The Advent of Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Have you ever taught a class of ESL/EFL students who worship their dictionaries? Or had one of those days when the beeping sound of an electronic dictionary steals classroom attention for that one crucial moment during the lesson? To make matters worse, some of these dictionaries have ring tones and other unnecessary sound effects that amplify the distractions.

From the Students’ perspective

In countries like China and Japan where electronic dictionaries are increasingly popular among EFL students, a teacher soon notices that intermediate level English students quickly head for their dictionaries every time they come across new vocabulary. This is understandable because at the intermediate levels of ESL/EFL learning especially, students are always concerned about vocabulary development.

With the advent of highly portable electronic dictionaries the inconvenience of carrying cumbersome paperback dictionaries is almost non-existent; therefore teachers are seeing more electronic dictionaries in the classroom. These days it is not uncommon to have mobile phones with electronic dictionaries installed inside. Most of these dictionaries are equally equipped with speakers and earpieces. While this new technology is brilliant, it can also be very detrimental to students’ learning especially during lessons.

Furthermore, most ESL/EFL students carry dictionaries that simply translate words from English to their native language and vice-versa. They often think it is the fastest way to learn new vocabulary.

Students do not realize that learning new vocabulary by translating actually slows down the learning process. Of course translation is always an easy way out; but also the grammar and translation methods of learning ESL/EFL are not the fastest means of mastering new language inputs. Hence the tendency to “um…”, “uh…” and forget new words learnt by such means never leaves.

From a Teacher’s Perspective

For a teacher in the classroom, this can be frustrating. Most often, trying to get the students off their dictionaries frustrates the teacher even further, because they soon go back to the dictionary the next time they hear a new word. This might dampen a teacher’s confidence as it might suggest that students are attaching more importance to their dictionaries than to the teacher. It can also mean that students don’t have confidence in their teacher’s ability to explain new vocabulary. From another perspective this might be a pointer to the fact that the teacher needs to teach the students more vocabulary acquisition skills.

Generally speaking, dictionaries should be the last point of reference for new words and expressions. We should always remember that 70-80% of all language can be communicated non-verbally. Figuring out meaning in a more contextual set up is more effective in learning and teaching of new language. Looking up the meaning of a new word should be a very brief and less frequent activity. Teachers should try to get students to explain new vocabulary in their own words after having explained the new word to them.
Teaching students other non-dictionary vocabulary learning methods would greatly help. So what are some non-dictionary ways of learning new vocabulary? To begin answering that question we need to look at advantages and disadvantages of dictionaries in ESL/EFL learning.

The Importance of Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Dictionaries are a very important language learning tool. They are as useful as they can be counter-productive. To make dictionaries useful, students must understand the role of dictionaries in English vocabulary building. So I guess you are now asking the question, “When and how do we use dictionaries for vocabulary building?”

The following points listed below are some of the general reasons why we should use dictionaries:

o In some cases of ESL/EFL teaching, words could be specific to a certain profession. Sometimes looking up professional jargons is unavoidable.

o There are situations where the vocabulary of a lesson can be new to students, even in their own native language.

o Sometimes we are unsure of the spelling of some words. Of course dictionaries are very useful at such times.

o Idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs can sometimes be too difficult to guess, thereby necessitating the use of dictionaries.

o Some classroom activities and the teaching of certain skills are planned around a dictionary.

o A dictionary can be a student’s study companion at home or away when the teacher is not around. Even then, the issue of when to use it is also very important.

There are many ways of understanding the meanings of new words and expressions without using the dictionary. Despite the importance of dictionaries in ESL/EFL learning, they should be used as the last resort especially in the classrooms. So what is the problem with using a dictionary often?

What’s the problem with dictionaries?

o Dictionaries stop students thinking in context:

Most often students want to isolate a new word and look it up, while forgetting to realize that words do not exist in isolation. Take a look at this sentence for example:

“Without the invention of microscopes, we would not have been able to carry out studies on tiny organisms.”

The word Microscope might be the new word here, but the words tiny organisms easily give a clue to the meaning of microscope and vice-versa. The tendency is for students to forget that the word microscope is easily understood within the context of that sentence. Whereas, a little bit of thinking in context would have done the trick.

o Dictionaries can be a great distraction:

This is especially true of electronic dictionaries and the classroom environment. Most students can’t resist the temptation of looking up a new word every time they come across one. The tendency is to want to stop to look it up, even when the teacher is trying to explain. The end result is always having a student asking the teacher a question on something he/she was explaining a minute ago, or simply deviating from the focus of a lesson – in some occasions the word they were looking up only turns out to be an unimportant word to the subject.

To make matters worse, electronic dictionaries with their beeping sounds and slightly distorted audio recordings can further increase a teacher’s frustration during a lesson. Suddenly an electronic voice is reading out a word from the corner of the classroom and before you know it, a brainwave of distraction occurs in the student’s minds causing them to miss out on what the teacher was explaining. Some teachers might even loose track of what they were saying especially when they hear these audio devices reading out English words in second-hand electronic voices. There is also grave concern here as to what type of electronic dictionaries are actually good for listening and pronunciation. When students prefer to listen carefully to an electronic dictionary, over the teacher, then serious questions arise.

o “Easy come, easy go”:

Every time a new word or expression is learnt without much thinking effort, there is always a propensity to forget soon after. A majority of English learners who use their dictionary all the time always find themselves learning the meaning of a new English word but finding it difficult to remember it the next time they come across it.
Hence the saying: “Easy Come, Easy Go”, becomes more evident here. On the other hand, when words are learnt with a bit more thinking effort, they are actually embossed in the student’s memory.

Non-dictionary ways of learning new vocabulary

o Vocabulary building using prefixes and suffixes (affixes)

A lot of English words we use today come from other languages. There is a lot of material about the etymology of English words, on the internet. There are lots of Latin and Greek influences on most European languages like English, French and Spanish.
You would be surprised at how this basic awareness of the origin of the English language can be of great help to your students. Many English prefixes and suffixes are derived from Latin and Greek. A basic knowledge of commonly used affixes will help students learn English vocabulary much faster without the need to always look up words.

So what are prefixes and suffixes?

A prefix is a letter or group of letters added to the beginning of a word to make a new word: In the word ‘”UNHAPPY”, ‘UN-’ is a prefix added to HAPPY. UN- is a Latin word for NOT.
A suffix on the other hand is a letter or group of letters added to the end of a word to make another word. The suffix NESS added to the end of the word TOGETHER creates another word TOGETHERNESS.

Prefixes and suffixes are generally known as affixes. Affixes create new words, usually by modifying or changing the meaning of a root word. If we take a root word like HAPPY, we can see how affixes can change the meaning as in this example: prefix = UN, root word = HAPPY and suffix = NESS.

The end result is UNHAPPINESS.

Sometimes raising awareness to this word formation aspect of English can be the light that dispels the darkness of dictionary worship.

Or, drawing similar examples from the student’s native language further raises this awareness of word formation in languages as a whole. In Chinese for example, the prefix BU is added to many root words to create an often negative version of a root word. For example HAO in Chinese means GOOD. The opposite is simply formed by adding the prefix BU at the beginning of HAO: prefix=BU root word HAO and result is BUHAO which means BAD. Tons of word opposites are formed in Mandarin Chinese by simply adding this prefix to root words.
If a teacher can make similar references from a student’s native language background, it provides a springboard for the understanding of word formation in English as well. Most often you would realize that the student had not even thought of this in terms of his or her own language.

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