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 Certainly the idea of paying for a dictionary is something that is rapidly looking outdated, as there is a wide range of free dictionaries available on the Internet, some specialising in specific fields, others aimed at different types of learner.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 specific 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.