Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Translation Tools or Online Dictionaries: What tools and resources do your ELT students use to develop their language skills?

Surprising what we learn as teachers when we ask!

Linguee, Leo and Search Engines

When commencing with a new English language class, or an individual student, one of the topics I discuss with them concerns their usage of tools or resources to assist with language learning and the development of their linguistic skills. I am interested in finding out what tools they use, whether digital or nondigital, why they use them, and the learning strategies they employ. When asking these questions, I usually have a list of anticipated responses in my head that I feel might align with the needs of any particular language level. So when I recently asked a group of advanced business English learners what tools they use as a first port of call to develop and expand their vocabulary,  their replies did not surprise me. Linguee.deLeo  and search engines such as Google and Yahoo, were the top runners.

Very briefly to these tools, searches bilingual texts for specific words or phrases that you have entered into their search box. It does this in diverse languages e.g. English-French, Chinese-English, German-English and so on. Blocks of text appear showing your searches in a range of contexts. However, despite the vocabulary being contextualised, some search results in the target language may be too difficult for students to decode, especially if they are lower level learners.

Leo on the other hand is a type of bilingual dictionary and again, diverse languages can be chosen e.g. Spanish-German and English - German. The search word will appear in several forms and in parts of sentences. It comes with audio which can be of real assistance if a student is unsure of the pronunciation. And search engines of course, will provide students with a range of results depending on how the initial search has been formulated. If it is a word they are looking for then it is possible that links to online dictionaries might show up, or a thesaurus, a wikipedia link, perhaps links to useful blog posts and then most certainly, there will be masses of links that may or may not be relevant. And these will require filtering.

What did surprise me, is that not one of them mentioned a monolingual or general purpose dictionary. These are advanced learners of English and I would have expected them to include these tools in their personal learning toolkit to complement the translation tools.

The dictionary discussion

As we discussed their personal preferences including the advantage and disadvantages of using these specific tools at work, I placed this image on the table (see below) and waited for a response. It is a selection of dictionaries that I have at home for my own usage and for use with private language students. A mixture of general purpose, monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, plus a few other  resources. These complement the online tools that I access depending on where I am and the purpose of the search.


There was a bit of chatter around the table about dictionary usage and then one student laughed and said, Dictionaries are old fashioned. 

I was not expecting to hear this response. In my opinion, dictionaries are an invaluable tool whether you are using them for language learning or not. This is where words are housed. And not just words and definitions but so much linguistic information. And so I enquired further, asking for clarification about what is old fashioned, nondigital dictionaries or dictionaries themselves? The reply from another student, All dictionaries are old fashioned.

Not everyone agreed with this, but nevertheless it started an interesting discussion about the usefulness of bilingual, monolingual and general purpose dictionaries from the perspective of this small group of  advanced language students. 

It soon became evident that nondigital dictionaries were rarely used and online dictionaries were not a first choice when searching for the meaning of a word, or to improve their vocabulary. These students prefer to rely on  translation tools such as those mentioned in the opening paragraphs. Concerning the choice of device, they said this depended on where they were, what type of connection was available and what tool they wanted to use as not all tools and resources are compatible with mobile devices.

After this discussion, I decided to show them an example of an online monolingual dictionary. The intention was not to persuade them that they should be using one, but to illustrate the usefulness of such tools for language learning. I was hoping to raise their awareness of dictionary usage by demonstrating that a monolingual dictionary is more than just a tool that provides the meaning of a word. Additionally, I wanted to show them that dictionaries are a wonderful resource when it comes to expanding and developing vocabulary and that they can be used to improve listening and speaking skills. I have listed the ten most salient points that we looked at below.

I chose the Oxford Learners' Dictionary as an example to illustrate the following points. However, there are other online monolingual dictionaries that have very similar possibilities and are qualitatively comparable.

1. You can access several wordlists from the one website as shown in the image below. So there are several language banks of words at your disposal, which is very practical. As this is a monolingual dictionary there is no need to go through the process of translation.

2.  English and American versions of words are provided. This also applies to the picture wordlist as illustrated in the screenshot above.

3. Audio is supplied. This can be of assistance for pronunciation purposes and hence is useful for practising speaking and listening skills. However, considering that English is used widely as a lingua franca, I personally feel that learners should not be given the impression that they have to sound like native speakers of English. It will depend on their needs and their usage of English.

Both British and American pronunciation varieties are accessible. I deliberately use the word, varieties,  because I feel it is important to point out to students that depending on accents, dialects and nationality, pronunciation will differ. So it is not about mimicking a particular pronunciation and embedding it to memory. It is more about being aware that depending on who they are engaging with, pronunciation may not always be what they are used to hearing. And it may not always be as intelligible as hoped for.

4. Depending on your search, detailed usage notes can be accessed. In the case below, the search for stock market brought up a number of collocations relating to the economy. This is a great opportunity for students to develop and expand their vocabulary. For teachers, these pages can also be useful for creating diverse activities.

5. Idioms and phrasal verbs can be explored. Once again, this can also be useful for language teachers who are introducing learners to idioms.

6. It has a British and American visual dictionary with a comprehensive list of entires. Synonyms are often provided as is a list of suggestions for comparative purposes. This might prompt the motivated student to explore further options.

7. Forms of each word are provided with examples for usage. In addition, synonyms and antonyms are relatively easy to find. Nevertheless, I generally recommend using a reliable thesaurus for a more comprehensive listing of synonyms and antonyms, whether it is digital or nondigital.

8. Where appropriate, countable and uncountable forms are given and contextualised. Definitions seem to be adequate and reliable, although not as comprehensive as you might find in a general purpose dictionary.

9Apart from being web-based it is accessible from mobile devices, this includes phones and tablets. This is an advantage over similar tools that are solely web-based.

10. You can source a range of options from the one site as opposed to bouncing around through links. In this sense it can be efficient and practical. 

Further discussion

After working with the tool as a group and exploring its functionality, the students agreed that this would be a tool worth considering and they were surprised at the diverse possibilities for usage. They had not considered using an online dictionary for speaking and listening activities. However, in some cases they said that they would still use their preferred translation tools as first port of call and then as a second step, check for further and appropriate context usage in an online monolingual dictionary, such as The Oxford Learners' Dictionary. This line of thinking is of course understandable. Despite being advanced language learners, they may not know what the English word is and in such cases an English language dictionary is going to be of minimal assistance. Nevertheless, I could not help feeling that it was more a habit that caused then to remain with this strategy rather than a conscious choice. I questioned this and it became apparent that most of them had had little instruction in the use of dictionaries in general and hence, viewed them solely as a tool for finding the meaning of a word.

Implications for online dictionaries and translation tools

The perceptions from this small group of business English language learners are by no means indicative of the perceptions from other foreign language learners but in the light of these observations, it would be interesting to target this for further research i.e. the behaviour and perceptions of diverse language levels use of online dictionaries and translation tools. It would also be interesting to explore what devices are being used and students' learning strategies. The results could have implications for these kinds of tools in foreign language learning in the future and also for pedagogical practice.

Further Reflection

The students' comments about having had very little, or no instruction, in the use of dictionaries to assist with language learning also surprised me. 

In relation to using tools and resources for self-regulated learning, something that I have learned over the years is that as teachers, we should avoid making assumptions about what skills a particular language level student should possess. It is better to enquire. This can often lead to interesting discussions and provide you with invaluable information that can for example, be incorporated into lessons, or be used to improve the design of lessons, and aid in the choice of tools for collaborative activities etc. Not all students have necessarily had a solid foundation in respect to language learning and and I feel that it is up to us to locate the gaps and deficits and aid them in filling these. This also includes exploring their learning strategies and tools of preference for autonomous learning.


The Oxford Learners' Dictionaries [online] Available at: (Accessed 26th November 2014)



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