Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Choosing a good dictionary

If you are serious about learning English, it's a really good idea to invest in a modern monolingual (English-English) learner’s dictionary. As you would expect for the “global language” there is a huge market in English dictionaries for learners. It’s not vitally important which one you choose because most of the learner's dictionaries from the major UK publishers are quite similar. Two of the most popular, however, seem to be the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) and the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD) so I’ll make a few observations here about these two bestsellers, but my comments can apply generally to any learner’s dictionary you may be considering buying.

As with most products aimed at a mass market the Longman Contemporary and Oxford Advanced learner’s dictionaries are both much of a muchness (similar). (If you are interested in marketing you will probably recognise a very familiar phenomenon: that the market leader and market challenger (or follower) distinguish themselves in terms of additional features and branding because they are essentially the same product or commodity.)

Go into the bookshop and compare some different dictionaries. Selecting a dictionary is a bit like choosing a mobile phone: most of them have similar functions and design features, but you have to go with the one that feels right for you. You can actually develop a very personal relationship with a dictionary – you will spend a lot of time thumbing and leafing your way through it; you may carry it round with you; and at odd moments you can often find yourself flicking through it at random, spotting unfamiliar words and re-reading definitions of words you already know – but with the added depth and richness of familiarity that comes with studying English over time. (It’s a bit like fiddling with your mobile phone when you’re waiting for a train and by chance you discover the function that turns predictive text on and off or changes the menu language to Finnish – which of course makes it almost impossible to change it back to the original language).

A key consideration when buying a dictionary is the size – and the weight! Are you going to carry it round with you in your bag? Is it going to sit on your desk within easy reach when you are studying? It may perhaps be a good idea to have a larger desk dictionary for home (or at the office) and a smaller one that you can keep on you when you’re out and about. (If you have an iPhone, a smart-phone or a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) you can also download software for accessing a portable, mobile dictionary).

As with all self-study materials, the basic rule of thumb is go and look at the books, pick them up and find something you like. Ask your friends and colleagues if they can recommend useful resources. (And, of course, if you find something really good, don’t keep it to yourself. Post a comment here on the Milan English blog!)

Note: You can access both of the dictionaries discussed here by clicking on the links above. Both have websites that allow you to search for any word in the dictionary and get (complete?) results, including pronunciation.

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