The two words in the title were responses to the question, “Should we let our students use bilingual dictionaries?” The “Yes” was said during a question and answer period after a plenary at a professional meeting in 2012. The “No” was said in a plenary at the same professional meeting one year later, in 2013.

I have concerns about both the question and the answers. Both people who responded to the question assumed that they knew how the teacher who asked the question and his students used bilingual dictionaries. And they further assumed that the way they were imagining students used bilingual dictionaries was the same way the person who asked the question as well as other participants imagining students or themselves used bilingual dictionaries. Of course the person asking the question had the same assumptions. He also imagined at one level that the person answering his question knew how his students used bilingual dictionaries. Said another way, all participants in the exchanges as well as most in the audience seemed to accept the idea that there is only one way to use a bilingual dictionary and one purpose for using it and that everyone in the world who uses a bilingual dictionary does so in the same way and for the same purpose.  Obviously this cannot be the case but on one level most discussions of teaching follow this script.

Another concern I have is that both the person asking and those responding somehow believed that students use of bilingual dictionaries could be controlled. Even before digital dictionaries were available on smart phones students in classes where the use of bilingual dictionaries was banned had ways of checking printed bilingual dictionaries, hiding them under their hats, in their book bags or lunch bags, in their desks, etc. And since students spend less than 10 percent of their time in class, it means for 90 percent of the time we have no control over what they do.

Back to the use of bilingual dictionaries. Here are a few different ways to use them and different purposes for using them. The sequence is arbitrary.

1. Fatima looks up save and took care of which  she just predicted the meaning of in a paragraph in a graded reader titled The Titanic to see if her predictions of the meanings were correct.

2. Juan wants to write an example of how raining is used to supplement the sentence in his textbook. From the text he has copied “As soon as I got home, it began raining.”  From the dictionary, he copies “It began raining around 5 pm, just as people left their offices to go home.” He likes to write two or three sentences with the same word so he can see how it is used in various patterns.

3. Akiko sees the word close on the door of a store in the evening after it has closed. She thinks it is not correct but wants to check so looks up close and in her bilingual dictionary and sees the word closed nearby. She learns that close contrasts with far and closed contrasts with open. On her way home from school, she stops at the store and shows the owner close and closed in her bilingual dictionary. He corrects his sign.

4. Okon is fascinated by words that look and sound similar in English and Spanish like libreria meaning bookstore in Spanish but sounding like library in English. He finds it easier to remember and use the words that look the same but have different meanings when he checks them in his bilingual dictionary.

5. Kim likes to compare meanings of words that are different parts of speech in Korean and English. She never writes just the word in Korean and the part of speech and the word equivalent in English that is a different part of speech. Rather, she writes at least two sentences, often taken from her bilingual dictionary, illustrating the position of the words in the sentences so she can compare how different parts of speech are signaled in the two languages.

6. Jacques looks up every word in his French-English dictionary that he does not know and writes the French word above the English word in the texts he is reading. In some paragraphs, there are ten to twenty French words written above the English equivalents which means he can hardly see the English words.

7. Anis copies each word in a text he does not know into his notebook. He then looks up the words in his bilingual dictionary and writes down the first meaning s that are listed. He copies them next to the words he has copied down, with no context whatever. He tries to memorize each word in English and the first meaning that he found for it.

Perhaps the plenary speaker who said “No” was thinking of students like Jacques and Anis. But perhaps the person asking the question was thinking of Kim or Fatima or dozens of other learners around the world who use bilingual as well as monolingual dictionaries in a wide range of ways. Conversely the “Yes” plenary speaker might have blocked out the Jacquess of the world because in classes of teachers he works with he has gotten the teachers to discourage the use of bilingual dictionaries the way Jacques uses his.

Asking students to write how they use their bilingual dictionaries and discussing how various ways such as the 7 I illustrated are detrimental or helpful can expand the range of ways students use their bilingual dictionaries and perhaps lead to better use of this resource.

Those who are against the use of bilingual dictionaries often advocate the use of monolingual dictionaries instead. In the attached episode, I invite you to explore this option. I hope the activities you do are not only helpful in in seeing ways to rate definitions but also enable you to better understand the complexity of the issue. As you do the activities, you will be reminded how one-dimensional questions and answers are detrimental to teacher development. I hope you will also be inspired or challenged or encouraged to record bits of your teaching and analyze transcripts of the bits from different perspectives, including those of your students.

As I imply in the attachment, you do not need either me or plenary speakers to advise you, exciting as many of them are in introducing new ideas and activities that can stimulate our thinking and our teaching practices. If you analyze very specific things you do from many angles you can learn ways to expand the range of your teaching practices.


PS  Here is an excerpt from a poem by William Blake that reminds us of the need to look at what he calls ” Minute Particulars” and I call “very specific things you do”.

Auguries of Innocence

He who would do good to another must do it in Minute


General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer.

For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized