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).



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)


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

On 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

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



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


  • 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


  • 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)



Video: How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada

CaptureI recently came across a video by CBC News called How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada, featuring Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, that I think would be a great classroom resource for those teaching in Canada. It’s language-focused, explaining the levels of specificity of different terms related to indigenous peoples in Canada and some aspects of use. It’s also extremely clear, concise and explanatory, which ideal for those who might not have extensive background knowledge on indigenous peoples in Canada–such as newcomers to Canada or many Canadians of a white settler background whose schooling in this area may be lacking.

I’ve had several students over the years who have come to the classroom without the nuanced and complete linguistic repertoire needed to talk about complex and historically-rooted social issues such as identity, privilege, racism or colonialism. In some cases it seems apparent that they’ve only been exposed to or learned words and terms that reflect the systemic racism present in pop culture and mainstream society, but lack knowledge of the heavy social and historical baggage and power some of those words carry.

I consider it part of my duty as a language teacher to first get myself informed as to the more appropriate and socially just linguistic choices to make when talking about complex issues (and keep myself informed as society and language, evolve and change), and then to pass that knowledge on to my students.

BC TEAL is putting on a webinar entitled An Indigenous Strategy for the ESL Classroomwhich seems like it could be one example of initiatives being taken towards the reconciliation of the ESL/EAL world and the indigenous communities in Canada; a relationship which has been troubled in the past by things such as denials of racism in ELT coursebooks.

I would love it if you could share in the comments any other people, groups or institutions working on Indigenous-ELT reconciliation in Canada.

An Ode to Grammar Translation

TR11I admit it—as a language learner I really love certain aspects of the grammar-translation method. I like to learn words, phrases and structures and compare them to those in the languages I already know. Seeing where the gaps are in how the target language maps onto the others, and looking for systematicity in the way certain elements interact is the way I learn. It helps me get things into my head. I also really like studying grammar tables and rules. I’m just a really cognitive and analytical language learner.

And of course, I’m not talking wholesale and exclusive use of the grammar-translation method and nothing else. In my own language learning, I combine the grammar study with speaking practice both formal and informal, and a lot of informal listening practice.

I’m currently learning Portuguese, and for lack of any formal face-to-face course available for me to take, I have been using Duolingo for practice. It’s great for learning and reviewing a lot of vocabulary and common phrases. It’s good for the basics of grammatical structures too, but if there’s anything I want a detailed explanation for, I have to  seek it out on the web or in a traditional grammar or dictionary, as the crowd-sourced “explanations” of “rules” within Duolingo are a total shitshow (for lack of a better word). Your typical everyday person just doesn’t know enough about language to give good explanations—give me a sage on the stage, any time! (Duolingo’s estimate of fluency feature is also utterly ridiculous, and judging on the number of baffled comments on the discussions forums, I’m not the only one who thinks so.)

That’s why I find simplistic comparisons of popular language-learning programs/apps/software quite unhelpful. This one, for example, comparing Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, is  trying really hard to set up a binary along the lines of “Duolingo is good for X, while Rosetta Stone is better for Y”: Duolingo Teaches You Faster, Rosetta Stone Teaches You Deeper; Duolingo Is Best for Beginners […], Rosetta Stone Is Best for Committed Learners.  It’s just not true. Rosetta Stone’s immersion-style “we’re going to show you a whole bunch of language and you can just use inductively figure out all the basic rules and patterns” thing works for some, but it drives me CRAZY. It’s too slow. Just tell me how the basic structures work already, so I can get on with practising things! But while I enjoying translating sometimes nonsensical sentences between my target language and English, some people prefer Rosetta-style “immersion”.

As a language teacher, all this drives home the conviction that no one methodology is perfect, and there’s a place for translation-based approaches in the language classroom (though these are obviously more easily carried out in contexts where all the students share the same L1 and the teacher is also fluent in that language). It’s also a reminder to respect the variety that can exist within a group as to people’s preferences in learning styles—and maybe take it easy on the induction and discovery tasks sometimes and just present certain information and get on with it. Especially with aspects of language that are quite straightforward and rule-governed.

(Graphic is from here.)

Canadian Spelling up in Smoke?

Capture2By now, my friends and family have become used to my regular raging as we drive past The Center on Windsor Street. I have nothing against the mission of this “hub of openness fostering community and collective growth”, but regarding their name…COULDN’T THEY HAVE SPELLED IT THE CANADIAN WAY?

The other industry in Canada that seems to have a love affair with American spelling is the vaping industry. There are a lot of vape shops that have popped up in the last few years, and the majority of them seem to prefer the American spelling “vapor” over the Canadian “vapour”, at least in Nova Scotia and PEI.



(Props to the Vapour Spot and the Vapour Trail for providing us a place to preserve our national linguistic identity while stocking up on e-cig juice!)

I don’t think there’s a secret American-led conspiracy to get rid of Canadian spelling conventions, nor do I blame “kids these days” or the “horrible ‘grammar’ teaching they receive in schools”. I tend to agree with Shuttleworth (2012), that computer language settings  play a very influential role in people’s, especially students’, exposure to and familiarity with spelling conventions. The default language on many Canadians’ computers is American English, and unless they have an interest in language or Canadian English, many never change these settings. So when Microsoft Word underlines colour (or vapour!) with those dreaded red dots, you’re probably just going to change it to color ( or vapor!) and move on.

But I do think there is a cumulative effect, and for many who don’t take a particular interest in the continuing use of Canadian spelling, the more you get used to seeing a word spelled a certain way, the weirder it is to see it spelled differently. Will the Vapour Trail eventually change their name?

Also, the fact that an update to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary is years overdue does not help.

(I suppose I should also stop assuming that before making a big decision such as choosing your company’s name, or having a large expensive sign printed, business owners stop and think and perhaps get someone to proofread things. Though of course, some companies do misspell their name on purpose. )


Glass Houses and Stones

captureI’m a total CBC fangirl, but nonetheless, on a regular basis you can find me raging out at my radio,  verbalizing my disagreement with some host or guest, much to the entertainment/chagrin of my partner. Saturday’s episode of Day Six was one such occasion. Host Brent Bambury interviewed Ross and Kathy Petras on their new book You’re Saying it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse.

Ugh. I had a couple of issues with this piece. (I haven’t read the book! I’m only reacting to the interview.)

I am not a huge fan of prescriptivism, language pedantry and masquerading style preferences as rules of right vs. wrong. (I’ve written about them before; in other places they’ve written about it much more extensively than I have.) I generally don’t get on a high horse about language use. But when you write a book on pronunciation called You’re Saying it Wrong, well, all bets are off. You’ve opened yourself up for some language snarking.

The verb is “pronounce” and the noun is “pronunciation”. Both Brent Bambury and Ross Petras used the non-words “pronounciation” and “mispronounciaion” on several occasion during the interview.

I know  “pronounciation” is far from uncommon; I’ve heard it quite a bit, from speakers of a variety of backgrounds (proficient/less proficient in English, highly educated/ lower education, English teacher/non-teacher). I’ve actually had someone on Twitter argue that it was becoming acceptable use. I, however, don’t think it’s quite at that point yet.  I maintain that this word was being pronounced incorrectly on a show about correct pronunciation and is therefore extremely ironic. (It’s also an awesome example of Muphry’s Law!)

I find these types of books and the interviews about them quite frustrating. It’s an example of the way of thinking that promotes the idea that language is the domain of all; if you can speak it, then you’re an expert in it, and we have to listen to your opinions on it. t’s mentioned in the interview that the authors aren’t linguists (as if you couldn’t tell!).

So what happens is that they talk about a bunch of random examples of things that peeve them, and talk about them as if they’re these special, mysterious things that are totally weird and inexplicable, as opposed to presenting them as the known linguistic phenomena they are.

They bring up the example of “spitting images” vs. “spit and images”, for example. This isn’t some random bizarre thing; this evolution of the words of an idiomatic phrase into something that sounds very similar is known as an eggcorn. There are tons of them, and they’re really interesting (and often entertaining) to examine. Like, guys, it’s a thing already.  You guys just don’t really know much about language, so you don’t know that (or at the very least don’t mention it in the interview).

In an (interview on a) book on pronunciation of words, you could get into so much interesting content. They do mention metathesis, which is great, but there’s so much more.  I’m by no means any type of expert in this area of linguistics but I find the the different classifications of loanwords and their nativization, calquing, phono-semantic matching, eggcorns, and a lot of the other phenomena that influence our pronunciation of words to be completely fascinating. Even just the issue of prescription vs. use is very interesting. But in the interview when this issue comes up–with the word “gif”, which they say that 99% of the population pronounce /gIf/ but apparently the person who invented them says /dZIf/–they just gloss over it and talk about how much of an idiot you sound like if you say /gIf/, avoiding what could be a really interesting discussion about language in use.

I’m kind of disappointed in the CBC for spending so much time talking to these non-experts on air. Like, invite in guests with some knowledge and insight! For example, maybe I own cats, and I observe all the crazy things they do around the house. And maybe I have some opinions on that behaviour and maybe even write a book on those opinions. But you’re not going to invite me in to talk on the radio as an expert on animal behaviour, are you?

Here’s one example from the CBC of how to talk about language. Find an actual expert, and have them talk about the phenomena, bringing in social, historical and phonological points of note. The only thing missing from that piece is any type of sound recording/samples.






Does Morality Change in a Foreign Language?

captureI just came across this interesting article in Scientific American: How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language.

I admit when I saw the title, I was expecting it to be another re-hash of linguistic relativity, aka. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  However, the focus of this article is not on comparisons of how speakers of different language may or may not experience the world differently, but rather on the contrast between any one speaker’s first language and any “foreign” language acquired later in life and how they may make decisions differently in the different language in their repertoire.

I haven’t delved into any of the source studies in their article yet,  but for me it would be crucial to see if the issue of proficiency is discussed. Of course someone is going to make decisions differently in a different language if their level of proficiency is very low. The issue then shifts from the discussion of first vs. foreign language to languages in which one is fluent vs. less proficient, and how that affects decision-making.

They author does make the link between decision-making and cognitive activity, and this would be an area where proficiency would come into play. The lower the language proficiency, the higher the cognitive load:

“Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level “feeling,” and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity.”

It would be interesting to compare groups of people who were fluently bilingual from childhood vs. those who learned their foreign language later in life, and see if the above explanation held out.

Learner identity is also brought up in the first paragraph:

“And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?”

What’s I think it’s interesting to remember here is not that the linguistic attributes of Czech or French make you behave in or feel a certain way, nor is it simply a matter of different brain activity in L1 v. foreign language centres in the brain. The host of social factors present when you learned and use each of those languages shapes you identity as a user of that language. This is cognitive science research that focuses on the brain, but in cases of linguistic or language learner identity, I think it is very simplistic to strip away the myriad of social factors that influence how you act and feel in a foreign tongue.

An Illustrated Style Guide?

elements of style illustratedI heard about The Elements of Style Illustrated
on the radio this past weekend. Illustrator Maira Kalman  had worked her magic on the ol’ Strunk and White chestnut and I was intrigued. An illustrated style guide? I pictured jazzy artistic renderings of the syntactic sentence trees I had to do in my undergrad. However, a bit of googling brought up several excerpts and examples of her warm painting style and the illustrations in the book. Many of them bring to life the example sentences Strunk and White use in the book. Beautiful work.

I did lament, though, that Kalman chose the most maligned of style guides (read takedowns of Strunk and White here, and here). Couldn’t she have chosen a corpus-based English grammar or style guide that’s based on English the way its actually used? Alas.

Corpus-based Grammars and Style Guides

I gave the keynote address at the AWELL Conference a few months ago, and one of the practical suggestions I included in my talk for writing teachers working with English language learners was to try to draw on corpus-based grammars and style guides based on real language use vs. those that try to pass off personal style preferences as hard and fast “rules”.

Here is an excerpt from that talk, with the references I included. The friendly folks of #tleap on Twitter pointed me toward some of them. I haven’t personally used all of these in the classroom, so welcome any comments and feedback on how well any of them hold up to real-life use.

 I suggest working from a grammar of English that draws on data from language corpora to determine what the constitutive rules of English are. For those of you that don’t know, a language corpus is a “body” of hundreds of millions of lines of text of the language in use. Some corpora compile thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, others academic texts, others fiction writing. So you have a huge repository of the language as its actually used by real people in real contexts. And you can analyze the language in a corpus using technological tools to determine the rules of a language based on how the language is actually used. So for example, if you’re wondering “Can I really never end a sentence in a preposition in an academic text?” corpus data will tell you that in fact, you can; lots of great writers do it all the time. They can’t all be wrong. Use determines the rules in the descriptive approach, remember? So that tells you that not ending a sentence in a preposition must simply be a style choice. (Though it’s debatable if it’s something everyone does literally all the time, if you’d really want to give much time to it. )

corpus grammarsSo here are some English Grammars that are corpus-based: 

Some of them have “learner’s editions” which are aimed at learners of English at lower levels of proficiency. They all endeavor to present the rules of English as it is actually used. Several will contrast frequency of use of a particular item in different contexts, for example in fiction writing versus academic writing.

garnerThe Garner texts (2016 editions), for example, highlight particular language points where there is disputed use. For example, maybe the traditional style guides say one thing, but lots of people do another. It gives corpus data showing the real patterns of use of that particular item, how common each variant is, and if there has been change over time.

 So for me, these are a more accurate choice. Why would we want to enforce grammar rules with multilingual writers that people don’t actually adhere to in real-life written academic English? And If you really want to nerd out, you can delve into corpora yourself to check out certain grammar points. The Google N-Gram viewer or the MICUSP corpus are good places to start. You may also be interested in reading linguist Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”, which is written by a well-known author who grounds his advice for good writing in linguistic theory.

EAP Reading: Defining the Relationship

Here’s an interesting article that could make for a great reading for a class of EAP students about to enter their degree programs. As summarized by

Students need to better understand the role of a professor, writes CHE contributor

“I wonder if college students today truly understand the nature of their relationship to professors,” writes Rob Jenkins for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jenkins argues that over his 31-year teaching career, he has seen the lines defining the professor-student relationship become increasingly blurry. In response to this shift, Jenkins lays out several points that he thinks all postsecondary students should know: a professor does not “work for” a student; a student is not a customer; and a professor is not a high school teacher, boss, parent, BFF, or adversary. Jenkins concludes by laying out point-by-point what he is willing to do for students before adding, “All in all, that’s not a bad deal.”

It’s written from he American perspective, so those using this in another context might have to explain/adapt some of the terminology (university for college, etc.). But I think it could make for a good reading and some great ensuing discussion. (Particularly brave teachers might even want to wade into the comments section on the article for added debate).

Defining the Relationship – The Chronicle of Higher Education