3 types of dictionaries for teaching English

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Using dictionaries in the English learning process is inevitable; Some favour monolingual dictionaries over bilingual ones and some believe that consulting dictionaries distract students’ attention and negatively affect the reading process. They believe that using dictionaries may hinder students’ attempt to guess the meaning of the words or bilingual dictionaries will cause students to spend a lot of time on translation. Anyhow, we should bear in mind dictionaries are designed to be used as references not teaching aids; but if they’re used properly they can be a great help to teaching and learning vocabulary. Teachers should be able to guide students to use dictionaries selectively: they should know that there’s no need to use dictionaries for every unknown word; As it’s rarely possible to guess the meaning of all unknown words, a dictionary will be needed. So the first step for any English teacher is to know the different types of dictionaries and also their advantages and disadvantages.

Different types of dictionaries for English learners

There are many types of dictionaries based on the number of words, the nature of information(synonyms, antonyms, etymology), users( pupils, students, teachers, scientists, etc.), mode of presentation (printed or digital), and purposes. But the main distinction which matters most is the distinction between bilingual, monolingual, and bilingualized dictionaries.

The bilingual dictionaries are traditional reference works for learners whereas monolingual learners’ dictionaries are relatively new developments. Bilingualized (semi-bilingual or hybrid) dictionaries are more recent types of dictionaries, which have both the information of a monolingual dictionary and the translation equivalence of the headword.
Researchers recommend bilingual dictionaries for beginners and intermediate-level learners, and monolingual dictionaries for advanced ones. Nation (2001) suggests that monolingual dictionaries are for readers that have at least 2,000 words of vocabulary to understand definitions.

1- Bilingual dictionaries, the traditional choices

Bilingual dictionaries provide the translation mappings of each word in two languages. 

While monolingual dictionaries are written without any first language in mind, bilingual dictionaries cover all culture-specific vocabulary of the native language of learners. 

According to Manning (1990), the bilingual dictionary is the translator’s basic tool, and it is the bridge that makes interlingual transfer possible. But some others believe that it seems to be a shortcut to save time.

Disadvantages of bilingual dictionaries 

Bilingual dictionaries are believed to be a major hindering factor in the vocabulary learning process, but recently there has been a great amount of research in favour of bilingual dictionaries. We devoted a whole post to 6 false beliefs about using bilingual dictionaries, so in this post, we will focus mainly on some real disadvantages (not the false ones).  In a nutshell, bilingual dictionaries can be really useful tools in vocabulary learning despite some drawbacks:

Inadequate semantic, syntactic, and morphological information

Bilingual dictionaries only supply the translation equivalence of words with little information about word associations (synonyms, antonyms, or hypernyms), word formation, or syntactic behaviour of words. The possible reason behind this shortcoming is a commercial one; Bilingual dictionaries are only useful to speakers of a small number of languages while monolingual English dictionaries are the most popular and potentially marketable dictionaries in all countries. The cost of developing monolingual dictionaries which are spread over a larger number of units is the reason why they can offer more lexical information than bilingual dictionaries (Source)

Limited information about the connotations of words

Collocations are words that are typically used in tandem with one another: for example, two words “ ask” and “question” are used together and students usually use their mother tongue syntactic knowledge, especially with collocations; bilingual dictionaries offer very limited information about the collocation of different words.

Ignoring the users’ limited knowledge of word-formation

Some bilingual dictionaries are written without considering the users’ limited knowledge of word-formation. When users look for different derivations of a base word (e.g. help, helpful, helping,..), they may find only the base word (e.g. help)  with different suffixes following the definition (e.g. -ful, -ing,..)

Inconsistency of listing idioms in bilingual dictionaries

Not all bilingual dictionaries list idioms consistently in the same location. For example in determining an idiom’s meaning like “ cold feet”, a dictionary may list it either under “cold” or “feet”.

Inconveniences of pocket  bilingual dictionaries

In smaller dictionaries,  fewer entries are supplied to the user, producing a one-to-one word association between the words of two languages. So, the users do not discover the various uses of words in certain contexts.

The difficulty of processing the information of larger bilingual dictionaries

In larger dictionaries, there’re many word options for dictionary users so there’s no one-to-one word association that causes word-class and selectional errors. (source)

2 – Monolingual dictionaries, a blessing or a curse?

Monolingual dictionaries provide different meanings of words which are known as definitions. There are two kinds of English monolingual dictionaries;

Researchers recommend bilingual dictionaries for beginners and intermediate-level learners, and monolingual dictionaries for advanced ones. Nation (2001) suggests that monolingual dictionaries are for readers that have at least 2,000 words of vocabulary to understand definitions.

The drawbacks of definitions in monolingual dictionaries

Complexity of definitions

Learners may find the monolingual definitions too complex to understand because most dictionaries use a limited and restricted vocabulary (defining vocabulary) for definitions.

The problem of circularity of definitions

 To understand the definition of a word, you should understand the words in the definition that all have a certain definition for themselves; This process may never end and we are forever trapped in circular definitions.

Decontextuality of definitions

Dictionaries only present decontextualized information of a word; To know a word is to encounter it in context, its connotation (other words around it), its associations, register, and its grammatical behaviour.

Conventionality of definitions

The conventional format of definitions even in the most user-friendly dictionaries proved to have no “pedagogical use” for young learners and exposure to definitions will have no benefit cause it’s different from natural English and it’s just a special register used only in definitions

For example, of or relating to is a phrase that is a specific register typical of dictionaries and not used in everyday language

Information load of definitions

Information load of definitions leads to superficial understanding and rapid forgetting of the words.

Advantages of definitions in monolingual dictionaries 

  1. For understanding definitions, users have to immerse in the English language
  1. Definitions that include a lot of English words may promote the passive vocabulary of the users. 
  1. Many high-frequency function words which are inaccessible in bilingual dictionaries can be naturally learned by reading monolingual dictionary definitions
  1. The example sentences exemplify typical usage and also clarify the meanings. 
  1. They give the user the feeling of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and confidence for solving their language problems

3 – Semi-bilingual dictionaries (hybrid or bilingualized )

The most recent dictionaries are bilingualized ones; these types of dictionaries seem to have the most advantages and the fewest disadvantages amongst all other types of dictionaries; but based on East (2008), “  they are not widely available nor widely used”

Advantages of bilingualized dictionaries

locating the unknown target language words

One of the most important disadvantages of monolingual dictionaries is the impossibility of finding words that they do not know in the target language; In this case, bilingualized dictionaries are great choices: learners can simply look up the word in the native language and find its target language counterpart.

Effectiveness of bilingualized dictionaries in writing

Because of the additional information for each word (both translation mapping and definition), learners can benefit from them in their writing activities. East(2008) considers these dictionaries  ‘the way to go’ in the future”

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