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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I teach beginner adults at York University and I find the "big five" too difficult for them. I really love wordsmyth.net for their "beginner" dictionary. It has super simple language, simple sample sentences, pictures where possible, and audio pronunciation samples. It also has advanced levels. I won't send my beginners anywhere else.

2:57 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Rona,
Thanks for that link. I just had a look at WordSmyth and it does look very good. Interestingly, it gives plenty of information about the background to the project and how the dictionary was compiled, i.e. using proper lexicographic methods, rather than just 'borrowing' data from other sources as so many 'dictionary' sites do.
I have to say that having looked a selection of words, I didn't find the 'beginner' definitions that much simpler than the advanced learner's dictionaries. It's interesting to see a free lower level dictionary online though. As part of my session last week, I did acknowledge that one of the issues with the 'big five' is that they only put their advanced learner's titles online for free. They do publish lower-level dictionaries, but these are only available to buy, either as print versions or apps.

3:10 pm  
Blogger Lecluyze said...

The enthusiastic fellow speaker has only read your post right now ;-)

2:28 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for inspiring the post, Mario :)

2:44 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for emphasizing the importance of enriching students' vocabulary while remembering not to lead the astray. As a native speaker, I tend to take that for granted.

6:57 pm  

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