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Review of  Dictionaries and Language Learners

Reviewer: Niladri Sekhar Dash
Book Title: Dictionaries and Language Learners
Book Author: Philippe Humblé
Publisher: Haag und Herchen
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.1011

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Date: Thu, 25 Mar 2004 13:48:43 +0530 (IST)
From: Niladri Sekhar Dash
Subject: Dictionaries and Language Learners

Humblé, Philippe (2001) Dictionaries and Language Learners, Haag und

Niladri Sekhar Dash, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, India

The volume is produced with the purpose for highlighting some problems
often faced by the foreign language learners when they try to access
dictionaries for understanding the words used in the target languages. As
an experienced foreign language teacher and a dictionary maker the author
has clear vision about the problems the students often encounter in their
way of learning a foreign language. This has inspired him to design an
innovative as well as praiseworthy manual of pedagogical lexicography.

This short volume contains four chapters along with a well-written preface
by Jean Binon of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), and a
moderately long introduction by the author himself. In brief, Chapter 1
deals with the history of dictionaries and the learner's need; Chapter 2
presents the review of the literature with reference to the questionnaires
and the experiments conducted by earlier scholars; Chapter 3 highlights
the some major issues related with the enterprise of foreign language
lexicography; and Chapter 4 focuses on an integrated approach to foreign
language lexicography proposed by the author. The volume ends with a
concluding remark, a list of appendixes, a glossary of terms, a list of
dictionaries, and an enumerated bibliography.

In the Introduction (Pp. 15-28), the author argues that the basic aim of
foreign language lexicography is to help the learners with the task of
'decoding' and 'encoding' the information embedded with the entry words of
a foreign language dictionary. In recent times he observes a reversal
process in the approach where emphasis is mostly shifted from 'decoding'
to 'encoding'. Whether this paradigm shift has done any good or bad to the
target group is an unsolved issue, which requires extensive empirical
exploration of the phenomenon. However, he is right when he opines that in
order to adapt this new trend it is important to discover the precise
needs of the dictionary users (p. 17). We also agree with him to suggest
that due to the inadequacy of various innovative research techniques, we
still lack proper understanding of the issue, therefore are not in a
position to deliver any final verdict.

In 'objective and hypothesis' the author categorically mentions his motive
behind this book: "to formulate suggestions to improve dictionaries for
foreign language learners by means of qualitative research that analyses
existing dictionaries, on one hand, and, on the other, the learner" (p.
18). This is a new approach, which makes us inquisitive to follow his
path. In the next part, he refers to the issues like tests and
questionnaires, which he proposes to use to achieving his goal. He also
addresses the ideological issues integrated with lexicography, which refer
to the role of dictionary in standardization of language, consolidation of
national consciousness, symbolization of literacy, monitory of culture,
and manifestation of distinction of linguistic communities (p. 23).
However, I think, the idea of ideology in dictionary making is a highly
controversial issue, which is mostly linked with a number of
philosophical, ethnological, cultural, and sociopolitical factors (See
Landau 2001, Ch. 7). Therefore, it needs careful analysis and
introspection in a separate chapter at the end of the volume.

In Chapter 1 (Dictionaries, History and Learners' Needs, Pp. 29-54), the
author draws our attention towards a small survey on the history of
dictionaries along with the reference to the learner's, bilingual, and
bilingualised dictionaries. The history presented here, though not
exhaustive and elaborate, fulfils the purpose of the author in general and
provides the readers with a short glimpse of the trade practiced for
centuries. In this context, however, readers can refer to the work of
Landau (2001) that deals with detailed history of dictionary creation and
use to augment their knowledge about the field. The main contribution of
this chapter lies in the attempt of the author for justifying the use of a
dictionary (p. 31) in general as well as in drawing a fine line of
distinction between the 'bilingual' and 'bilingualised' dictionaries.
Also, the reference to the 'Longman Language Activator' shows how much the
author is concerned with the aspect of 'encoding', an important criterion
in learner's dictionary. However, the chapter does not refer to the
learner's need although its title hints to address the issue.

In Chapter 2 (Review of Literature. Pp. 41-54), the author actually refers
to some questionnaires and experiments conducted by some earlier
lexicographers to find out the actual need of the learners while learning
as well as expressing in foreign languages. In course of his analysis, he
meticulously refers to the questionnaires designed and used by Tomaszczyk
(1987) and Béjoint (1981) as well as to the criticisms raised by Hartmann
(1987) and Bogaards (1988). Next, he discusses the pros and cons of the
controlled experiments undertaken by Bensoussan, Sim, and Weiss (1984),
Laufer (1992), and Laufer and Melamed (1994) to observe the 'impact of
bilingual and monolingual dictionaries on reading comprehension through a
multiple-choice EFL (English as Foreign Language) reading test' (p. 45).
He has also used Atkins's (1996) model to evaluate the potentials of the
new technologies adopted for foreign language lexicography. Furthermore,
he deploys Nesi's (1996) results to refer to the limits of the methods of
the natural sciences applied to dictionary research. Finally, he proposes
for the generation of a new kind of dictionary in electronic form that
will excel over the traditional printed dictionaries to serve better the
target users in multidimensional ways never accomplished before. We agree
that an electronic dictionary is far more efficient a tool than a printed
dictionary for the language learners. Because, an electronic dictionary is
endowed with some qualities (e.g. large storage capacity, easily portable,
scope for regular augmentation, customization for specific needs,
personalization by the users, new search features, hyperlinks, etc.) that
can be effectively used by both the foreign and native language learners
to achieve far better linguistic competence, the traditional lexicographer
has ever dreamt of.

In Chapter 3 (Examples: The core of foreign language lexicography, Pp.
55-96) the author presents his own qualitative kind of research based on
the issue of citing examples in learner's dictionary. No doubt, it is one
of the central issues related with the work of dictionary making,
therefore deserves special attention for its proper and useful
representation. To achieve this goal, all examples are classified and
analyzed according to their type, function, encoding, and decoding. The
problem of collocation and syntax are also discussed with close reference
to the examples used in learner's dictionary, where these issues are
addressed with citation of lexical items and set phrases (e.g. road, take
a stand, indulge, criteria, proposal, etc.) often used in various English
dictionaries. The author draws a line of distinction between the
'authentic' (empirical) and the 'made-up' (intuitive) examples to show how
a dictionary like COBUILD, which has used 'authentic' examples, can easily
excel over other dictionaries that furnish mostly intuitively formed
examples. The importance of corpus is duly acknowledged since corpus is
considered a faithful resource for providing possible varieties of
examples. Issues of example in bilingual dictionary (e.g. sequential
ordering, literal vs. figurative, translatability, target users, etc.) are
addressed with necessary citation taken from some well-known dictionaries.
Thus, the author thoroughly examines a set of different dictionaries to
find out that most of the dictionary makers have followed no clear policy
for representing examples while others do not care to utilize these
examples to their full extent.

In Chapter 4 (An integrated approach to foreign language lexicography, Pp.
97-160), the author presents a brief outline of a new kind of dictionary
he postulates for others to develop for the foreign language learners. In
this outline, he recommends some suggestions that can take into account
the unprecedented capabilities of modern computers to de deployed for the
purpose of enhancing linguistic efficiency of the dictionary users. First,
he tries to make a distinction between the 'decoding' and 'encoding' part
of the proposed dictionary. Then he considers both the activities from the
point of view of beginners and advanced learners, respectively. In the
course of his proposition, he halts at every stop to ventilate on the
issues like morphology and multi-word units, idioms and collocations,
polysemy, disambiguation of translation options in the 'decoding' process.
In case of encoding, which is considered to be far more difficult task
than decoding, the author discusses various issues like labels, synonyms,
examples, and definitions, which the learners focus while learning a
foreign language via the source language. In case of learning via the
target language, the learners need to focus on finding out suitable word
string from it definition, consideration of the register variations,
changing from congruent to metaphoric, use of fixed expressions, formulas,
etc. for achieving their goal. Finally, the author chalks out the path the
learners should follow to learn to select lexical items to use them in
their linguistics exercises. In sum, it should be appreciated that the
suggestions he makes are not suitable for the dictionaries in electronic
version only, but are equally useful for the dictionaries made in
traditional printed form.

In brief, the book deals with the problems of foreign language
lexicography. It is concerned with the lack of adequacy between the
current reference works and the learners' needs. These needs have been
insufficiently investigated and this book suggests that the lack of
substantial results in the area is due to a flawed research methodology.
It is suggested that a qualitative type of research, instead of a
quantitative one, should yield better results. A sample of this kind of
qualitative analysis, carried out on dictionary examples, bears out that
dictionaries would be more beneficial with a separation of the encoding
and decoding parts. This hypothesis had already been suggested by some
earlier researchers, but only at a theoretical level. A series of
practical consequences of this separation are then considered and, as a
result, recommendations are formulated for the compiling of dictionaries
in the future. The recommendations are intended mainly to improve the
encoding part of the dictionary.

The volume has some minor limitations. The final chapter should have been
much well designed particularly when it deals with so many important
issues of foreign language lexicography. It would have been better if
'decoding' and 'encoding' part have been dealt with in two separate
chapters. Moreover, encoding part needed to be more elaborate since it is
one of the most reliable ways of learning foreign languages and acquiring
foreign language efficiency. Finally, the volume carries no index for the
topics discussed in the book, and the size of the font used in the book is
very small for fast reading. However, despite these limitations the value
of the book cannot be ignored since it makes a contribution towards the
improvement of dictionaries, which have some practical consequence in the
field of (foreign) language learning, both in general and particular

Atkins, B. T. S. 1996. Bilingual dictionaries: past, present and future.
Proceedings of the 7th Euralex International Congress on Lexicography. Pp.

Béjoint, H. 1981. The foreign student's use of monolingual English
dictionaries: a study of language needs and reference skills. Applied
Linguistics. 2(3): 207-222.

Béjoint, H. 2000. Modern Lexicography: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Bensoussan, M., Sim, D., and Weiss, R. 1984. The effect of dictionary
usage on EFL test performance compared to the student and teacher
attitudes and expectations. Readings in a Foreign Language. 2: 15-32.

Bogaards, P. 1988. A propos de l 'usage du dictionnarie de langue
étrangère. Cahiers de Lexicologie. 52:131-152.

Hartmann, R. R. K. 1987. Four perspectives on dictionary use: a critical
review of research methods. In Cowie, A. Ed. The Dictionary and the
language learner. (Papers from the Euralex Seminar at the University of
Leeds). Pp. 121-135. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Landau, S. I. 2001. Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laufer, B. 1992. Corpus-based versus lexicographic examples in
comprehension and production of new words. In the Proceedings of the 5th
Euralex International Congress on Lexicography. Vol. 2. Pp. 71-76.

Laufer, B. and Melamed, L. 1994. Monolingual, bilingual and
'bilingualised' dictionaries: which are more effective, for what and for
whom? In Martin, W., et al. Eds. Proceedings of the 6th Euralex
International Congress on Lexicography. Pp. 565-576.

Nesi, H. 1996. The role of illustrative examples in productive dictionary
use. Dictionaries: The Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America.
17: 198-206.

Tomaszczyk, J. 1987. Foreign language learner's communication failure:
implications for pedagogical lexicography. In Cowie, A. Ed. The Dictionary
and the language learner. (Papers from the Euralex Seminar at the
University of Leeds). Pp. 136-145. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Dr. Niladri Sekhar Dash works in the area of Corpus Linguistics and
Language Technology at the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition Unit of
the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, India. His research interest
includes Corpus Linguistics, Lexicology, Lexical Semantics, and
Lexicography. Presently he is working in the area of corpus generation in
Indian languages, corpus-based lexicography, and lexical polysemy.

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