Electronic dictionaries

The electronic dictionary is one of the most powerful language learning tools to have come about through computer technology. Ranging from the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary on CD to the hand-held pocket-size bilingual dictionaries which are popular with Hong Kong students, these have transformed the way in which we can look up a dictionary entry to find meanings, translations and examples of use. Nothing is easier or faster than doing a search and retrieval from simply typing in the search string, or better still copy / pasting it from a text, compared with the often laborious and time consuming process of finding the desired entry by leafing through a bulky, heavy tome with minuscule typeface. Yet this is still an under-exploited resource and the full potential for linking texts to an electronic dictionary is seldom achieved, with a few noteworthy exceptions such as Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia. Figure 1 shows how easy it is to look up the meaning of a word with Encarta simply by double-clicking the mouse on the word.

Using electronic dictionaries in the classroom

Despite the ease of use that electronic dictionaries provide, they are still an under-used resource and very little teaching actually goes on where they are available. This is a pity, as linking an electronic dictionary to reading or other activities is easy to do and can be a powerful learning tool, as the example of Encarta in Figure 1 illustrates.

Figure 1: double clicking a word invokes the dictionary reference in Encarta

Electronic dictionaries can be effectively integrated with CALL activities on a stand-alone PC or across a local network, and can easily be employed in conjunction with other programs. Some dictionaries (Collins’ is a good example) have keyboard shortcuts such as Alt/Ctrl/D to automatically initiate a search from a highlighted word in a text, making the procedure of looking up entries even simpler. It is also easy for students to build vocabulary lists by reversing the Copy / Paste procedure to copy dictionary entries into a word processor. The experience of doing activities such as these in the classroom is the inspiration for the VLC lexicon, for the electronic dictionary is most effective and supportive when it is integrated into some other language learning activities, whether CALL or otherwise.

Figure 2: a CALL program used in conjunction with Webster’s Dictionary

Online WWW dictionaries such as Webster’s Online and Newbury House Online are independent search resources which are freely available to users.