Hands off that e-Dictionary!

The (few) merits and (many) disadvantages of electronic dictionaries from the author's point of view
by Glen A. Hill

Man has created a number of labor-saving devices throughout history. One that I find most disturbing (and oftentimes useless and irritating) is the electronic dictionary. Here, I'd like to address the (few) merits and (many) disadvantages of e-dictionaries from my point of view.

(My experiences with students using dictionaries in general are documented in part under Teaching Tips at www.teachinginjapan.com.)

I live in Japan, where miniaturization of electronic items is a way of life, so it is no surprise that many students of language schools, high schools, and universities carry these little marvels. Think of it. That huge, overweight paper dictionary that you used to see in your library resembled a building block in size and weight, yet someone has found a way to convert all of that into a plastic box smaller than a video cassette tape. Amazing! In Japan, they cost as little as 10,000 yen (US$100) or as much as 40,000 yen, depending on how many functions you want (or think you want) and depending on how fashionable you are. (And the Japanese like to consider the most recent fashions as the thing to buy. Take a look at their garbage dumping sites, and you'll see 2-year old televisions in perfect condition. Look at the shops selling cellular phones; last year's models go for zero to 800 yen, while this year's glitzy phones run over 10,000 yen, despite very few differences!)

E-dictionaries may be light and compact, more so than any paper dictionary. They may even contain more words and expressions. It depends on which one you buy. To me, these are pretty much the limits to their advantages.

So, why do I hate e-dictionaries?

Well, hate is a strong word. In my opinion, they have marked disadvantages over the simple "Gutenberg" model made of paper and ink. So, I think they should be limited in their use in classrooms. Let's take a look at some reasons why.

E-dictionaries are much more expensive. My trusty Random House paper dictionary is copyrighted at 1995, cost me a mere US$12.95 plus tax, and is still on the shelves at bookstores in 2003. (That's about 1500 yen, in case you're comparing to Japanese money.)

E-dictionaries are more fragile. Drop your paper dictionary. Go ahead. Hold it above your head and drop it. Now, try this with any lightweight plastic e-dictionary, and you'll be picking up the pieces. Don't think this is a fair test? Put both dictionaries in a backpack full of other typical things (your textbook, a box lunch, a note pad, a pencil case). Now, sit on this. Yes, just like you might do by accident anywhere. How many of you are willing to do this with an e-dictionary inside? Still think this is unfair? Ok, take that same backpack and toss it into the corner of the room on the floor. You know, like you might do after a long day at work or school, with your mind on a beverage or meal instead of on the contents of that pack. If you don't cringe just a little at this thought, you must have a paper dictionary inside, like me. Now, if you are thinking that paper dictionaries wind up with torn pages, mutilated covers, and broken bindings, you are right! However, a strong book cover and some tape can easily patch these things up. With an electronic dictionary that's been around several years, once you can see the damage, it's probably too late.

E-dictionaries need batteries. Ah, the memories of sitting in a high school or college class taking a math or chemistry test, sure of my answers and abilities, only to be squelched by the horrid discovery that my calculator had died! Batteries die. Batteries are temperature sensitive. Batteries cost money, no, make that extra money. Unless, of course, you buy next year's model e-dictionary before you need new batteries. Hmm, maybe that is just fashionable, but it sure isn't economical

E-dictionaries have keypads. Typing in the spelling of a word is harder and more time-consuming than flipping through pages and using the index at the top of each page. I have beaten students in races with such situations on countless occasions. Moreover, some of those keypads require a stylus to tap on the microscopic keys or the screen. In my opinion, this is just another item to lose, and it presents problems to the arthritic. (Hey, not all students are teenagers!) On top of this, those pesky little keypads have labels for the keys, and I have yet to find a student who knows how to use each of those functions! And, for fellow non-Japanese, you'd best learn those kanji labels or the functions are, uh, well, non-functional. Most people use the e-dictionary only for its most basic function of typing in a word and checking its meaning. What is the sense to having all of those other (dozen or so) buttons? Oh, I forgot. It's fashionable to have something so high tech.

While we're on the subject of extra functions, let me add a statement about one that really irritates me. Sound. Little devices that beep when you press the buttons may look cool in a Star Trek episode, but it is very disturbing to some people in a classroom situation or library. And, heaven help anyone in my class who uses the dictionary to generate pronunciation models with its poor speaker system and electronic voice! Students often complain about doing pair work with people of their own nationality because they claim pronunciation isn't perfect. Why would they think a synthesized voice box from their e-dictionary would be any better? Besides, it's as annoying as someone playing with a cell phone next to you on the subway.

Some would say you can cram more words into that tiny little box than you can in any paper model dictionary. Maybe so. My problem here comes in using those words. Working in a high school, I have had untold numbers of experiences with Japanese students writing paragraphs, speeches, compositions, and such, and I do my best to elicit questions from them. Simple questions like, "How do you say X in English?" It's amazing how few can actually put those seven words together. Instead, they pull out their e-dictionaries and begin to tap on the keys for the answer. They rarely learn how to ask this basic question. A second, and more serious, issue arises in their writing itself. Finding the right words, sometimes whole expressions, is much more difficult when you have to scroll down huge lists of options, some with options embedded in the options. What's more, the results show in their writing. So many students don't learn (or don't want to learn) the grammar needed, so they try to substitute material directly from the e-dictionaries into their sentences. Sometimes this creates thoughts that are slightly off in meaning, while other times, this generates quite a string of gibberish that was originally intended to demonstrate a general situation.

Finally, let's consider making corrections or additions. No dictionary is perfect, paper version or electronic. However, when you find something you'd like to change in the e-dictionary, you can't do anything about it. You can pencil in some notes with the paper type. Likewise, if you learn a word that isn't in the dictionary, a few strokes of a pencil make it easy to increase its memory capacity. Not possible with a keypad model. And, for those students whose habit is to mark certain words with a highlight pen for ease of future reference, again, the paper dictionary wins out.

So, decide for yourselves. My intent is to inform, not persuade or complain. Right now, I'm off to the store to buy more tape. It's cheaper than batteries.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Glen A. Hill 2003
Glen A. Hill teaches English at a private high school in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. His classes include simple oral communication, speech making, literature, and science (in English). He has also taught at the Asahi Culture Center, where he provided standard conversation classes as well as special courses in debating and discussion of scientific topics. In addition, Glen does English proofreading for scientific materials and teaches private English classes. Glen's experiences with students using dictionaries are documented in part at http://www.teachinginjapan.com. That article covers dictionaries in general.