My impression? From a
professional teacher of English? "Teh sux."
Behold one of the toys of the Vietnamese nouveau
riche - the
bilingual electronic dictionary. They are popular in my English
classes. They're slim enough to be held with
one hand, and even come with a plastic case for extra durability. They
translate from Vietnamese to other languages, and retranslate back
as well. Several flavors are available for the consumer:
Vietnamese-English, Vietnamese-French, and even Vietnamese-Chinese.
Some models even offer voice, so you can hear the word spoken. They can
be purchased for
a price of just over two hundred American dollars!
At this point, you may be forgiven for thinking "How poor is
country again?" There are several ways of estimating poverty. You can
rely on a glance around the street ("Fuckin' 'ell! They're
poor!"). Or you can use hard econometric data calculated by the IMF. I
prefer numbers to impressions, so I'll use the common measure
of average GDP per capita. When you add up the value of all
goods and services produced within this nation in a given year, and
divide by the population, what does it come to? That gives you a nice,
measurable figure, and as of 2005, it was $612
(I'm not adjusting for PPP; no adjustment is necessary.) My point of
this is that these devices
should be pretty damned bloody good if they cost a third of Việt Nam's
GDP. In Australia, a third of the average income could buy you
pretty decent second hand car.
Personally, and (more important) professionally, I
think the students have been gypped. They have been ripped
off. They have been taken for a ride. They have been rolled like a
sex tourist looking for a "massage" in Phạm Ngũ
Lão. They've been deluded by the presentation - a
nice new-fangled (for this nation) electronic device, often packaged as
"All-American" for greater envy from their peers. The problem
is that the content
is not up to spec, and that's what you buy a dictionary for, isn't
Well, if these machines aren't 99.98% accurate, and
I'd expect no less, then they're not worth buying at all, and certainly
not for these prices. As Woody Allen as said to Stanley Kubrick "You
can't polish a turd", and these are $200 turds indeed. But as Mr.
Kubrick riposted back, "You can if you freeze them". It seems that
congealing these pieces of poo in metal and plastic is sufficient to
sell them to the masses.
What are my problems with these infernal machines? The major
reason - and sufficient for one teacher of my acquaintance to blackball
them - is that there are no example
sentences. When students look up the meaning of a word in
one language, they will get the equivalent or equivalents in
the opposite tongue. That is necessary for a dictionary but
insufficient to stop translation problems.
Let me illustrate with a purely hypothetical example. One of
my students wants to know what "xanh" means in English. He turns on the
device, and types the word in. The machine returns the following
English synonyms back: (1): "blue"; (2): "green". Unfortunately,
examples are not provided like "The sky is blue" and "Plants are
green". So the student makes sentences like "The sky is green"
and "Plants are blue" instead. In practice, even the rawest neophyte
generally grasps the distinction between "green" and "blue", but still
- a good dictionary should be careful in distinguishing these words
anyway on principle.
This brings us on the related problem of "usage". How do
native English speakers actually use the language? You can make as many
"rules" as you want (that's what Vietnamese grammarians like to do) but
the natives will break them without really trying. Examples sentences
will illustrate what to do... and more importantly, what not to do.
Let me give another example. This time, I'll use phrasal
verbs. For those that don't know, phrasal verbs are basically
"verb + preposition". They are common in English. You use them without
thinking. Unfortunately, they are painful for learners. There are
"rules" for using them, and there are "rules" for not using them, and
these "rules" are arbitrary and inconsistent for outsiders. Take
as an example: "get on". You get on a plane. You even get on a bus. But
you never get on a car, unless you like to ride the roof. You get in a
A good dictionary would show examples of what to do and what
not to do. A bad dictionary (and these electronic dictionaries are bad)
would just provide a translation of the word - say "trèo
lên" for "get on" or "đến" for "get in". So students continue
to produce wrong English, such as "I get on my parent's car. I sit in
the passenger's seat."
Let me bring up the matter of pronunciation keys -
another area where these gadgets let learners down. Since the the
relationship between English spelling and pronunciation is capricious
and uncaring, you need pronunciation keys for English words so
that you can "read off" the pronunciation. The industry standard for
pronunciation keys in the ESL world is the IPA - the International
Phonetic Alphabet. It is what I was taught in my CELTA, and
it is what both the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries use. The problem
is that while electronic dictionaries provide pronunciation keys for
English words, these keys are often wrong. I don't even know what
standard the makers are using, or even if the makers are even
interested in standards at all. I suspect their primary motivation is
in shifting units.
Let's take an example: how do you pronounce "grape"? A good
dictionary would use IPA, and write /greIp/. These electronic
thingamabobs seem to alternate between writing /greip/ and /grep/. Both
are wrong. The first (/greip/) fails to distinguish between "I" and
"i", but these are separate, distinguishable vowels in English. (For
example, there's bit /bIt/ versus beet /bi:t/.) Alas, distinguishing
these vowels are one of the big problems for Vietnamese learners -
these vowels should
be shown differently. As for /grep/, that is even worse. The vowels in
"Grape" are a diphthong
- two different vowels run together. Good transcriptions should show
this. Using /grep/ seems to mislead my learners into pronouncing grape
as a single vowel... a little bit like "grêp". It's close,
but it's not quite right.
Some models come with a voice button. You can hear the word
"spoken". Unfortunately, the sound is often so distorted that this
feature is worse than useless. Anyone remember the old arcade game Gauntlet?
With the narrator saying lines such as "Wizard needs food badly"? Then
you get an idea of what noises these machines produce.
My aversion to electronic dictionaries is shared
by other teachers. There are those who will ban them in class
outright. Others will warn the students of their dangers. And me?
For advanced students, I recommend that they buy themselves a
good, monolingual dictionary such as the Cambridge Advanced
Learner's Dictionary. It's big, it has accurate phonetic
transcriptions, it comes with example sentences, and best of all - it's
a lot cheaper. Even with a CD-ROM, it's only £19.85.
If they can't afford to buy the book, learners can afford to access the
website - they can do dictionary lookups online. (So can you; just use
that link.) For less advanced learners, I have no problem with using
the bilingual paper
dictionaries available locally. They're not always accurate either, but
they seem to be more accurate that the electronic dictionaries... and
they're even less expensive. Pulp gives you extra advantages - you can
scan down the page, and pick up related definitions with a flick of
your eyeball. I think it's better that my lads and lasses pry open the
pages of a book.
Better than using electronic dictionaries - those exorbitant,
inaccurate, dangerous... toys.
 To be 100% accurate, there should be a minuscule capital
"I" there, like "/greɪp/". But font support for IPA is pretty patchy on
the Interweb, and IE users may see a meaningless box in its place.
Hence the substitution. My apologies for any inaccuracies.