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Dictionary use by English language learners

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 December 2013

Hilary Nesi*
Coventry University,


Research into dictionary use does not have a long history. Although publishers recognised in the 1960s that ‘dictionaries should be designed with a special set of users in mind’ (Householder 1967: 279) there were extremely few empirical user studies before the 1980s – Welker's most recent survey (2010) lists only six. The subsequent surge of interest in this field was fuelled by big changes to dictionary content and design in the 1980s and 1990s, changes that were particularly evident in dictionaries for learners of English as a foreign language, conventionally known as ‘learners’ dictionaries’. In the space of a few years the Oxford advanced learner's dictionary, generally considered to be the earliest advanced learners’ dictionary (first published under a different title in 1942, with subsequent editions in 1948, 1963, 1974 and 1989) was joined by two new competitors: the Longman dictionary of contemporary English (first edition 1978, second edition 1987) and the COBUILD English dictionary (1987). In 1995 all three of these advanced learners’ dictionaries brought out new editions, and a fourth, the Cambridge international dictionary of English, was launched. These dictionaries, sometimes referred to as ‘the big four’ (Bogaards 1996, De Schryver 2012 and others), drew on Eastern European traditions of lexical description, the illustrative practices of American children's dictionaries, and insights from English language teaching pedagogies. Each had its own distinctive layout and defining style, prompting a spate of comparative studies intended to help users make appropriate purchasing choices, and to help publishers improve their design still further, for example by changes to the entry microstructure. A fifth such dictionary, the Macmillan English dictionary for advanced learners, appeared in 2002.

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