Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries

There comes a time in every EAP course, usually at the beginning, when you have to have THE TALK with your students–that awkward moment when you address the elephant in the room.

“That crap dictionary/translator you rely heavily upon is making you sound dumb.”

While a crappy bilingual dictionary or online translator can be sufficient for some beginning students, those who have reached intermediate level, and especially those heading into EAP, may be hindered by simplistic or inaccurate dictionaries.

And while dictionary skills are on the curriculum for some EAP courses, they sometimes still focus on paper dictionaries and/or don’t talk about dictionary choice and the limitations of a lot of the translation websites and apps many of our students end up using out of convenience. Many of our students don’t realize that the translator they use like a dictionary is probably machine-driven. For their routine lookups of words they’d be better off with dictionaries compiled by humans.

Below is a handout I prepared for my colleagues with some of my faves. Share yours with me in the comments (especially apps for iOS).

 


TEACHERS FRIENDS DON’T LET STUDENTS FRIENDS USE BAD DICTIONARIES

Encourage students to not just use Google or whatever random dictionary website/app they come across, but to choose a quality dictionary site or app that is associated with a published dictionary brand. This means it should be compiled by lexicographers (and not via an algorithm/crowd-sourcing).

Some recommendations:

English-English Dictionaries Online (Web-based)

Personal Fave: Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary

  • Learner-appropriate level, with simple definitions
  • Usage notes, collocations, etc.
  • Tabs on top of homepage have wordlists, and words groups by topic
  • Free online via web; paid app (see below)

Also:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Collins: English Dictionary, Thesaurus

 

Bilingual dictionaries Online (Free, web-based)

Many students use Google translate to translate single words. That tool is a powerful one, but I don’t find it very accurate for  single words. It mainly works based on algorithms and crowd-sourcing, and depends heavily on context, so it’s not as accurate as a “real” dictionary, especially for single words.

Collins Chinese , French, German, Italian, Spanish, , Hindi

Capture
On collinsdictionary.com you can select the language pairing you want to the left of the search bar. 

Oxford Dictionaries Arabic (other languages are available, but by subscription only)

Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Indonesian, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Catalan, Japanese, Malaysian, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese

Capture
Click on the box near the search button on dictionary.cambridge.com to access all the bilingual and semi-bilingual dictionaries.

 

Apps

A lot of the good dictionaries and learner’s dictionaries are only available as paid apps. Despite pointing out to your students that $30 for an app they may use every day of their academic career is a good investment, they may balk at paying for one.

Search for the following in the iTunes/Android app stores:

Paid English-English Dictionary Apps:

Both platforms (iOS and Android):

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

 

Free English-English Dictionary apps

Android:

  • Oxford Dictionary of English: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular Oxford Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular M-W dictionary
  • Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus

Apple iOS:

Bilingual Dictionary Apps: Paid/Free/Free trial

Android:

  • Oxford dictionaries: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian Greek, Thai, (all free)
  • Collins dictionaries: Korean (free trial, ~$10), Arabic (free trial, ~$10), Japanese, German, Norwegian

Apple iOS:

  • Oxford Dictionaries: French, Spanish, German, Italian Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek
  • Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese (paid)

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries

  1. Exactly what my CELTA trainees currently need 🙂
    I tend to recommend OALD, but Macmillan Dictionaries is also really good. Both have frequency information, and OALD shows you what’s on the academic word list too.

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for this post! It’s an issue that frustrates me every semester anew!

    Last term, I even made the (joke) rule that if someone uses dict.cc or leo.org (translating tool thingies for German – English) on their phone or tablet in class, I get to conviscate that device for the rest of term! Lucky for them I don’t need that many mobiles and tablets! 😀

    What I have found somewhat more helpful, though, is not just recommending which (“proper”) dictionaries to use, but actually getting students to do tasks using good dictionaries and rubbish online thingies to actually compare them. Then we discuss what is so bad / unhelpful about some of the free online translating tools and when/how using them might be appropriate, if ever.

    Actually, your post has inspired me to post some of my tasks on my blog… watch this space 🙂

    Clare

    • What we’ve been doing with our current CELTA upper intermediate students seems to be working: on one the first day I spent ten minutes showing them around the OALD and told them how it would help them. Since then, every time there have been new words trainees think they might want to look up, they reminded them of the dictionary link and that they should either ask a classmate or look there, rather than using a translator to get the answers. Trainees praise students whenever they use the dictionary, and three weeks on, they seem to be pretty consistent when reminded. However, if a trainee forgets to give them the link, they almost always go back to the translators!

    • That’s a great idea to do some compare and contrast between different dictionaries. I think they it would be easiest in a class where all students share the same L1, but i think it could be done in a class of mixed L1s as well…

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