Hilary Nesi



Hilary Nesi

Hilary Nesi is Professor in English Language at Coventry University, UK. She was Principal Investigator for the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) and British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus projects, and she has published extensively in the fields of English for Academic Purposes, corpus linguistics, and metalexicography.



E-dictionaries and language learning: uncovering dark practices


It makes sense for teachers to find out “exactly what their students are doing with their dictionaries, what they expect from them, and how easily they are satisfied during the process of consultation” (Atkins & Varantola, 1998: 115). Such information is important for the development of dictionary skills training programmes, and ought to find its way back to publishers to inform the design of future dictionaries. In the case of e-dictionaries, however, it is difficult to uncover the facts about user habits and preferences. E-dictionary users are inclined to be secretive, especially when they sense that their teachers disapprove of the types of e-dictionary they like best. It is almost impossible to track their consultation processes when their e-dictionaries are stored on their home computer hard-drives, or when they use handheld e-dictionaries covertly in class, the screen display only visible to themselves.

Generally language learners have three purchase options when choosing an e-dictionary: they can buy a monolingual or a bilingual dictionary on disk (to store on their computer hard-drive, or on cd-rom) or they can buy a suite of bilingual and monolingual dictionaries contained within some sort of handheld device - the “pocket electronic dictionary” or PED. Disk-based e-dictionaries are the most accessible to teachers and academics. They are produced by publishing houses which provide information about the contents and provenance of their source material, and they are likely to be reviewed from a lexicographical perspective, rather than in terms of technological innovation. PEDs, on the other hand, come with next to no documentation. Manufacturers rather than publishers take responsibility for their marketing, and new models are launched and old models are withdrawn with such regularity that even if all the students in the same class bought the same brand of PED, it might turn out that they all had access to different dictionary material and different user functions. The relationship between PED content and hard-copy dictionary content is often so unclear that it is difficult for even the most energetic researcher to discover how much abridgement has taken place, and exactly which PED contains the content of what dictionary, in which edition.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that disk-based e-dictionaries receive more attention from reviewers and the stronger approval ratings from teachers. Very little is known, however, about the extent to which some of the most highly-regarded e-dictionaries on disk are actually used. They do not seem to sell particularly well, driving publishers to include “free” cd-roms inside the covers of the corresponding hard-copy dictionaries. This way a student who buys a print dictionary ends up with an e-dictionary as well, although findings from a recent survey of 1211 Thai undergraduates (Boonmoh & Nesi, 2008) suggest that many English learners in Thailand, at least, do not even bother to explore the contents of this kind of dictionary package. Only 28% of the survey respondents claimed to own a dictionary on cd-rom, despite the fact that most of them seemed to have followed university recommendations and bought the Longman Active Study Dictionary, with cd-rom attached. An earlier study (Nesi, 2003) recorded the same sort of indifference to monolingual dictionaries on disk when 32 advanced learners of English were given their own personal copies of the Macmillan English Dictionary on cd-rom to use in their own time, outside class. Very few accessed it at all, but perhaps because they were conscious of language teachers’ antipathy towards other types of e-dictionary (documented, for example, by Taylor and Chan 1994, Koren 1997, Deng 2005 and Stirling 2005) most were initially reluctant to talk about the ones they really preferred to use - pocket electronic dictionaries and bilingual dictionaries on the web and on disk. Their e-dictionary use was a sort of guilty secret which they did not equate with the ‘proper’ use of print dictionaries in the classroom. Despite having received extensive training in conventional dictionary skills they failed to transfer their dictionary awareness from the page to the screen.

This paper draws attention to the kind of defects that are still prevalent in many bilingual e-dictionaries, for example the hugely popular Dr Eye and Jinshan Ci Ba, and explores the strengths and weaknesses of some of the methods that have been used to investigate e-dictionary use, such as questionnaires, keystroke logging, retrospective interviews and think aloud protocols. It identifies the need to gather and disseminate more information about the range and capabilities of commercially available e-dictionaries, so that language learners, language teachers, and the general public can make sensible choices about what kind of e-dictionary to use, according to the demands of the task and the constraints of the context.


Atkins, B. T. S & K. Varantola (1998) Monitoring Dictionary Use. In B. T. Atkins (ed.) Using Dictionaries: studies of dictionary use by language learners and translators. Lexicographica Series Maior 88, p. 83-122
Boonmoh, A. & Nesi, H. (2008) A survey of dictionary use by Thai university staff and students, with special reference to pocket electronic dictionaries. Horizontes de Lingüística Aplicada 6 (2) 79-90
Deng, Y. P. (2005) A survey of college students’ skills and strategies of dictionary use in English learning. CELEA Journal 28 (4) 73-77
Koren, S. (1997) Quality versus convenience: comparison of modern dictionaries from the researcher’s, teacher’s and learner’s points of view. TESL-EJ 2.3
Nesi, H. (2003) The virtual vocabulary notebook: the electronic dictionary as vocabulary learning tool. Paper presented at the BALEAP conference, University of Southampton 10 -12 April 2003
Stirling, J. (2005) The portable electronic dictionary - faithful friend or faceless foe? Modern English Teacher 14 (3) 64-72
Taylor, A. & A. Chan (1994) Pocket electronic dictionaries and their use. in: Martin, W., Meijs, W.,. Moerland, M.,. ten Pas, E. van Sterkenburg, P. & Vossen, P. (eds) Proceedings of the 6th Euralex International Congress. Amsterdam: Euralex. 598-605