The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Online dictionaries: What's wrong with the hippo?

Last weekend I was at an ELT conference in Brussels talking about online dictionaries and digital literacy. Just before my session, I got chatting to one of the other presenters. It turned out that he was presenting at the same time as me so wouldn't be able to come to my session. I briefly explained that I'd be talking about how, with the proliferation of online dictionary sites about, it's important for teachers to help their students find sites that are relevant and useful.

Photo credit: Alexdi at English Wikipedia

He started telling me enthusiastically about a site he loved to use with his students called wordhippo.com. He explained that it contained a whole wealth of information, not just definitions, but lots of synonyms and antonyms too. It wasn't a site that I'd come across, so I quicky checked it out. I was using a couple of key words as examples in my session, so I looked up one of these, sensible, as a quick point of comparison:

Definitions for expert speakers:
I immediately recognized the definitions that popped up as coming from oxforddictionaries.com; they were word-for-word identical. Now lots of dictionary sites quite legitimately license data from big dictionary publishers, but an alarm bell started to tinkle when I couldn't find the source of the definitions credited anywhere on the site. Ethical and legal concerns aside though, from a pedagogical perspective, I was more worried by the fact that the definitions were quite clearly aimed at native/expert speakers, not learners. Unlike learner's dictionaries, which carefully grade the level of the language in definitions - typically using a restricted 'defining vocabulary' to ensure that the words in a definition are less difficult than the word itself - native speaker dictionaries aim to explain the nature of a word in a way that will be useful to an expert speaker of English, but which is often completely inaccessible to an average learner.
Compare these definitions for the first sense of sensible
"chosen in accordance with wisdom or prudence; likely to be of benefit" (wordhippo.com; originally from oxforddictionaries.com?)
"reasonable, practical, and showing good judgment" (ldoceonline.com)

A bewildering plethora of synonyms:
When I searched for synonyms of sensible, I was faced with a list of 49 possible options, in no clearly discernible order, ranging from the predictable (and useful) reasonable and logical, to obscure and sometimes downright baffling suggestions such as sagaciouscognizant and consequent. I can just see those slotting in naturally to an intermediate learner's essay, can't you?! Any thesaurus or list of synonyms can be a bit of a minefield for even advanced learners, but the longer they are, the more obscure the options and the less information given about each one, arguably the more confusing and problematic they become. The thesaurus facilities available with several of the online learner's dictionaries at least produce more restricted sets of relatively high-frequency alternatives, which students are quite likely to recognize and more realistically make use of.  My personal favourite is the 'Explore thesaurus' feature at macmillandictionary.com which for each sense of a word provides a manageable list of synonyms and related words along with their definitions to help students see right away how the words are similar, and perhaps more importantly, different. At the first sense of sensible, for example, they offer practical, rational, logical, realistic, rightly, sound and mature.

Why do we love the hippo?
I felt a bit bad dissing a site that a fellow professional clearly enjoyed using. As I explained to him though, as expert speakers, it's easy to get drawn in by what appeals to us as fans of the language rather than what might be useful for our students. I admit that as a language nerd that juicy long list of quirky synonyms was fun. I enjoyed skimming through all the words and picking out the ones I wouldn't have thought of and even the ones I'd never heard of - refractory as a synonym of difficult anyone?

When you're looking for an online dictionary to use with or recommend to your learners, you might ask the following questions:
  • Is the source of the content clear?
  • Is the content designed for language learners?
  • Is the content clear, accessible and useful for your learners? 
Chances are, that'll lead you to the sites of the 'big five' learner's dictionaries. There are lots of fascinating dictionary and vocabulary-related websites out there which all have their attractions and uses, but if you're looking for a reliable, appropriate, well-presented resource for your students, I think it's still hard to beat the old favourites.

The 'big five' learner's dictionaries online:

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Dipping a toe in the Duolingo pond

If you follow certain social media threads, then apps seem to be where it's at in language learning at the moment. I have to admit I was a rather late adopter when it came to smartphones and tablets, but over the past year or two I've quietly been converted. I wouldn't say I'm an app aficionado, but they're slowly creeping into my everyday life and I can certainly see the appeal. But for language learning ... really? I've been sceptical about the benefits.

When I first heard folks talking about Duolingo (by far the most popular language learning app out there), it seemed it was clearly a gimmick which people would soon see through. Everyone talked about the bizarre sentences it asked you to translate and ELT colleagues largely dismissed it out of hand. But it's continuing to grow (with tens of millions of users worldwide) and recently, I've come across a number of family and friends who are using it and seem to be fans. So I decided to check it out for myself.

What follows isn't intended to be a definitive review - I honestly haven't decided what I think of it yet. Instead, it’s just my initial thoughts and reactions as a user...

Spanish and Me

I chose Spanish as a language to learn, partly because I'm at more-or-less beginner level, so come into the experience without too much baggage and also because it's a language I'd like to know. 
- I did one term of Spanish at evening classes (once a week) about 15 years ago. So I do have some basic passive knowledge, but I've forgotten the details and certainly couldn't produce anything beyond odd words and phrases.
- I speak French (and bits of other European languages) which have similarities to Spanish.
- I've also done corpus research into errors by Spanish-speaking learners of English, so I know quite a bit about what Spanish does differently from English that leads to common transfer errors; such as adjectives that agree with nouns. I took the Duolingo placement test and failed ... or at least I think I did, because the wording of the message that came up was a bit odd! So it started me off with the basics.

Duolingo - the first 10 days

So I signed up for 10 minutes a day and currently I'm on 10-day streak, I've reached level 4 and I'm 6% fluent in Spanish ... apparently!  It's all quite exciting and yes, I admit, I'm quite hooked!  I'm generally not a gamey type of person - I've never played computer games - but somehow I'm really enjoying the slightly frivolous, gamey aspect of the app. I hate going to language classes (sorry, but I do!) because I know it’s going to involve lots of boring memorization and I know all the things I'm going to be rubbish at and get frustrated by. But somehow this feels different. It's just a bit of fun, it's free, low-stakes, no one's judging me and if I do get something wrong, it’s no big deal. That's very appealing.

So apart from being fun, what have I noticed about how I've interacted with the app?

Well, I guess the most obvious thing is that I'm whizzing through and not thinking about it too much. It wasn't a conscious decision, but I find that I'm not spending too much time lingering over each item. I'm not analysing endings or noting down nouns according to gender. Something about the quiz-like format makes me skip through the questions as quickly as I can. With my language background, I can't help but be aware of certain linguistic features (more about that below), but I'm not focusing on particular words or forms as they pop up on screen. I'm rather letting it all wash over me and seeing how much just sticks. Which feels oddly liberating!

Warning flags

Having said all that, with my teacher’s hat on, I am aware of all kinds of warning flags popping up:

Odd language: I'm only on the early levels, but I'm already getting some odd sentences cropping up; The ducks eat a strawberry, You are my horse, etc. Hardly the kind of language I'm likely to find useful should I meet a Spanish speaker! But then, lots of young learners’ materials use animals to bring the language to life and to make it more fun and memorable. And there is evidence that learners remember stuff better when it's cognitively salient - in other words, when it strikes them as odd or funny, rather than being bland and unmemorable. I'll see as I carry on how much that starts to grate. The odd bit of silliness is good, but I think there comes a point when you want to be learning language that's genuinely usable.

Where's the strawberry?
Lack of explanation: There's no actual explanation of the language points you're learning within the app, it's all based on pictures and translations. On the whole, that's fine for vocabulary (so far), but means that the grammar is very much down to guesswork. Amongst the things which haven't been explicitly explained so far are:
- gender of nouns and the accompanying implications for articles and adjectives
- verb conjugations (it exposes you to the different verb forms and 'tests' them, but doesn't explain them or set out any 'rules')
- the two forms of 'you'
- the use (or non-use) of subject pronouns. I know from my previous classes that subject pronouns aren't always needed in Spanish, because the form of the verb conveys the information about the subject. The app started off always including subject pronouns - probably because it made for simpler direct translations into English. But as I go through, I've noticed it's now dropping them. I don't know whether it's doing it in some principled way or whether it's just trying to wean me off them.
All of this raises two questions for me ... firstly, could this be confusing and frustrating for someone who didn't understand what was going on? Could it be misleading, as learners formulate their own, possibly incorrect, hypotheses, then later realize they've got it wrong and have to backtrack and 'unlearn'? And secondly, I’m wondering how it’s going to cope with more complex language features as I move up the levels.

Lack of production: The vast majority of the exercises so far only test receptive knowledge. You're asked to translate a word, phrase or sentence, either to or from Spanish, and you're given options to choose from. There's speaking practice where you use the microphone to record your own voice, but so far at least, this is just listen and repeat, so just parroting what you hear. The only more 'productive' exercises so far ask you to type in a word or phrase in Spanish. I'm definitely finding these the trickiest and they're the only ones where I'm making mistakes; largely errors with spelling or endings. I can't yet see how it's going to become more productive, at least not in more than a very limited sort of way.

But how much have I learnt?

Well, considering I've completed less than 2 hours of instruction in total, I feel like I've actually learnt quite a bit, especially in terms of vocabulary. Yesterday, I started going back to the early lessons - if you don't keep 'topping up' your skills by revisiting them, you're ratings for that skill fade - and I found that words I remember hesitating over a bit initially, now seem really obvious. That's perhaps not surprising given that repeated exposure to and engagement with words is known to be a key factor in vocabulary learning. What's interesting is the amount of repetition you're prepared to accept as a learner in this sort of format compared to what a teacher could get away with in a classroom setting.

I'm not going to draw any conclusions just yet - although I already have a few brewing - because I want to carry on with as open a mind as I can and see how things develop. I'll report back ...

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