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Finding the right words

OXFORD HACHETTE STARTER FRENCH DICTIONARY. OXFORD DUDEN STARTER GERMAN DICTIONARY. OXFORD STARTER SPANISH DICTIONARY. OXFORD STARTER RUSSIAN DICTIONARY. Oxford University Press. Pounds 6.99 each. HEINEMANN HARRAP FRENCH SCHOOL DICTIONARY HEINEMANN HARRAP GERMAN SCHOOL DICTIONARY HEINEMANN HARRAP SPANISH SCHOOL DICTIONARY Heinemann Pounds 4.99 each

What should a school look for in foreign-language dictionaries? The answer depends largely, of course, on their intended use. Beginners, if they can be trusted with such a potentially dangerous tool, will need a simple and uncluttered format, maximum accessibility and a limited corpus of vocabulary - all at a modest price.

Those approaching examinations will still appreciate clarity, but will also need the wider texts. The reference dictionary for use over the whole modern languages department, or possibly for the school library, will be for the use of qualified staff as well as students and will need to be the most comprehensive available.

The Oxford Starter Dictionaries are based on the premise that beginners will be unfamiliar with the conventions of the traditional bilingual dictionary. In particular there are no cryptic abbreviations for the parts of speech, and even grammatical terminology is explained in a glossary. Each head word is highlighted in bright blue; an exclamation mark warns of common linguistic pitfalls, and suggests how to avoid them; colloquial usage is clearly indicated; and a cartoonist's smoking bomb stands alongside words which can easily offend if used in the wrong company - even a beginner needs to be made aware of different language registers.

The choice of the 500-600 words has been based on up-to-date corpus information from the University Press's language databases. Context has not been forgotten: examples, drawn from real-life situations, are clearly signposted with simple explanatory text. More complex grammatical issues are explained in short notes at appropriate points in the text or in the more detailed boxed notes.

As already suggested, a dictionary, like a chain saw, can be perilous in the wrong hands. These Oxford volumes have recognised this by including an invaluable "Dictionary know-how" section. There are also thematic boxes of vocabulary relevant to particular areas, such as dates, time, colours, games and sports.

Heinemann Harrap's School Dictionaries are intended for GCSE students: they include the prescribed vocabulary at this level and conform to the type of dictionary which can be taken into the examination room. The French and Spanish volumes, using clear presentation, contain 25,000 references.

A reference section includes verb tables, which as well as the usual indicative tenses, have the French present subjunctive and the Spanish present and imperfect subjunctives. In the case of French, a star against a verb shows that it is irregular and thus in the table, while in the Spanish volume a number performs the same function, the star now indicating a feminine noun. Students studying both languages might have hoped for some uniformity here.

Despite its identical cover and price, the German School Dictionary is very different and gives the impression of not having been purpose-written for this market. The corpus is an enormous 55,000 words, and no concessions are made in respect of abbreviations or, for example, of how plurals and genitive singulars of nouns are shown. Roman numerals distinguish between two parts of speech under one headword, while Arabic numbers and (Roman) letters mark differences of meaning. This is all potentially confusing.

There is an interesting section on the spelling and punctuation reforms to be adopted by 2005; but is it relevant to the average GCSE student?

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