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How digital technology is changing our lives… and our language

DeathtoStock_Medium5Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus – a dictionary of synonyms and of the ELTon award-winning Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

New words that enter the language are a reflection of the way people’s lives are changing. If we look at what is trending, we can see that new technology can bring with it new capabilities. There are wearables – computing devices that you can wear, such as a smartwatch – which are touch-sensitive and may be voice-activated. Superfast broadband and in-app purchase offer new opportunities, but there’s a new distraction in the form of clickbait – that’s a link or headline on the Internet that you just can’t help clicking on. All this can have a profound influence on how people work, enjoy themselves and relate to one another

If we look at new words connected with work we can see several strands, some of them in opposition to each other. Decisions are data-driven. It is important to demonstrate proof of concept. Using agile methodology, getting things right requires an iterative process of refinement and modification. But if that doesn’t work, putting a finger in the air is a less scientific approach, based on guesswork. Or you can put together a mood board with key images and words that best convey the image of the brand.

New technology and new ways of working have an effect on how people feel and how they manage their lives. Always-on devices can make for always-on people who find it harder to draw boundaries between work and home life, public and private. They may worry about their digital footprint, all the information that exists about them on the Internet as a result of their online activities. What kind of information security (or infosec) do companies have in place? Ad blockers screen out unwanted advertisements and are one kind of lifehack – a strategy or technique that you can use to manage your time and daily activities in a more efficient way. At a more profound level, a therapist may teach mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism, which is a way for body and mind to reconnect.

Technology has transformed some of our leisure activities as well. Game apps and MMOs – massively multiplayer online games – have brought with them a whole vocabulary of their own. Sometimes this means new meanings for old words. Players move from level to level in different virtual worlds. Killing monsters and defeating enemies earn XP (that’s experience points) that help you level up and unlock new features of the game. Fantasy worlds have their own technology: travel by jetpack – a device you can strap on your back that enables you to fly – or do battle with an army of mecha – giant animal robots controlled by people who travel inside them. Hoverboards used to belong to the world of fantasy too, but now you can ride one for real. A real one doesn’t actually hover, of course – it’s a kind of electric skateboard.

Millennials – the generation of people who became adults around the year 2000 – may still be considered digital immigrants. Their children are true digital natives. They have grown up with the Internet and digital technology. They relate to each other in a different way. Online communities are not based around a neighbourhood but around a shared interest or fandom enthusiasm for a particular person, team or TV show, for example. Online friends express themselves digitally, filling their tweets and emails with emoji – small digital images used to express ideas and emotions.

What are the takeaways from all this – that is, the important facts, points or ideas to be remembered? Only that language and communication are endlessly fluid and inventive. Dictionary editors need to be constantly on the alert for new words and phrases and new uses of old words, monitor them carefully and then make a judgement: is this a genuine new expression that is going to catch on and deserves a space in the dictionary? Technology and the Internet have transformed this task, as they have many other jobs, and enabled dictionaries to get closer to the cutting edge of language change than ever before. See here for the full list of words and expressions added to www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com in December 2015.


#IATEFL – Pronunciation to Go: learning to learn from the dictionary

Teacher helping dyslexic studentMark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series introduces his forthcoming IATEFL talk on the keys to developing students’ use of dictionaries and important features that can support independent learning.

Proverbial wisdom tells us that if you give someone a fish, they can eat for a day, but if you teach someone to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. It’s a message about the long-term value of learning new skills and becoming independent. A similar thing could be said about pronunciation and dictionaries. Each time you teach a learner to pronounce a word, their English benefits a little, but they remain dependent on you. If, however, you can show your learners how to teach themselves the pronunciation of a word using the dictionary, they can improve their own English independently for ever more.

The dictionary is an immense resource, containing information about all the English words a learner is ever likely to need. In learners’ dictionaries, pronunciation information has traditionally been provided using phonemic symbols based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Nowadays, however, with the advent of online dictionaries, there are also recordings of all the headwords, accessible at the click of an icon – a wonderful resource.

It is well worth helping your learners get familiar with the IPA symbols, even though there is now an audio option. It’s a great learning investment for the following reasons:

– A knowledge of the phonemic symbols enables you to ‘see inside’ the pronunciation of the word, like an x-ray. You can see exactly what sounds are in there – and what sounds are not. Furthermore, these x-rays help you to see similarities and differences between words. For instance, your student may not be able to hear the difference between hit and heat, but they will definitely be able to see that the transcription is different.

– The ear is not always a reliable source of information. You can hear the word calm, for instance, and believe that you are hearing an L because it’s there in the spelling. When you see in the phonetic transcription that there’s no /l/, it makes it official somehow.

– The audio recording is only the voice of one person at one time. You don’t know which features of their pronunciation are essential and which are just one-off idiosyncrasies. For example, if the speaker places a glottal stop after the /k/ in document, the learner doesn’t know if this is a feature that they need to copy, or just a feature of that individual’s speech. The transcription shows it not to be essential.

If you can help your learners to be comfortable in the company of phonemic symbols, you are doing them a lasting service, because it will give them a more complete access to the information in the dictionary. It’s not that they have to memorize all the symbols – many dictionaries have a running footer across all the pages with a key to them. So it’s just a case of them getting to know the symbols little by little, as they use them.

Stress information is also provided in the transcription, by a vertical dash like an apostrophe. This is superscript for primary stress and subscript for secondary stress. If a dictionary entry does not have a transcription of its own, then these stress marks are shown in the headword itself. It’s very important for learners to become familiar with this method of marking stress.

The dictionary also provides stress information beyond single word level, for compound words, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. Compare, for example, the different stress patterns in the following pairs:

compound nouns:               ‘roller blind – ve”netian ‘blind

phrasal verbs:                       “look ‘on (observe) – ‘look on (regard as)

idiomatic expressions:        ‘one of these days –  one of those ‘days.

Due to the limitations of the WordPress editor, we cannot display the stress markings correctly. The single mark should be subscript (secondary stress) and the double one should be superscript, but single (primary stress).

Encourage your learners to look out for these stress markings, and try reading out loud the example sentences in the dictionary using the stress as indicated.

We do of course need to recognize the limitations of dictionaries for pronunciation work at the level of connected speech. Dictionaries, by their nature, are more focused at word-level features. However, the 9th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (OALD9) does take a step towards remedying this situation by providing pronunciation guidance for common spoken functional exponents. For instance, under the headword invite, there’s a box of exponents for inviting and responding to invitations, along with recordings of these, and even a short video of an interaction. The OALD9 also includes videos of students giving model answers in some typical speaking exam scenarios, and these exemplify some of the prosodic features of longer stretches of speech.


Top tips every EFL student should know when using an English learner’s dictionary

Close-up of Dicionary entry in dictionaryStacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some ideas to help students get more out of using a dictionary in the classroom.

Has every pair got a copy of the dictionary? OK. Here’s a list of words for you to look up. This is a race. The first pair to find a definition for all the words is the winner.

Sound familiar?

We’ve probably all done dictionary races.  They can be a motivating way to get students to use a dictionary and can help students become faster at looking up words. However, for my class of pre-sessional university students, I needed them to delve deeper into what the dictionary has to offer. So, instead I organised a slow-down race. In this race, the students needed to spend more time on an entry in order to find out common collocations, different word forms, synonyms and antonyms, the part of speech, any idioms, and whether or not the words were on the academic word list (AWL).

The first thing I noticed was that not everyone knew how the dictionary was organised.  I hadn’t even considered that dictionaries in other languages (Arabic and Chinese, for example) weren’t organised alphabetically, so already I’d lost about half of the class to confusion. I’d also assumed that, because my students were at an intermediate level, they must have used dictionaries before. Well of course they had, but never paper ones.

The next thing I noticed was that few students knew what the abbreviations and symbols meant. Some students were able to figure out that SYN means synonym, but OPP and NAmE stumped them. I realised that, if students were going to get the most out of using a learner’s dictionary, they were going to need some dictionary training.

Finding words more quickly

First, a review of the alphabet. Students thought this was funny, but not everyone knew the right order, so I left the alphabet on the board. Then a little lesson on running heads – the words at the top of each dictionary page. On a 2-page spread, the word at the top left is the first word listed and the word at the top right is the last word listed. By using the running heads, it makes finding the word you want quicker. So, if you have the running heads contradiction and control, you would expect to find the words contrary, contrast and contribute within those two pages, but you would have to keep turning the page to find conventional.

Admittedly, this skill is only useful for paper dictionaries whereas most students have dictionary apps nowadays. It’s rather like using a compass instead of a sat nav. I still feel it’s a useful skill to have. Plus, paper dictionaries have the advantage of having more words on the page to look at, and word-lovers like me can learn a word incidentally that they weren’t actually looking for.

Going deeper

Next were symbols and abbreviations.  These are used in dictionary apps and online dictionaries as well, so they are relevant for everyone. I chose a word with a range of these. In the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, the word irrational works well (and it is also on the iGuide, so I was able to put it up on-screen). I got them to find the symbol or abbreviation that meant opposite, somebody, something, countable noun, uncountable noun, singular, adjective, adverb, where the stressed syllable was and whether it was in the academic word list.  Then we played a game in which they had to find the parts of the entry which showed the opposite meaning, example sentences, information about when to use the word, related words and word families, grammatical information about the word, alternative spellings of the word, etc. (Again, I used the iGuide for this, but the same thing can be done with a photocopy and coloured markers or highlighters).

We finished up where we started – by looking deeply into the meanings and uses of the words we needed to know and by using the dictionary entry to find out which meaning was the right one for words in the context of an article that we read later.

By the end of the lesson, the students had a much better idea of how to make sense of the dictionary entry which before had been a little intimidating. They also had a better sense of how the dictionary could be used in a deeper way – to find out more information about words so that they could be used more flexibly.


Academic writing and the grammar of words

Julie MooreClose-up of Dicionary entry in dictionary, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, looks at the benefit of using dictionary skills in academic writing.

In ELT, we tend to approach grammar and vocabulary as two quite separate strands, mostly for the convenience of teaching. Of course, we all know that, in reality, they’re closely interwoven. And perhaps nowhere more so than in EAP (English for Academic Purposes), where complex constructions and the importance of appropriate vocabulary choices often make an understanding of lexicogrammar (the grammar of words) absolutely key to writing clearly and persuasively.

Consider the underlined phrases in the following three examples of student writing – are they issues of vocabulary or grammar?

  • This essay aims to exploring how children’s lifestyles can both cause and address the issue of increasing child obesity.
  • Some of these areas are located in seismic belts and encounter with the risk of strong earthquake.
  • In order to better understand the construction of a photoelectric sensor, a brief explanation to the working principle is given here.

In each case, it’s the grammatical features or typical grammatical patterns of these specific vocabulary items that have caused problems; the following verb pattern, the need for a direct object, and the dependent preposition respectively. This is tough for the learner because it means that it’s not enough to learn general grammatical principles and bolt on a list of appropriate academic vocabulary; they also need to get to grips with the grammatical characteristics of each individual word.

Of course, a lot of this comes from exposure to academic writing; students noticing recurrent patterns as they read and getting a feel for how particular words are typically used in context. But to me as a teacher, that always seems like rather a superficial piece of advice, a bit vague and with no obvious concrete steps that students can take to improve their next piece of writing. The process of learning how vocabulary is used doesn’t have to be a passive one though – students can be encouraged to be proactive when it comes to lexicogrammar.

Each of the students above could be pointed in the direction of a dictionary to see where they’ve gone wrong. Below are extracts from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, which provides a wealth of information targeted specifically at how vocabulary items are used in an academic context, both in terms of meaning and grammar.

aim (verb) … 2 [I,T] to try or plan to achieve sth: … ~to do sth The project aimed to investigate Earth history by drilling the deep ocean floor.

encounter (verb) 1 ~sth to experience sth, especially sth unpleasant or difficult, while you are trying to do sth else: One problem commonly encountered by customers ordering products over the Internet is difficulty with delivery … to encounter difficulties/obstacles/opposition

explanation (noun) … 2 [C] ~(of sth) a statement or piece of writing that tells you how sth works or makes sth easier to understand: … The author provides a brief explanation of his oral history process.

By pointing out in class how this type of information is shown in the dictionary (in each case here by expressions in bold showing the pattern and then reinforced in example sentences), students can start to see how they can learn about how words work for themselves.

Dictionary skills can be incorporated into activities where students edit their own writing (as in the above examples) or it can simply provide a regular interlude when an issue over a particular word or expression crops up in class. And as an added bonus, the processes involved in looking up the word and analysing the information they find, will help this new knowledge stick.


#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.


Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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