By Brian C. Perry, Nagoya University

Information in a conventional printed dictionary is stored largely on one alphabetically arranged list of headwords. In contrast, electronic dictionaries, of whatever type, allow language information to be stored on different lists and accessed from multiple directions. As a result lexical information can be obtained faster and more efficiently. It is not surprising then that in recent years digitalised dictionaries have proliferated. Publishers have brought out electronic versions of their established dictionaries, usually on CD-ROM. The Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM and the Merrian-Websters Collegiate Dictionary, Electronic Edition are two such examples. Moreover, sales of dedicated pocket-size electronic dictionaries (PEDs), such as those made by Franklin and Canon, have risen exponentially. Of these digitalised dictionaries this article confines itself to a discussion the development of just one kind: the electronic versions of learners' dictionaries (hereinafter abbreviated as ELDs).

But first what exactly is meant by "learners' dictionary"? This article will adopt the meaning as it is understood in lexicography: i.e. a monolingual dictionary written specifically for L2 learners. Since Hornby's pioneering Advanced Learner's Dictionary was first published in Japan in 1948, learners' dictionaries have emerged as a specific genre in their own right and have become accepted as a valuable source of lexical information for intermediate and advanced language learners. For such learners, there is general agreement that the benefits of using a monolingual dictionary more than make up for any difficulties in grasping the definitions (Hartmann, 1992). Hartmann goes on to summarise their main design features which distinguish them from conventional monolingual L1 dictionaries. The most important of these being:

Two popular publications, written specifically for non-native learners, that meet the above criteria are the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Both dictionaries make use of IPA phonemic transcriptions and a restricted defining vocabulary (3,500 and 2,000 words respectively). Both contain detailed grammar and stylistic notes and include example sentences after each definition.

Recent ELDs

Until five years ago there was no such thing as an ELD. However, in 1993 Longman published the Longman Interactive English Dictionary (LIED) which was a compilation of four of their existing printed dictionaries. This can be described as a real multimedia learners' dictionary as it incorporates pictures, sound and video clips. It also allows learners to create a personalised file made up of words and pictures chosen from any part of the dictionary. Then in 1994 Oxford University Press brought out the electronic Oxford Wordpower Dictionary (OWPD). Unlike the LIED, this is a single-sourced dictionary converted from their existing written dictionary of the same name. It contains no multimedia effects, relying entirely on text. However one innovative feature is the introduction of a word games section in which users can interact with the program. (The electronic version of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD), due in early 1997, is eagerly awaited). Finally, in 1995, HarperCollins published the COBUILD on CD-ROM. Like the LIED this is a multi-sourced compilation of three of their existing dictionaries. Its notable feature is that it can display examples of actual English usage drawn from a word bank of five million words. This has the advantage of giving information about the collocation and frequency of words in an authentic linguistic setting. Being written for Windows, all the above ELDs can easily be used in conjunction with other Windows-based applications. In fact both the LIED and the OWPD can be linked directly to the user's word-processor application, with the OWPD going the furthest and allowing a permanent link with MS Word.

Benefits of Existing ELDs

So how useful are these learners' dictionaries in electronic form to non-native learners of English? As with any kind of well-designed electronic dictionary, lexical units can be found more easily. In a written dictionary the learner would generally be limited to looking for a word on an alphabetical list of headwords, however in an electronic dictionary, words can be classified under different lists and hence looked up in more than one way. For example, in the OWPD, the word 'take' can be found on each of the following lists: idioms, phrasal verbs, important words, example sentences as well as the main word list. Moreover, all the above ELDs have complex search functions which take advantage to a certain extent of wildcards and the Boolean operators, 'AND', 'OR' and 'NOT'. The COBUILD search, for example, will search each of its component parts, including its word bank, and produce 'hits' which can be viewed later. Another plus is that the language information can be linked and referenced to other parts of the CD-ROM, maybe in a completely different section, and accessed easily by clicking on the word. In a sense it is possible to 'surf' the dictionary going from one related word or topic to another, allowing the learner to navigate the ELD, exploring new and related lexis on the way.

Specifically for the L2 learner, perhaps one of the clearest benefits is the way ELDs can apply multimedia effects to enhance the presentation of language items. For a non-native learner this can be particularly useful for checking pronunciation, and it is surprising that, of the existing ELDs, only the LIED makes use of this facility. Written learners' dictionaries tend to use phonemic transcriptions which are a poor substitute for actually hearing the sounded word. Also, only the LIED makes use of video clips. Unfortunately the links with other parts of the dictionary are poor. Nevertheless, other reviewers, such as Rope (1995), report that they are popular with their students. There is some debate over the value of multimedia effects in an electronic dictionary. In a monolingual dictionary for native speakers, where the emphasis is on displaying information accurately and quickly, they do not really add any value to the data given, and can slow the speed of retrieval down. However, with learners' dictionaries there is a case to be made for their inclusion: multimedia can give a non-native learner a setting for a word or phrase enhancing it with contextual and schematic links thus aiding recall.

ELDs can allow interaction to encourage learners to consult other parts of the dictionary. However, only the OWPD does this directly through the use of a number of word games (COBUILD includes a small worksheet at the back of the user's manual). These may be fun for the learner but, as Nesi (1996) observes, only the 'word definitions' game really requires learners to practice their dictionary skills. Interaction with the learner is clearly an area which, if fully developed, could be of great benefit. Yet whilst credit should be given to the OWPD for including these types of interactive exercises, one gets the sense that they have been added as an afterthought rather than incorporated as an integral part of the dictionary.

Finally, ELDs are often cheaper than the total cost of their published written sources. Also they can be networked, thus reducing the cost per user further.

Problems of Existing ELDs

Despite the many advantages of ELDs it is fairly rare to see them in use in Japan. Perhaps the biggest problem is their lack of portability. Clearly a written dictionary can be used at home or at school or even on the bus; no expensive equipment is needed. An ELD requires a computer and often a CD-ROM drive is necessary. It also requires the user to have Windows. As of yet no ELD has been published under the Macintosh Operating System (although Macintosh versions of the OALD and the Longman Interactive American Dictionary are planned). It appears that in Japan in the academic world and amongst students Macintoshes are much more common than in say, Britain, where most personal computers are PCs operating Windows. This and the problem of portability could be solved if the publishers of learners' dictionaries brought out pocket electronic versions (i.e. PEDs). PEDs are at present used widely as a substitute for conventional language dictionaries. However, they have been criticised for being incomplete as proper dictionaries. Taylor & Chan (1994) who researched into their use by tertiary-level students in Hong Kong observed that, "the focus in the development of PEDs, at least in East Asia, is primarily on what the technology can do, with the emphasis on adding new features, rather than on the provision of better quality lexical information". Despite such shortcomings they are popular with students. It would be interesting to see how well a monolingual learners' PED would be accepted.

Another problem with ELDs is that no attempt has been made to rewrite the source material to adapt them to the electronic medium (a point made strongly by Nesi (1996)). This can lead to a number of cross-referencing problems. Sometimes, especially with the COBUILD, much irrelevant information can be unintentionally accessed. Also, all information is provided on just one level which is suitable for a printed dictionary but not necessarily so for an electronic one. All the three ELDs referred to in this paper seem to be pitched at around the upper-intermediate level: a beginner would find the definitions too difficult; an advanced learner would probably find them not detailed enough. It would also be helpful to an L2 learner to be given an idea of the frequency of usage of words and phrases contained in the ELDs. Non-native learners who are in the process of learning a language need to know which words and phrases to focus on, especially if they are studying for examinations where the number of words to be mastered is specified. Only the OWPD out of the first generation of ELDs with its list of 3,500 core words gives any indication of this.

The electronic medium has great potential for the storing of sound, yet disappointingly both the OWPD and the COBUILD ignore sound completely. This is surprising since a number of digitalised L1 dictionaries do have this feature. Not only could the pronunciation of headwords and derivatives be given, but also the use of sound could be extended to cover some of the usage examples of which are a feature of learners' dictionaries. None of the existing ELDs, when stored on CD-ROM, use all of its 600MB capacity. There is therefore space for its further expansion. Of course sound files can take up a lot of storage space, but this could be restricted if necessary to only the more frequently used words and phrases.

ELDs: The Next Generation

The first generation of ELDs referred to in this paper are really databases of their existing dictionaries converted into electronic form without any real attempt to rewrite and adapt them to the electronic medium. In the future it is possible they will have one or more of the following features:

What is certain is the next generation of ELDs is likely to be very different to today's versions.


COBUILD on CD-ROM, London: HarperCollins, 1995.
Longman Interactive English Dictionary (LIED), Harlow: Longman,1993.
Oxford Wordpower Dictionary (OWPD), Oxford: OUP, 1994.


Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman, 1995.
Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary (5th edn.) (OALD), Oxford: OUP, 1995.
Merrian-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Electronic Edition (Version 1.1), Merrian-Webster, 1994.


Dodd, S. (1989). 'Lexicomputing and the dictionary of the future', in James, G. (ed.), Lexicographers and their works, 83-93, Exeter, University of Exeter Press.
Hartmann, R. R. K. (1992). 'Lexicography, with particular reference to English learners' dictionaries', Language Teaching, 25,151-159.
Nesi, H. (1996). 'For future reference? Current English learners' dictionaries in electronic form', System, 24(4), 537-546.
Rope, A. (1995). Review of Longman Interactive English Dictionary (LIED), CALL Review, March 1995, Reviews section.
Taylor, A. & Chan, A. (1994). 'Pocket Electronic Dictionaries and their Use', Eurolex.

Copyright (c) 1997-1999 All rights reserved.