idea from their websites of what you are buying.  If you have the CD-ROM that often goes with the paper dictionary, it’s easy to find out for yourself.

If the free online versions of the ELT dictionaries have limited potential, what about corpora and search engines? These clearly have a use, especially for research into language use in collocationspecific genres or academic fields. However, they can be difficult for students to learn how to use and, for lower-level EAP students, understanding and interpreting the output can be problematic. In the context in which I work, where Pre-sessional students spend much of their time working on understanding and producing texts that are not necessarily in their subject area, I feel an e-dictionary is more useful. This is partly because key information (pronunciations, meanings, part of speech, frequency of use, word grammar, collocations, example sentences) is in one place. More importantly, although dictionaries these days are based on analyses of corpora, the output has been mediated by lexicographers. This means that, in general, example sentences have been chosen to help students understand the meaning of target words or phrases, and their most common uses in context. It has been argued that corpora and concordance software provide much more information, on collocations for example. That’s true, but for most students’ purposes on their EAP programme, an e-dictionary like LDOCE provides ample information on collocations. These e-dictionaries don’t cover everything and they are not infallible, so when in class, I occasionally also use Google too.

We are living in an age when we have access to huge amounts of linguistic data. There are a wide range of tools available to analyse that data, to present the results and to help us interpret the results. It has become much more difficult to understand the value of information and to monetise content, and as a result the publishers of the big ELT dictionaries seem to be in disarray. As EAP teachers, one of our roles is to help students access and process linguistic data, in a format they can cope with easily. Do they have to pay for it, either directly, by buying access themselves, or indirectly, through access we buy and cost into tuition fees? For me the answer at the moment is ’yes’, and it’s a good investment. It may be that some time soon there will be a free online resource that will replace a good e-dictionary, possibly one that teachers can customise and re-package for their students, but I don’t think we are there yet.

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About Jonathan Smith

I work in the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading. In January 2015 I moved from my previous post as Programme Director for the academic-year Pre-sessional courses to a newly-created post as Director of TEL Projects. My role is partly to manage a range of TEL projects across and within different programmes in ISLI, and partly to support and provide training for teachers in a blended/flipped/distance methodology, where relevant. I have to cover a wide range of technologies, and my interests change over time. At the moment I am particularly interested in the student experience of the use of interactive whiteboards, and in the principles behind the design of online interactive learning materials.

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2 thoughts on “Death of the dictionary?

  • Philip Kerr

    Hi Jonathan
    I’d agree with you that print dictionaries are pretty much dead, but I was interested that you focused on monolingual dictionaries. For these, there is very good stuff available online for free. But most learners prefer a good bilingual dictionary, and there are now some extremely good semi-bilingual dictionaries out there. Examples that come to mind are the Collins Cobuild Advanced dictionaries for Chinese, Japanese and Korean learners. There are quite a few others, too. Research suggests that these may be more useful to learners than the monolingual variety. But good semi-bilingual dictionaries are rarely, if ever, free … and in many language combinations, they don’t exist at all. Most learners may continue to prefer free online material of dubious quality, but more serious students (e.g. those studying EAP?) would be well advised to fork out on a decent online or print volume. If they’re lucky (e.g. German learners of English), they can get quality for free, but tough luck if your own language is Serbian, Macedonian, Czech, Slovak, etc. etc.

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    Martin Stark


    Thank you very much for raising several interesting points on the subject of dictionaries and their usefulness in the digital age.
    I was employed as an in-house lexicographer for Longman dictionaries for many years, and have subsequently worked as a freelancer on dictionaries for other publishers such as OUP and HarperCollins. On the basis of this experience, I would certainly agree with you that “the publishers of the big ELT dictionaries seem to be in disarray” as regards the monetization of lexicographic content. Sales of dictionaries have been hit by the double whammy of the recession and the increasing number of dictionaries published free online. The in-house dictionary departments of many of the relevant publishers have either been closed down or reduced to a skeleton staff. The number of dictionaries of all types being published has declined in recent years.

    As you mentioned, the free online versions of the major monolingual learners’ dictionaries lack useful key features. Not only this, but some of them are not the most up-to-date versions of the dictionaries in question. One particularly demoralizing aspect of the lack of publishing activity on the monolingual learner’s dictionary front is that innovation has almost ground to a halt. For example, in the halcyon days when the Big Four (OUP, Longman, Macmillan, and CUP) were competing with their flagship dictionaries, new editions of these works were published regularly. The fierce competition arguably encouraged the development of new features, both in the print and CD versions of the dictionaries. Occasionally, dictionaries were published that were genuinely innovatory in terms of lexicographic typology such as the Longman Collocations Dictionary and Thesaurus which combined semasiological and onomasiological approaches to language description to create a new hybrid genre. With regard to EAP, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English is a recently published exception to the rather bleak situation just described.

    Given the near-stagnation of publishing activity by the main players in the monolingual learner’s dictionary field, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future. Dictionaries take a long time to compile, especially if they are based on corpus research. Large corpora are time-consuming and hence costly to create. Sophisticated corpus tools require users to be trained in order for them to be used effectively and efficiently. All of these factors discourage publishers from producing new dictionaries. Nonetheless, it could be argued that dictionary publishers are not getting the most out of the corpora and corpus tools in their possession if they are often lying idle. One possible new revenue stream would be to offer researchers, teachers, and students access to corpora on a subscription basis. Corpus tools such as Sketch Engine are powerful but perhaps have too many unnecessary bells and whistles for most EAP students. However, simplified more user-friendly versions could perhaps be provided for that particular subset of users. One could even go a step further and provide them with the tools for creating their own e-dictionaries, perhaps combining original and imported content.

    Consequently, although the learner’s dictionary in paper format would appear to be in an inescapably moribund state, digital technology may yet be able to provide EAP learners with dynamic lexicographic works and tools that are more closely tailored to their individual needs than their static predecessors.