The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A year in the Twittersphere

I've been having so much fun on Twitter over the past couple of days (I'll explain why later!) that this afternoon I started mulling over a blog post about my experience. Then when I checked, it turned out that I actually joined Twitter exactly a year ago today … now that's what you call serendipity and this post just had to be written!

I actually first ventured into the Twittersphere because my local baker, the lovely Laura Hart, had had to close up shop and suggested I follow her on Twitter as she looked for new premises. In the 12 months since, I have managed to grab the odd one of her delicious custard tarts when she's tweeted that she's selling them somewhere, and now it seems that she's finally found a new permanent home for her bakery – hooray! Sadly, it's on the other side of town, but I'm still looking forward to visiting when she opens. My Twitter experience hasn't all been about patisserie however …

I decided early on that I wasn't interested in celebrity gossip or what Stephen Fry had had for lunch, so decided to restrict my Twitter activity to work-related topics and ‘professional development’. I started off by following a few of the obvious ELT names and a couple of publishers. Then I ventured into the discussion thread, #ELTchat, partly as it's moderated by a very old friend of mine, Shaun Wilden. The first couple of times I ‘tuned in’, it was all just a bit overwhelming, but I slowly got the hang of it. And once I'd been introduced to Hootsuite, and was able to separate out different ‘streams’ on screen, the confusing babble started to make more sense and I got up the courage to start joining in. Although reading the chat and comments from teachers all over the world was a fascinating experience, I soon found that I often had to plough through a lot of stuff that I wasn't really interested in, just to come away with couple of, more or less, interesting points. I still keep an eye on what topics come up, but only dip in if it's something I'm particularly interested in.

Next, I came across #EAPchat, my area of special interest at the moment, which seemed more promising. When I tuned in for my first session though, it turned out to be a slightly stilted ‘conversation’ between myself and just one other teacher! Thankfully, @sharonzspace (aka Sharon Turner, an EAP teacher working in Turkey) piqued my interest just enough to encourage me to come back! As a much newer and more niche chat, #EAPchat (1st and 3rd Mondays of the month at 6pm UK time) still generally only attracts a handful of active participants, but on a good day, there are enough of us to get a decent discussion going now. The main frustration I come up against is in trying to discuss what are often quite complex issues condensed down into just a few words. You often find that you'll put out a comment, somebody else will come back with a critique, and you'll then spend your next few tweets trying to explain why they've misunderstood what you really intended! To me, it seems that Twitter comes into its own perhaps less as a space in which to fully discuss ideas, but as a place to get things started, then for sharing links to blogs etc. where there's more space for those discussions. Through Twitter and the EAPchat hashtag, I've come across all sorts of interesting resources, blogs and discussions, and got involved in commenting and discussing all kinds of topics at more length.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, and for me unexpected, benefits of Twitter has been building what's known in the jargon as a PLN, a network of contacts made up of people interested in the same stuff as you. It's something that’s still building gradually, but there are definitely a few folks out there who I now come across regularly and who are starting to feel ‘familiar’. But then I suppose that's what social (or professional?) networking is meant to be all about, isn't it?

And what have I been having so much fun with in the Twittersphere lately? Well, yesterday I came across the Twitter Fiction Festival - in that social media kind of way, I can't remember exactly how I found it, possibly through a post on Facebook that linked to an article in the Guardian? Anyway, I started following #twitterfiction. As with a lot on Twitter, it took me a while to wade through all the ‘noise’ and actually, quite a lot of content in other languages too, but I gradually started picking out little gems of sharp, witty, teeny-weeny fiction. I soon latched on to the #litmash thread, attempts to mash up different combinations of literary genres; so yesterday there was some hilarious Edgar Allan Poe versus Dr Seuss (check out a summary of some of the best here) and today I've been laughing out loud at Cold War fairy tales and Sex in a Dystopian City! If you're on Twitter and understand what I've been talking about, then it's well worth checking out, LOL!

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Thursday, November 08, 2012

The future of dictionaries: is online enough? (1)

The news at the start of this week that Macmillan are to stop producing paper dictionaries and just focus on their online version provoked mixed feelings for me. I'm not terribly surprised by the move, but at the same time, I feel slightly wary about it becoming a trend. Leaving aside professional concerns at the moment about my future work as a lexicographer and the quality of online dictionary content (a topic to return to in another post), it got me thinking about how I feel about paper versus electronic dictionaries as a user. And I guess the short answer is; I use both.

Having worked as a lexicographer for some 14 years now, it's not surprising that I own a collection of some 50 odd dictionaries of various kinds, many of which admittedly I really never use. On the coffee table in my living room, there's a chunky copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English which I use when I'm stuck on the crossword - a purely pleasurable and strictly away-from-my-desk activity! 

When I'm working at my desk, whether I use an online or paper dictionary depends partly on my mood and partly on what I'm looking for. I have some more specialist dictionaries on my shelf that aren't available online - perhaps the one I use most being the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus. There are also features, like usage notes, that appear in print but not always online. And if I'm comparing the treatment of a word across several dictionaries, then it's definitely quicker to just pull them off the shelf than to open several windows in my browser, wait for them to load and then have to keep flicking between them. And I think it's generally the constant flicking between things on screen that sometimes drives a preference for just leaving a paper book open on the desk.

Having said that though, I do use online dictionaries a huge amount too, especially for those occasional quick lookups. Generally, for consistency's sake, I'll use the dictionary of whichever publisher I'm working for at the time. So if I'm doing some work for Macmillan, I'll use MED, if I'm working on the project for a OUP, I'll have OALD open.

There is also a third option that I turn to occasionally; a CD-ROM dictionary. I have the electronic version of the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary loaded on my computer, mainly because I worked on it way back when and because I did a series of talks about it, I feel like I know its features inside-out. I use its SMART thesaurus facility, which is less sophisticated than the OLT, but throws up a wider set of vocab within a general semantic set, which is often useful when you're writing materials. I also love its advanced search feature which allows you to search by grammatical labels (all verbs followed by -ing), register (all words labelled literary) etc, which again is great when you're looking for inspiration for a language activity.

I've also blogged before about my general tendency not to even bother with dictionaries just to check a quick spelling, instead I'll just start typing the word into the Google search box at the top of my browser and wait for the correct spelling to come up.

So, how do I feel about the trend towards online dictionaries? Well, I guess I'm fine with it so long as all the big publishers don't follow suit (which I don't think they will) and at least a handful of quality print dictionaries remain available. As convenient and flexible as the online format is, there's nothing quite like thudding a pile of dictionaries down in the classroom to get students actively involved in looking things up and I'm certainly not going to be firing up my laptop to settle a dispute in a game of Scrabble this Christmas!

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