A dictionary is relevant even in today’s digital world, asserts Joanna Turnbull, managing editor of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Eighth Edition

The good old dictionary is going strong. Even in an era when words open up at the click of a mouse. “Our dictionaries sell extremely well. They are not only tools that you can carry in the palm of your hand but also access at the tap of the screen. We provide information in different forms — as a CD Rom, app for android smartphones and iPhones. We provide the best of both worlds,” says Joanna Turnbull, managing editor of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) Eighth Edition.

She is on a visit to India as part of the Oxford University Press India’s centenary activities for school teachers and is conducting workshops for them in Lucknow, Kolkata and Pune. The workshops are aimed to guide middle school teachers on using the dictionary as an effective tool to help students improve their writing skills. She was in Chennai recently and spoke to the English Language Teachers’ Association of India on the role of dictionaries.

Indian connection

“Oxford has a long history in India. In India, think ‘dictionary’ and you think ‘Oxford’,” says Turnbull. The history of the learner’s dictionary goes back to 1948 when A.S. Hornby had the idea of publishing one — how to use the word and also provide illustrations and simple definitions. “All these features are still there,” says Turnbull, “but now we have infused new technology,” she says.

The dictionary in the book form is used while one is working at the desk but while students are outside, they refer to the digital one, says Turnbull opening out the Eighth Edition of the Advanced Learner’s dictionary that comes with a CD Rom.

How relevant is a dictionary in today’s digital world? “Very,” she replies. “We have new editions that connect it with today’s world — with technology and the social media.” The role of the teacher comes in a big way, adds Turnbull.

A teacher's role

“We conducted world wide research. We were surprised to find the problems and challenges the same in countries where English is not the native language. Students find writing difficult. They don’t plan their writing and don’t check their written work. The teacher can play a vital role in helping students consult the dictionary and the way it is used.” Which age group uses dictionaries the most? “Anyone who is learning English, and requires information that can help him / her pass an exam, get a job, improve language skills and vocabulary.”

It must be quite a challenge to decide what words to introduce in the dictionary and what to take out… “It is dangerous to take words out. But sometimes there are words such as ‘millennium bug’, which are typical of the times and so we have removed them. Before words go in, we consult the corpus of English to test them out. The corpus has three billion words! The corpus tells us how language is being used today, whether words are worthy of being used or not. Lexicographers in the past had to use their intuition, now we can be more scientific. Most of my colleagues are teachers and they exercise their judgment. So now both science and judgment go into the process.”

“My research team and I have introduced the topic collocation notes, for example, Environment. The Oxford Writing Tutor is another distinct feature. It contains guidelines on how to write essays, reports, formal letters, business and academic e-mails, CV… This helps the student work in tandem with the Oxford iWriter, which is part of the CD Rom.”

Do texting and the way the young people use language pose challenges to those who bring out dictionaries? “That’s a form of communication. Some of them find serious writing difficult. We reflect how younger people are using words. We have people around the world constantly searching for new words. When my team members and I see or hear a new word on television, we immediately take it down. In fact, it is a sort of compulsion; it takes over our lives,” she laughs.

Indian vocabulary

“In India, the standard of English is very high,” says Turnbull. “But a different combination of words is sometimes used than in the U.K. It’s interesting and different. In newspapers, for instance, there is a combination of formal and informal words. For example, ‘The decision to abstain from the presidential race came in for flak’. Also difficult and rare words such as ‘nexus’ are used here; they are not used or understood in the U.K.” Turnbull says the main difference in the way language is used by native English speakers and Indian speakers are collocations — the way the words go together. “For example, ‘heavy rain’ not ‘strong rain’.

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