Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 15 • July 2007

Eight suggestions for improving learners’ dictionaries

Ari Kernerman


 Ari (Lionel) Kernerman has extensive experience as English teacher, teacher trainer, textbook writer and publisher. In the 1980s he developed the innovative semi-bilingual English learner’s dictionary concept, which has since appeared in dozens of language versions worldwide with profound impact on pedagogical lexicography for foreign language learners. He has written prolifically about learners’ dictionaries, and was on the Executive Board of EURALEX. He is CEO of Kernerman Publishing.



Adapted from a presentation delivered at DSNA XVI, the Biennial Meeting of The Dictionary Society of North America, held in Chicago, on June 14, 2007.




The development of monolingual learner’s dictionaries (MLDs) has had a profound influence on general lexicography, with their more tangible definitions in easily comprehensible language, examples of usage and collocations, helpful linguistic advice, and a general user-friendly approach. But there’s still room for improvement. Based mainly on the 5 advanced English MLDs, that enjoy the bulk of the learner’s dictionary market, a number of suggestions are made for improvement.


Actually, every dictionary is a learner’s dictionary, in the sense that even well educated native speakers consult them for unfamiliar words, or to clarify spelling, etc. But in this paper, we are referring to a dictionary for learners of English as a foreign language. Although dictionaries are intended mainly for reference, MLDs are language learning aids or tools, companions to text-books. How can they be improved?


1. Explaining a dictionary’s rationale

Basing this discussion on the five main English MLDs (Big Five), although all have very detailed and extensive user’s guides, none of the Introductions are aimed at the prospective user, but stay aloof.


  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 7th edition, 2005 (OALD7)

In the Foreword, Professor Henry Widdowson writes an exposition for lexicographers, lexicography enthusiasts, linguists, and teachers. As in its previous editions of the OALD, the Foreword is not intended, nor is it appropriate, for its users. Its contents are not at the level of those for whom the dictionary is intended, even though they are considered ‘advanced’ learners.


  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 3rd edition, 2001 (LDOCE3)

In the 25 pages of preliminary material, Professor Randolph Quirk’s Preface is mainly about the problems that faced the lexicographers when they wrote the dictionary. This may be of interest to other lexicographers, dictionary lovers, and teachers, but it is not helpful for the users, who, could they understand the Preface, would not need to use this dictionary. And in the Introduction, Della Summers, Director of Longman Dictionaries, begins with “Welcome again to the updated and improved third edition…” She discusses mainly what Longman has done differently in this edition, but not what the object and the use of this dictionary are.


  • Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 3rd edition, 2001 (COBUILD3)

Of the 50 preliminary pages, Editor-in-Chief, the late Professor John Sinclair devotes three pages to an Introduction explaining mainly why this dictionary is based on a word corpus, and why a word corpus is good for you – as if the user really cares, or even understands what a word corpus is. Although the editor addresses the user, the Introduction clearly reads like an attempt at self-justification, and may be more relevant to linguists and grammarians.


  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2nd edition, 2003. (CALD2)

In the Introduction, Editor Elizabeth Walter writes mainly about the corpus and frequency information.


  • Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2002 (MEDAL)

In the Foreword, Chief Advisor Professor Michael Hoey philosophizes about the dictionary, providing the user with no useful tools to start using it, while in the Introduction, Michael Rundell, Editor-in-Chief, talks about how the dictionary was written, possibly addressing teachers.


It seems they all missed the point. These dictionaries are written for language learners – who are usually high school and university students – but, unfortunately, they are directed more towards their teachers.


Recommendation: Explain to the users in their own language what the dictionary is all about and how to use it.


2. Cultural orientation

The Big Five are all written and produced in the United Kingdom, and are culturally oriented to the British way of life. They are the main English learners’ dictionaries that are used around the world. Although for some there are also American editions, most learners of English as a foreign or second language are situated neither in the UK nor in America, but are usually learning their English at school or college, in their own country. For example, authors of the Big Five might define conventional medicine as that type of medicine which is practiced in the West, and alternative medicine as what is practiced in the East. Yet, the Chinese consider their own medicine to be conventional, not alternative.


English is studied in the non-English-speaking countries as the global lingua franca, not as the mother tongue of natives of Britain or the US. Setting sentences around Big Ben, or the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, or referring to Mrs. Thatcher, are not the social, cultural, or political settings relevant to foreign learners.


In short, these dictionaries assume that the learner is studying English for ‘integrative purposes’, in order to assimilate and integrate in the USA, the UK, Australia, etc., whereas in most cases they are learning the language for ‘instrumental purposes’, in other words, for professional or communication purposes, often in order to confer in English with people in other non-English-speaking countries – as the ‘global lingua franca’.


Recommendation:  Each country should have its own dictionaries, written, or, at least edited, if not by that country, then for it.


3. Learning in the language you think in

No teaching can eliminate the need to know the equivalent for a new word in the mother tongue. The generation of total submergence in the language being learned is far behind us. Submergence, yes, but not total. Naturally, teachers would like their students to endeavor to think in the new language. The more they live and breathe it, and the more they speak and read it, the more they can be involved in it and internalize it. But language learners need the confirmation of knowing the mother tongue equivalent, because they inevitably search for it. That’s a fact that I don’t think I need to spend more time on.           


Recommendation: Publishers should publish bilingualized editions of their MLDs, that is, with the headwords translated.


4. Over-writing and over-explaining

Competition has been causing dictionary publishers to overshoot the mark. The competition is stiff, and the investment required is huge. You have to compete in order to regain your investment and make profit. So each dictionary publisher, in each new edition, tries to outdo the others by adding something new and original. The result is that MLDs are becoming more encyclopedic with each new edition, thus diminishing, rather than enhancing, their learner-friendliness. They contain too much extraneous material. Users generally want to know mainly the basic information, such as meaning, use or spelling. But they have to wade through an unnecessarily large amount of information in order to find what they want.


Even the linguistic items are often geared to language-teaching professionals, rather than learners. For example, two pages in OALD7 are devoted to explaining their phonetic symbols – a text seemingly written for phoneticians. Likewise, in MEDAL there are pages devoted to how to write an academic paper, to explaining what a metaphor is for (as if they don’t have metaphors in other languages), and pages devoted to pragmatics, that are a way beyond the language level of the learners. CALD2 has a whole page devoted to the comma. 


Recommendation:  Cut down on the non-essential information that is cluttering up the dictionary.


5. Standardizing the dictionary parameters

It’s high time dictionary publishers got together to unify many aspects of their dictionaries. It would make life easier for users, as well as for teachers. Standardization would promote familiarity with dictionary use, and familiarity would facilitate and encourage dictionary usefulness and usability. For how much longer will we continue to be at the stage where almost the only thing that can be taught in the classroom about dictionary use is the order of the letters of the alphabet, because the systems are so different from each other?


The ISO (International Standards Organization) is preparing a revised version of standards called “Presentation/Representation of Entries in Dictionaries”, the aim of which is to facilitate the production, exchange and management procedures for the creation and use of dictionary content (Le Meur and Derouin, 2006). But will dictionary publishers adopt it?


Recommendation:  Out of consideration for the users, publishers should coordinate parameters, rather than strive to be original.


6. Determining the order of meanings by didactic criteria, not by corpus frequency

The information derived from corpora is very interesting and undoubtedly useful for linguists. But must dictionaries indeed be based on corpora? Giving the “basic” meaning of a word first, may be more helpful in understanding its various uses, than giving first a derived meaning, just because its use is more frequent.


Recommendation:  Give preference to the relative didactic importance of the various meanings, instead of to their corpus frequency, when determining order of appearance or example sentences.


7. Cutting down on the amount of space devoted to common words and function words

Dictionary users already know a great many of the meanings and uses of high frequency words. So space can be saved by treating familiar words more briefly and concisely. Do dictionary editors think that after 5 years of study, language learners really want to look up a, an, the, or of? Is it necessary for OALD7 to devote over a quarter of a page to the word a, or is such extensive treatment given to this entry for the sake of the reviewers?


Recommendation:  Accept that dictionary users already possess a basic knowledge of the new language, cut down on unnecessary information, and leave more space for new entries.


8. Finding an alternative to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to teach pronunciation

Learning the IPA is a difficult task. Many teachers themselves cannot read it. It would be better, particularly for users whose mother tongue is not written in the roman alphabet, to follow the American custom of not applying the phonetic alphabet.


Recommendation: Use a simpler and more practical method for teaching pronunciation.


Conclusions: Advice to publishers of MLDs

1. Explain to the dictionary users in their own language what this dictionary is all about.

2. Write the definitions in a way that is culturally neutral. And select example sentences that are more universal in content. Consider publishing local editions, at least for the main countries in your market area.

3. Provide translations of the headwords in the user’s native language, and reserve monolingual editions for mother-tongue immersion situations.

4. Cut down on the non-essential information that is cluttering up the dictionary.

5. Out of consideration for the users, co-ordinate parameters with other dictionary publishers, rather than try to be original.

6. Give preference to the didactic importance of the various meanings, instead of to their corpus frequency, when determining their order of appearance, or when selecting the example sentences.

7. Accept that users of advanced MLDs already have a minimum basic intermediate level knowledge of the language they are learning, and that it is not necessary to provide a complete linguistic treatise for function words and other common words. This would leave space for more entries.

8. Introduce a simpler and more practical method than the IPA for teaching pronunciation.




CALD. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2003. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

COBUILD3. Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 3rd ed., 2001. Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers.

LDOCE3. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 3rd ed., 2001. Essex: Pearson Education.

Le Meur and Derouin, 2006. André Le Meur and Marie-Jeanne Derouin, ‘ISO 1951 : a revised standard for lexicography’, in Kernerman Dictionary News, 14. Tel Aviv: K Dictionaries.

MEDAL. Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2002. London: Macmillan Publishers and Bloomsbury Publishing.

OALD7. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 7th ed., 2005. Oxford: Oxford University Press.