Dictionaries Usage in EFL and Learner Development

| March 31, 2003
Title
Dictionaries Usage in EFL and Learner Development

Keywords: No Keyword

Author
Mr. Kevin. Landry

Abstract
Sinclair’s new style of presenting lexicographical information is by offering examples from actual texts as well as omitting rules or ideas about words that are shown to be in error. A simple exercise using the COBUILD dictionary in class, as described by Boyce (in Nation 1994: 191) is only one step in familiarizing learners with the new format since they can look up words in their own time. Nation (1994: v) sees the components of a language-learning course as: Meeting new Vocabulary, Establishing Vocabulary, Enriching Vocabulary, Developing Strategies, and Developing Fluency. The meaningful use of language should be the purpose for learning vocabulary, not just as an end in itself.

Corpora are collections of texts that can be analyzed to give teachers better insight into language use in general or even in specific fields. As an example, economic organization is described by animate metaphors reflecting control whereas the market is often described with inanimate metaphors showing that it is beyond the expert’s grasp (Charteris-Black 2000: 149). When examined with an expert’s eye, the lexical approach still requires intuition to balance useful and presentable material with a learner’s need. Corpora use is a no ‘quick-fix’ (Harwood 2002: 143) solution but does add to a teacher’s arsenal.

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Introduction

Sinclair’s new style of presenting lexicographical information is by offering examples from actual texts as well as omitting rules or ideas about words that are shown to be in error. A simple exercise using the COBUILD dictionary in class, as described by Boyce (in Nation 1994: 191) is only one step in familiarizing learners with the new format since they can look up words in their own time. Nation (1994: v) sees the components of a language-learning course as: Meeting new Vocabulary, Establishing Vocabulary, Enriching Vocabulary, Developing Strategies, and Developing Fluency. The meaningful use of language should be the purpose for learning vocabulary, not just as an end in itself.

Corpora are collections of texts that can be analyzed to give teachers better insight into language use in general or even in specific fields. As an example, economic organization is described by animate metaphors reflecting control whereas the market is often described with inanimate metaphors showing that it is beyond the expert’s grasp (Charteris-Black 2000: 149). When examined with an expert’s eye, the lexical approach still requires intuition to balance useful and presentable material with a learner’s need. Corpora use is a no ‘quick-fix’ (Harwood 2002: 143) solution but does add to a teacher’s arsenal.

1.0 How Vocabulary is learned

Vocabulary has to be attained and built upon, as a learner needs it to understand a new language and to communicate thoughts and ideas to others. Perhaps one does not begin a journey of learning to increase vocabulary but it soon becomes evident a language learner requires more and more vocabulary. Cultural and intellectual development results in knowing a vast amount of words (Steadman 1937) and lacking them makes a person look ignorant. The appropriate English has to be learned to appear knowledgeable or cultured and cultivated. Standard English is an ideal form used by the best writers and speakers (Steadman 1937:139) and demands that words easily understood by the educated are used. The early meaning of a new word is more general and fits into the mental lexicon over time by taking its place alongside other words and developing more restricted meaning (Charteris-Black: personal communication).

1.1 What is different about an EFL Learner?

The goals of a vocabulary component of a language course are to increase useable vocabulary size, and for learners to gain control of a range of vocabulary coping and learning strategies (Nation 2001: 380). It is an insurmountable task to learn all the words of English and probably a waste of time since there are many that may not be needed. Many only need to be understood and even fewer end-up being used. Besides the meaning of a word, learners are recommended by McCarthy & O’Dell (1994:2) to find out what words are associated, its grammatical characteristics, and how to pronounce it. Often it is possible to paraphrase when speaking and make do without the exact word.

The context of where a word is used helps the reader to guess what it means and only in certain circumstances is dictionary consultation required. Associating words together by class, meaning, or drawing tree diagrams are all ways of aiding vocabulary development. Dictionaries give more information about a word than meaning. Synonyms, antonyms, collocation, pronunciation, stress, usage, and even translation can be found in certain dictionaries. Dictionaries can be used for comprehension, production, and learning; different types excel in different areas, (Nation 2001: 242) and are far from being all the same.

2.0 What is so special about COBUILD?

One example of a specialized dictionary is the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. Although phrasal verbs are common in spoken English, foreign language learners may be more familiar with more formal written words. Phrasal verbs are comprised of smaller words joined together to make a new meaning that is not easily known from simply looking at the words themselves. Over three thousand are listed in the dictionary, (Sinclair 1989: v) and more than five and a half thousand meanings are given. A computational study of the Bank of English adds credibility to the observations and examples. Although, a computational study of the Bank of English adds credibility to the observations and examples, the difference between spoken and written language and other corpus issues cast doubts on COBUILD’S perfection. Their Particles Index, at the back of the book, guides learners in how to deal with given components giving the number of occurrences for each.

The COBUILD series flouts its authenticity and makes statements confidently reminding readers that real English as it is actually used is quoted from their text collection (Sinclair 1991: vii). It is all very reassuring but just how scientific is their claim to “pick the most important points” and “give explanations of the most important, frequent, and typical points of English” in actuality? By claiming to have chosen the most important points, it begs the question, by whose standards, and in fact they admit to “continuing full scale research” to be “more accurate and relevant to the needs of teacher and student” (Sinclair Ibid.). The confession of imperfection may lead one to consider how different the COBUILD approach is from other designs.

2.1 Other Dictionaries

The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, completed in 1928, and since revised continuously, is regarded as the most definitive of all guides to the language, (Winchester 1998: 25). Over half a million words are defined and illustrated with selected quotations that demonstrate their characteristics with precision. A word’s past nuances are explored through attention to quotations and its earliest discovered appearance. Although imperfect, has Collins improved upon this method or are they merely riding on Oxford’s coat tails?

The concept of “English Dictionary” is relatively new and traces its origins to 1604 when A Table Alphabetical …of hard unusual English words of about 2500 entries was published for “Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskillful persons” (Cawdrey quoted in Winchester 1998:84) to better understand challenging words. Other tombs of the era concentrated on specialized “choice” words compiled to impress an audience. A dictionary was needed that included every English word.

The OED took seventy years to create and relied on recording words found in existing dictionaries, read in books, sorted, and listed. Every word should be there along with sentences that show how the meanings have changed. The definition is crucial – defined according to class, differentiated from other members with uncomplicated words saying what something is concisely and with elegance (Winchester 1998:151). Foreign language learners should require no less. The full extent of the English language needs to be utilized.

3.0 Learning to walk before you crawl

A foreign language learner cannot be expected to know where to start if confronted with a massive collection of words. Should the twelve-volume dictionary be consulted every time an unknown word is encountered? And is an abundance of information no better than a lack of it? A learner needs to know the meaning of a word by developing his/her own mental lexicon gradually. Perhaps half a million words is too many and a more concise dictionary will suffice in most cases. The Concise Oxford Dictionary might be a better comparison to illuminate Collins’ uniqueness.

The first edition in 1911 gave a large amount of space to common words and was concerned with the correct use of the word in terms of the concept or idea for which it stands. Quotations were meant to establish the definition by appeal to the reader’s own consciousness (found in Sykes 1982: vii). The sixth edition was modified to allow greater ease of use and published in 1975. Although extensive changes were made in the sixth edition, several thousand points were considered for the seventh. Compactness has been a primary aim while still giving current meanings of present day words and phrases. The dictionary sought to describe “educated use of modern English” but also admits many vulgar or slang expressions marked as such.

3.1 Is COBUILD so Different?

The COBUILD English Language Dictionary is not so different from the OED and actually mentions in its introduction that it is attempting to be associated with it. Sinclair (1987: xv) admires the tradition Oxford has in supplying actual examples from real language use. His main complaint is with dictionaries for language learners that have devised examples from thin air to assist with understanding. These made-up uses have no authority and the well-established practice of selecting actual instances as examples is therefore returned to. Computer technology has been used to compile a corpus by examination of millions of words in texts both spoken and written. The number of times a usage occurs is counted and misleading information is contended.

The computer does not take credit for creating the dictionary alone. Lexicographers, editors, computer experts, compilers, and other colleagues contributed to the making of the Collins dictionary (Sinclair 1987: v). The editing was complex and involved co-ordination and teamwork. Selections had to be made and, while not infallible, the Collins breakthrough is an alternative that has affected vocabulary learning. It is admitted, though, that the text is sensitive to public opinion and readers are invited to send in their comments. Compilers wanted to explain in simple and direct ways and had many new things to say due to the novel way they were working (Sinclair 1987: xxi).

It is all well and good that computers can be used to compile actual examples of use but is the bad usage mixed in with the good? How do definitions measure up? Taking a definition at Random, ‘life’, is found on page 836 and gives pronunciation followed by a grammatical explanation of ‘lives’ before the definition of “quality which people animals, and plants have when they are not dead and which objects and substances do not have” commences. The examples are authentic, but Webster’s “the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body” (Mish 1994: 672) tells what it is without stating twice what life is not. Perhaps a learner should consult many sources and choosing which one is superior is not much different from answering the question “What is the best way to learn English?”

4.0 Learning is Life Long

Computers may not replace teachers but how they teach and what they teach can be changed by using technology (Egbert & Hanson-Smith 1999: ix). An additional tool to examine language produces materials that can have an effect on theories, methods, and influence the syllabus of a class. Besides being able to compile vast amounts of data, computers used to create e-mail or text messages have blurred the barriers between spoken and written English (Johnson in Egbert & Hanson-Smith 1999: 62). Being able to translate one word in a language to a word in another is mere substitution and does not mean a new language is learned. Words go together differently in all languages and their meaning is not taken from a dictionary in real speech but is negotiated through interaction (Garfinkle 1967 in Holliday 1999: 183).

Another factor to consider is learning style. Effective learning can be said to include thinking, doing, watching and feeling (Soo 1999: 289). Style can be divided into such components as cultural or individual, cognitive and perceptual and so on. The teacher is advised to “identify and cater” to two or three common styles (Soo 1999: 297). Learner Autonomy, for example, seems to mesh with Western Culture, but may not suit many learners. Educators may be able to encourage learners to seek out data for themselves by guiding them to resources but cannot expect this to work in all cases (Healey 1999: 392).

4.1 Learning Word Meanings

Brent (1997:9), by drawing from a paper by Siskind, details many challenges children face when learning vocabulary. The challenges involve: Bootstrapping- the inability to use the meaning in an utterance, Multiple interpretations- non-linguistic context, Multiword utterances- detection of meaning from an utterance, Noise- contextual interpretations, and Homonymyn- words with multiple meanings. Siskind’s algorithm is a computer simulation of learning word meaning and is based on gradual development suggesting that children may learn more efficiently with tolerance for ambiguity.

Partial knowledge of a word gives needed flexibility allowing filtering of impossible meanings but retention of previous knowledge and an avenue for expansion of a word’s possible use (Siskind 1997: 40). Meaning can be derived from observing common uses of the word or potential components could be ruled out as necessary fragments. In addition to these conjectures, Siskind (1997: 43) believes children apply “principles of exclusivity” to constrain possible meanings of some words. Siskind’s Figs. 2-6 show the corpus size necessary for 95% convergence as a function of vocabulary size, referential uncertainty, Noise rate, Symbol size, and Homonymy rate.

5.0 Corpus linguistics

Corpora are collections of computer-readable texts that in fact have become a central part of learner dictionaries published by Longman, Collins-COBUILD, Oxford University Press, and Cambridge University Press (Tribble 1997a: 253). Corpus linguists focus on the results of observations made based on large data banks of texts. The corpora are used to describe varieties of language. These linguistic examples and generalizations can be used to make dictionaries, syllabuses and teaching material or even by learners themselves to investigate relevant facts about native speakers’ language use (Chapelle 2001: 37).

Corpus research has other applications in class or for teachers to see which words go together. Large general corpora are only available to researchers who have access to powerful workstation computers but a smaller one, such as COBUILD on CD-ROM (1995) can be searched using its own software. Concordances can sort the contexts from the right or left of a word to help learners develop vocabulary as well as raise their awareness of grammar. Students can see actual examples of language used and sorted into manageable chunks.

5.1 Collocation

Word families may be a better concept to consider rather than simple memorization of isolated words. The meaning and relation to other words can be learnt in certain lists, examples taken from texts, or by playing word games (Decarrico 2001: 288). The type of activity will depend on the stage learners have reached. Collocations, for example, represent an advanced type of knowledge and might be better left for higher-level students.Concordances, for example, represent an advanced type of knowledge and might be better left for higher-level students. There are a large number of collocations but a principled way of managing them has only recently been proposed.

Overused words in a language class are great targets for corpus activities. Tribble (1997b: 267) uses the example of ‘big’ in concordance with ‘problem’. He found that student writing showed 35 instances of ‘big’ in 494 instances of ‘problem’ but that in the MicroConcord corpus it occurs only 3 times in 279 instances of ‘problem’. Learners could increase vocabulary by seeing other words that are possible fits and enrich a text.

Corpus studies are incorporated in the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary (1995) but also in the Dictionary of Selected Collocations (Hill and Lewis 1997) so that learners or teachers can find collocations for particular words (Dicarrico 2001:295). Examination is not at all as simple as it sounds but encourages close attention to the way words are put together. Simple translation word for word from a learner’s first language is obviously not possible, but realizing there is a common expression in English that conveys the same information may open a new route for learners. Reviewing and reusing new vocabulary is necessary for all levels of learners (Nation 1990: 45).

6.0 Four Strands of a Language Course

Nation (2001:2) sees a balanced language course, which consists of four strands. First, learners should have the opportunity to learn from comprehensible meaning-focused input since too many unknown words disrupt learning. Second, Language-focused learning which means that direct teaching of vocabulary and direct learning should be involved. Third, meaning focused output strengthens vocabulary encountered by using it to convey information. Finally, the fourth strand is fluency development entailing reuse of known items to increase recognition in other settings and more natural usage.

Each word has its own “Learning Burden” (Nation 1990) level different for each student depending on their compatibility with the knowledge and patterns already known: The more difficult a word is to learn, the higher its learning burden. Three general processes (Nation 2001: 67) may lead to a word being remembered, including: noticing (through instruction that there is a need to comprehend or produce), retrieval, and creative use. Elaborate definitions are more confusing than helpful since there needs to be decontextualisation occurring for vocabulary growth. Items need to be retrieved to strengthen the memory either verbally or in print. Saying the word in a way different from its use in input also helps retention if used in a meaningful way.

Zimmerman (1997:17) hopes vocabulary is given more of a central role in language learning classrooms since its importance is apparent but nevertheless neglected by many teachers. She mentions that Sinclair along with Nattinger, DeCarrico and Lewis have revived an interest in language description, emphasized the need for learners to perceive and use patterns of lexis and collocation, and that larger phrasal units retrieved from memory facilitates language production. Direct vocabulary instruction, though, does not account for a significant amount of words learners acquire since the major proportion is through learning through context (Paribakht & Wesche 1997: 175). Learners do not expect to learn every word at once and a gradual increase can be guided with a teacher’s assistance.

6.1 The Relationship of Vocabulary and Thinking

Dictionaries are linear in that words are organized alphabetically from ‘a’ to ‘z’, with similar meanings referenced and connected. However, the mental lexicon is organized in a much more complex (Aitchison 1987:11) and perhaps intentionally incomplete manner. Just as dictionaries are constantly revised and updated, the contents of person’s mind are not constant. Unknown words and concepts can be added and integrated with past knowledge. How can more be squeezed in without interfering with already established connections?

Word association experiments have shown that clusters of words relating to the same topic are stored in much the same way. Pairs and opposites seem matched together and parts of speech often elicit a word of the same category (nouns conjure up nouns, verbs; verbs, etc.). Although experiments may not be a natural test, some types of links between stimulus and response have been indicated. Four types of links from most common downwards listed by Jenkins (1970 in Aichison 1987: 74) are Co-ordination, Collocation, Superordination, and Synonymy. There seems to be plenty of variation among individuals and re-arrangement, especially at times of change when learning to read for instance or encountering a new situation such as becoming an adult.

Alphabetical organization of dictionaries appears natural but other options such as in a thesaurus or the arrangement of verbs (Austin 1962:151): verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behabitives, and expositives, occur. A dictionary need not be from ‘a’ to ‘z’ but could be ordered by classes such as a museum. No one would suggest putting animals or relics starting with the same first letter together just for the sake of it. Seeing words in the mental lexicon in light of the arbitrary nature of ‘b’ following ‘a’ may allow investigation without applying bias from letter order standards or other conventions outside of our mind.

6.2 Real-World Vocabulary Acquisition Strategies

There is a gap between what is taught and what is learned and not just in language classes. Just as lessons have to be adapted for different classes, what has worked in the past has to be flexible enough to cope with the ambiguities to come. Language learners are identifying how to encode meaning and accomplish something by following examples and apply it within a continuum of knowledge (Hatch & Brown 1995: 370). It is all too easy for native speakers to see themselves as perfect speakers but everyone encounters unknown words and is in the process of a development.

A model of essential steps of vocabulary is presented in Hatch & Brown (1995:373) taken from an analysis done by Brown & Payne (1994). The strategies include: having sources for new words, getting a clear image, learning meaning, making a memory connection, and using the words. Vocabulary building strategies have been investigated by allowing learners access to an online dictionary to consult, and recording how they use it (Chapelle 2001: 145). Computers can be utilized in the classroom in many ways in addition to merely the building of a dictionary. Interaction with multimedia helps with vocabulary retention and reading comprehension (Chapelle 2001: 71).

Conclusion

Sinclair’s claim of developing a new style of presenting lexicographical information is apparently valid, however many other dictionaries and researchers are also contributing to the advancement of word analysis. Many teachers do not allow their learners to refer to a dictionary in class so the change in learner dictionaries seems to be only slowly seeping into ESL courses. Balanced approaches to facilitating vocabulary acquisition include explicit teaching combined with “appropriate contexts for incidental learning” (Decarrico 2001: 286). Learners need to be taught a basic vocabulary of two thousand words plus another thousand as well as strategies. There is no set number of words learners need to know to make use of a monolingual dictionary; however Nation (2001:292) suggests a basic vocabulary of two thousand words or more is required to understand definitions in a second language.

The patterns emerging from concordances help organize huge amounts of language but there is still plenty for the learner to misunderstand (Sokolik 2001: 482). Learning English is not an easy task and will not happen overnight no matter how well organized a dictionary may be. As long as learners expect immediate success they will meet failure with disappointment. Learners interested in the opportunity to learn , though, can be taught vocabulary at any time as long as the “methods are appropriate to the learner’s age, interests, and learning styles” (Lightbown & Spada 1999: 169). In Korea, Vocabulary was emphasized for many years but a change towards being able to speak has lead to a decrease in recognition and word translation with students now able to verbally communicate (Hartman 2000). The needs and desires of learners should be used to shape a course of study but the development of dictionaries is always a welcome addition.

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