Recent years have been remarkable for the range of learners’ dictionaries that have appeared on the market. Delegates to the 2001 IATEFL Conference in Brighton were presented with the intermediate level Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary (Gillard 2001) on arrival, and were also able to receive a complimentary copy of the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (Sinclair 2001) and attend a presentation which outlined its advantages (Clari and Airlie, 2001).
The next year saw the publication of the Macmillan Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (Rundell 2002)
The 2003 IATEFL Conference saw a publisher’s launch party for the intermediate level Macmillan Essential Dictionary (Rundell 2003) and, on arrival at the Conference, all delegates received a copy of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Woodford and Jackson 2003). The same conference also saw the launch of the advanced level Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Bullon 2003). In the case of this work, Geoffrey Harmer outlined its advantages (Harmer 2003).
The present paper will outline how I used all these, and other, dictionaries to raise the linguistic awareness of Omani servicemen. This work took place while I was serving as the Technical English Language Specialist at the Technical School, RAFO Masirah, in the years 2001 to 2004.
Students’ Background. RAFO Masirah is an Omani Air Force base situated at the north end of the island of Masirah, in the Indian Ocean. Masirah is remote even by Omani standards, being 45 minutes flying time from the Capital area (military aircraft only) and some six hours traveling time across the desert by ferry and tarmac road.
The Engineering Wing at RAFO Masirah houses the Technical School, although the School is officially an outstation of the Air Force Technical College (AFTC), which is based in the Capital Area at RAFO Seeb. The technical School is responsible for providing trade courses for personnel undergoing Formal on the Job Training (FOJT), and English instruction for trade qualified personnel and FOJT’s. Students are referred to the School by their parent units.
The students are all RAFO personnel, exclusively male, and usually in their 20’s and 30’s. They are living away from their homes and families, but they are enthusiastic students, keen to learn, well disciplined and career servicemen. They hold at least Corporal rank, and work in Aircraft trades, Ground Communications, Radar or Ground Support roles – in which case they work in the Paintshop, Safety Equipment Section, Station Armoury, Tyre Bay or Welding Bay.
These men carry considerable responsibility for the efficient working of the Station, but in some cases they may have only limited formal education. They are very likely to be first generation literates, and while most are Arabic speakers, some may also maintain Swahili or Baluch as home languages. On the accession of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, in 1970, the Omani education system consisted of 900 boys learning the Holy Qur’an by heart. In the years since then, a national system of education has been established that takes Omani children from kindergarten through to post-graduate study, but many serving RAFO personnel were born too soon, or in too remote an area, to take full advantage of the new system.
Accordingly, while recent FOJT’s can be assumed to have completed their secondary education (usually in the Science Stream) and then to have gone to AFTC for four years further study, it is still possible to find long-serving NCO’s who left school at 15, joined the military, and worked their way up through a series of trade courses and good reports.
In view of the circumstances outlined above, Whitcut’s (1986) writings on the importance of training students to use dictionaries are of particular relevance. It is impossible to disagree with the suggestion that dictionaries are frequently presented to language learners with the cultural assumption that they know how to use them, when in many cases the learners require positive encouragement to consult the dictionary and discover the extent to which it can be of use to them.
This is particularly true in the Arab Gulf, where expatriate teachers frequently have no knowledge of their students’ academic backgrounds. Some expatriates also tend to make cultural assumptions that are based on stereotypes rather than on sociological research (McBeath 2006). In this respect, moreover, I would suggest that there is a fundamental difference in dictionary use between L2 learners and native speakers. L2 learners generally realize that a range of dictionaries exists, but the consult dictionaries for the meanings of words that they have encountered but have not understood. By contrast, native speakers, and particularly native speakers of English, tend to consult “the” dictionary (Butler 2004) to check on the spelling of words with which they are already familiar.
Geeraerts (1984; 1985) offers a useful division of dictionaries into three categories:-
the prototypical dictionary – of which the best example is probably the Oxford English
Dictionary; a dictionary that attempts to be as comprehensive as possible in its coverage.
the stereotypical dictionary – the standard desk dictionary, like the Collins COBUILD
(Sinclair 1987). This dictionary is based on a corpus of language and its contents are therefore partly influenced by frequency of use.
(c) the extentional dictionary – the encyclopedic dictionary which confines its corpus to a
specific academic discipline.
Schorr (1984) ignores these general classifications, concentrating instead on the differences between “serious” dictionaries and cheap bilingual editions. She points out that while many language teachers have strong reservations about the use of bilingual dictionaries, students buy them by the million, and the same publishers often provide both small, pocket bilingual and longer, desk, monolingual editions.
Mandalios (2005, 2006a; 2006b) has questioned the “belief ……. among ELT practitioners that blingual dictionary use is not to be encouraged,” (2006a; 389) but she ignores the problem of the completely unreliable bilingual dictionary. Unfortunately, in the Arab Gulf, respect for the printed word may lead to an unquestioning acceptance of openly inferior work. One of my students at the Technical School had a copy of a book called Arabic through English; The Comprehensive Translator (Homsi, No Date). This book included the coinage “doctoress” for the Arabic tabiba, and also listed “loxative”, “monark”, “mutton steacks” , and the non-word “goglet” which seems to be a misprint for “goblet”.
In support of Mandalios’ criticisms, however, we have recently seen a growing acceptance of L2 use in the English language classroom, (Atkinson 1987; Scharle and Szabo 2000; Deller and Rinvolucri 2002; Karmani 2003). We have also seen the arrival of the dictionary with its own CD ROM, which is a step forward rather than a duplication of effort. The CD ROM gives learners the opportunity to verify pronunciation.
Working from both Geeraerts and Schorr, I decided to give my students the most comprehensive cover possible, using a range of stereotypical, extentional and bilingual dictionaries. As a result, dictionary work became an integral part of the courses taught at the Technical School.
To avoid disruption to the working life of the Engineering Wing, these courses were taught for two hours a day over a five week period, giving a total of 50 instructional hours. The courses were designed to reactivate dormant language ability, by giving practice in listening skills, and requiring the students to make short job-related presentations. The students were also taught how to complete Aircraft Job Cards – outlining maintenance and servicing work that is to be done; Certificates of Work – stating the work that has been carried out; Defect Reports; Incident Reports; End of Training Phase and End of Training Course Reports; Loose Minutes; Personnel Reports and Requests for Purchase. The classes were small, no more than six, and so both pair-work and group-work were easy to arrange and monitor. Students could also be given individual assistance with areas of particular difficulty.
To improve face validity, I researched archives of Job Cards; Certificates of Work and trade course test papers, culling spelling errors from these. This approach ensured that I did not waste student time by presenting words that I thought they ought to know. Instead, they were given a corpus of proven errors, lexis with which at least some of their colleagues were having trouble.
The errors, interestingly, fell into three distinct categories:-
slips of the pen, caused by fatigue, inattention, tension or, in the case of test papers, lack
of time. Errors in this category included “sift” for “shift”; “coaling” for “cooling”;
“house” for “hose”; and “undemaned” for “undemanded”.
spelling errors in technical terminology – rethightened; functionaly; fluctuatted;
dessiccator; miscalaneuos – where the meaning remains clear.
confusion of lexis, of a type frequently encountered in even native English speakers at
secondary school level; personal – personnel; breath – breathe; complimentary – complementary.
To eradicate this third group, it was frequently enough to require students to look up BOTH forms. Almost invariably, the headwords appear on different pages, and this use of kinaesthetic learning (Jones 1998) is simultaneously evidence of an unsuspected problem and its immediate solution.
The coursework began, however, with the use of the bilingual Dictionary of Sultan’s Armed Forces Military Terminology (Al Ma’ni 2001). This is a considerably expanded version of Al Ma’ni (1998), which is less an extentional military dictionary than a bilingual lexicon or extended word list. It is heavily indebted to Kayyali (1991), and at times the information is misleading or over-simplified.
For example, the Sultan of Oman’s Armour – Mudara’at Sultan Oman – appears transliterated in Roman letters and is glossed in Arabic script. No attempt is made to explain either “definition”. Similarly, the headword “Polish” appears with a capital letter and is defined only as a verb. There is no indication that the same word could be used as a noun, and (withy the capital letter) as a totally unrelated adjective. Similarly, “aileron” is defined with the Arabic word for “wing”. This is a gross oversimplification, as an aileron is actually a moving part of the wing on an aircraft.
Having established the potential dangers of relying on an oversimplified dictionary, the class moved on to the bilingual Oxford English-Arabic Reader’s Dictionary (El Ezabi; Hornby; Parnwell 1980; 1994). This was the dictionary that they had used when they were studying at the Air Force Technical College, and so it was a familiar text. With the Dictionary of SAF Military Terminology, however, students were only required to look up words and write down the numbers of the pages on which those words appear. With the Oxford English-Arabic Reader’s Dictionary, they were required to write down the numbers of both the pages and the columns, introducing them to the concept of headwords, and demonstrating that some entries are considerably longer than others.
From the Oxford English-Arabic Reader’s Dictionary, students moved on to Al Khatib’s (2000) New Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms. This dictionary is a reprinting of Al Khatib (1997), but with a considerably updated corpus of computing and Chemical Engineering terms. It is again a bilingual dictionary and has the weakness of a contrastive word list in that it lacks definitions, but at the same time, it is obviously aimed at a target audience of specialists. The indication that a headword comes from the field of Chemistry, Engineering or Physics is generally sufficient to establish meaning. Again, students were required to write down the page numbers and the column numbers (now 3 columns to a page) giving further practice in efficiently searching for headwords.
At this stage the class moved on to monolingual dictionaries. The students were divided into small groups, and were given copies of the Cambridge Learners’ dictionary or the Macmillan Essential Dictionary, along with identical worksheets. These worksheets required the students to write down the page numbers of headwords; the number of definitions given for headwords; definitions given for particular words and the examples given for these definitions.
This approach was then repeated, in pairs, using copies of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learners Dictionary and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Appendix A).
The results of the pairs’ work was collated, demonstrating immediately that some dictionaries offer more definitions than other, that some definitions are more comprehensive than others, and that some examples are easier to understand than others.
For example, in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the second definition of the verb “shift” refers to the gears in a car or vehicle. The same information comes in the fifth definition in the Collins COBUILD, and right down in seventh place in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Conversely, the noun “squadron” is defined by the Collins COBUILD as “a section of the armed forces, especially of the air force”. The Cambridge and Longman dictionaries, however, make it clear that “squadron” can also be used of naval forces.
When this work was started, it was not intended that the dictionaries should be ranked in a hierarchy of usefulness, but the first cohort of students themselves have concluded that the Collins COBUILD was, on balance, the most comprehensive and the easiest to use. The Longman dictionary came second, with the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary a poor third. The consensus of opinion seemed to be that its definitions often omit essential information, and the arrangements of headwords was confusing – the same word often appearing twice, dependent on its derivation.
Later cohorts changed the ranking, however, with the Macmillan advanced Learners Dictionary outpointing the Collins COBUILD. The clinching factor for the Macmillan Dictionary appeared to be its use of red to indicate headwords, a user-friendly innovation that greatly simplified the task of scanning.
Having concluded this comparative work, the students finally moved on to individual copies of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Wehmeier 2000). In this final phase, they again refer to definitions and examples, the emphasis was now on job-specific terminology that could be common across trades. Two worksheets were created, focusing exclusively on terms taken from Avionics – solution (n), rotate; suds, dissolve, agitate – and the Explosive Stores Area – gouge, rupture (vb), cant (vb), score (vb), and the American usages of “vise” and “fuze”. Further trade specific worksheets will be developed as the need arises.
Conclusion At the end of their 50 hours, the students at the Technical School had received hands-on experience of using at least nine, different dictionaries. They had used monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, and had been able to compare the advantages of pocket, learner’s, stereotypical and extentional dictionaries. In most instances they had learnt how to negotiate their way through headwords and the ancillary information like word classes, abbreviations, indications of frequency and each particular dictionary’s style and usage labels. They had also been able to evaluate the extent to which that information was useful for their purposes.
This, in itself, gave them a level of linguistic sophistication well above that of the native English speaker who refers to “the dictionary”, a nebulous monolithic cultural artifact represented by a copy of Webster’s Third or the Oxford Concise. It also gave the students a knowledge base that could be transferred to Arabic dictionaries, and a tool which could be exploited both in their military roles at RAFO Masirah and in the wider world of the lifelong learner.
Arabic through English; The Comprehensive Translator. No Date. Hikmat Homsi
Beirut. Dar al Sharq al Arabi.
Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 2003 Kate Woodford & Guy Jackson (eds)
Cambridge Cambridge University Press
Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary 2001 Patrick Gillard (ed) Cambridge
Cambridge University Press
Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary 1987 John Sinclair (ed) London
Collins COBUILD English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (Third Edition 2001)
John Sinclair (ed) Glasgow Harpercollins
Dictionary of Contemporary Military Abbreviations and Acronyms (Second Edition 1998)
Musallim al Ma’ni Muscat Royal Air Force of man
A Dictionary of the Sultan’s Armed Forces Terminology 2001 Musallim al Ma’ni