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The big deal about dictionaries

Dictionaries are an often undervalued resource that can be used to promote independent English language learning, help users avoid errors, expand their vocabulary and improve their language skills.

education Updated: Dec 19, 2013 16:07 IST
Alison Waters
Dictionaries

Macmillan-Dictionary-leaves-print-for-online-only-venture

Dictionaries are an often undervalued resource that can be used to promote independent English language learning, help users avoid errors, expand their vocabulary and improve their language skills.

Some dictionaries are special because they are aimed specifically at speakers of other languages who are learning English as a second language. They, therefore, have many features that offer extra help with the language, which English dictionaries written for native speakers of English don’t have.

These features include showing how the word is pronounced, and in the print dictionaries this is done using the International Phonetic Alphabet. On the digital versions of the dictionaries such as CD-ROMs, mobile phone apps and websites there are also sound recordings of the words and phrases in British and American English for the user to listen to and practise.

Such dictionaries also give many examples of use, so the user can see the word in context and these sample sentences also highlight common collocations (words that go with the headword) and grammar patterns, such as whether the word is followed by a gerund or an infinitive so that you learn how a word ‘behaves’ and the company it keeps. Features such as these can be exploited by teachers as the basis for vocabulary or grammar lessons, or they can be browsed by motivated students at home for self-study as they contain a wealth of material which enhances and enriches the language learning experience. Dictionaries are not just for checking spellings but a rich resource that can help users to improve in all areas of the language, from vocabulary building, to writing essays, letters of job applications and CVs, and getting to grips with English grammar.

As the lexicographers who compile and edit these learners’ dictionaries are, like me, all ex-teachers of English to people whose first language is not English, we are only too aware of the problems that a learner of English might have at all levels of proficiency. For this reason, the dictionary entries are full of helpful notes warning readers of common errors such as ‘Can you explain me the situation?’ instead of ‘Can you explain the situation to me?’, words that are often confused like ‘bring’ and ‘take’ and the subtle differences in meaning between groups of synonyms, such as ‘cheap’, ‘affordable’, ‘competitive’, ‘budget’, ‘reasonable’ and ‘inexpensive’.

The author is publisher elt dictionaries and reference grammar, oup uk