One of my pet peeves at the moment is the prevalance of electronic dictionaries in the classroom.
Almost every student (even the beginners) seems to have them, and if they see or hear a word they don't know, or don't quite have the vocabulary to say what the want to say, the lids go up, and busy fingers go to work.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against electronic dictionaries in general. I use one myself (as I detailed in a previous article), and I find them very useful, if used properly.

And I can understand how they're probably a must when one is struggling to read and write English at work.

But are electronic dictionaries (or even dictionaries in general) really essential in conversation classes?

I don't think so.

First of all, you have a living, breathing dictionary right in front of you. I.e., the teacher!
The logical thing to do if you don't understand the meaning of a word is to ask. Not asking, and jumping straight to the dictionary sort of implies that you don't trust the teacher.
(Although, I admit, perhaps not all teachers are worthy of trust.)

A good teacher should be able to explain new words in such a way that a student with even the most basic vocabulary can understand their meanings and how they're used.

If you aren't satisfied with the explanation, by all means, go to the dictionary. But the dictionary should be your last recourse, and not your first.
And this probably won't be necessary unless you're doing some really advanced material.

Going to a dictionary first can, in some cases, actually hamper understanding, since it can be difficult to see which meaning is appropriate for the context in question. I often see mistakes in translation in students' books, and I delight in getting them to realize that perhaps their dictionaries are not so reliable after all.

This is actually good training for real life. You can't really afford to pull out your electronic dictionary and tap away at it in the midst of a party or negotiation, can you? Not if you don't want to be rude.

And asking the teacher directly is actually a good way of gauging his or her abilities. A colleague who used to work as a consultant once told me a story about CEO who asked, at the end of a presentation, "So, what's GDP?" Apparently, he really wasn't familiar with the term, but it could have been a test, since even a roomful of highly-paid, extremely bright consultants had trouble coming up with a good definition on the spot.

So you shouldn't really need an English-Japanese dictionary.

You shouldn't really need a Japanese-English dictionary, either.
If you don't know the appropriate English word, just paraphrase!

Let's say you're speaking in Japanese, and you forget the word "uni" (sea urchin). Do you panic and start wishing that you had a dictionary with you? Of course not! Maybe you'll say something like "What's that really expensive orange-yellow stuff you put on sushi?" And your friends will probably respond with "Do you mean 'uni'?"

Paraphrasing is a great technique because it makes you focus on the vocabulary that you DO have, rather than the vocabulary you don't have and wish you did. This is what "thinking in English" is all about.
However, practice is required if you wan't to be able to do it smoothly. And the classroom is actually a great place to practice, since teachers are used to guessing what students actually want to say, and can help you work on good techniques to explain what you're thinking. Why squander that opportunity by whipping out your dictionary?

And again, Japanese-English dictionaries can give you quaint, outdated, or otherise outright wrong words for a certain context. The other day, a co-worker told me about a student who took one look at his face, tapped away at her dictionary, and triumphantly proclaimed "You're fatigued!"
Apparently, her dictionary didn't see fit to tell her that "tired" was far more appropriate than "fatigued."

Many people CAN funtion without their dictionaries if so required.
Once, when I was reviewing reported commands in a lesson, I said "Don't use your dictionary!" to a student simply because I wanted see if he could rephrase my sentence correctly as "You told me not to use my dictionary."
However, he thought I was serious, and drew back with a start every time his hands subconsciously (practically an addiction, at this point) reached for his dictionary. And although he struggled a bit in the beginning, he did fine. The next time I taught him, he smiled and put his dictionary away the moment I walked into the room. (Weaning people from their dictionaries has become something of a minor hobby.)

So, next time you go to a conversation class, LEAVE YOUR DICTIONARY IN YOUR BAG AND PUT YOUR BRAIN TO WORK!
posted by EnglishMaster at 12:50| Comment(3) | TrackBack(0) | English | このブログの読者になる | 更新情報をチェックする
Posted by clair at 2006年11月11日 22:04
In large part I agree with you. One of the best ways to have a person discover the definition of a word is through deductive thought. Leading through questioning instead of telling. However, there is significant evidence that many students don't want to go through the process of 'thinking' a definition through though some are excellent at it! 'Putting the brain to work' is an excellent idea if students are accustomed to the it. A significant number of Japanese schools don't promote that concept. And you are right again in that many students don't use dictionaries properly by looking at all the definitions and examples, not just utilizing the first one. If students entered the learning situation prepared for the likelihood that they may actually have to do some real work, that is to say, 'break a mental sweat', instead of just merely being 'edutained' then I think I'd agree with you not just in large part but 100%!
Posted by listen2speak at 2006年11月12日 17:04
A point to consider is that dictionaries don't think, people do. In light of that students shouldn't ask you to define words as a dictionary would but to help them 'discover' meaning, you are not a dictionary.

Discovering the meaning requires that the instructor ask questions based on the student's knowledge, this can be quite a task as one has to make an educated judgement on what the student knows. But, if you can take a student through this process of deducing the meaning they do indeed learn the definition and can use the process by themselves. For many students this is a rewarding challenge. Regrettably, many students don't want to work that hard. As you so aptly put it, "PUT YOUR BRAIN TO WORK!" They want you to be a dictionary.

Though I'm not sure if using a dictioinary during a conversation would be considered rude as people realize that Japanese people aren't native English speakers it can be inconvenient. Having a good thought process reduces the dependence on a dictionary.

Help students develop the thought process.

Given that a high percentage of students are 'uncomfortable' with the questioning/learning approach, and more comfortable with the telling/rote memory approach, the dictionary is a way, though not the best way to go. People who want to 'discover' are fewer in number
Posted by listen2speak at 2006年11月12日 18:43
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