Look up and take notice
COMMENT DIT-ON...? By Paul Humberstone Hodder Stoughton Pounds 2.99
Michael J Smith assesses a visual dictionary and vocabulary resources which include practical exercises and guidance on effective use without over-reliance.
In the Ealing comedy Laughter in Paradise, the suave Guy Middleton, desperately trying to impress his girl with his knowledge of what lies beneath a car bonnet, tells her that the problem lies in the "ubiquitous praxile". Had she been equipped with the Oxford Visual Dictionary, not only would she have discovered that no such component exists, she would have found the plethora of real parts superbly illustrated in colour and, what is more, clearly and precisely labelled in English, French, German and Spanish. The amorous ploy would have been short-lived.
Intriguingly, we are told in the introduction that "nothing in this dictionary is the result of translation". In a world where visuals on the screen (television, video or computer) have more relevance, particularly among the young, than text on the page, the starting-point for each word is a picture: "The Visual Dictionary," we are told, "is the only dictionary that allows users to find a word from its meaning". Thus the more usual headwords are replaced by the artwork and what we see is paramount: users easily recognise the object they are looking for and can find the appropriate vocabulary at a glance.
The sheer scale of the work cannot fail to impress. About 600 subjects, under 28 main headings, cover 25,000 items by means of 3,500 illustrations. The introduction, an absorbing essay on lexicography, gives a fascinating account of how the editorial team went about its work. The terms (all are nouns or noun-phrases, "the most significant words in the language") were carefully selected from current documents (technical papers, product instructions, catalogues, advertisements, encyclopaedias) written by experts in each field, who cross-checked the entries in language dictionaries.
The work itself, however, although compiled by specialists, is not intended for them and avoids words used only by them. As the introduction points out: "In contemporary civilisation we need to know a great number of technical terms in a wide range of fields."
Lest those with Luddite tendencies be intimidated, it needs to be made clear that "technical" here includes the animal and plant kingdoms, the home, gardening, personal adornment, leisure pursuits and much more.
So how is the dictionary to be used? Each entry refers you to the relevant pages, the illustration catches your eye, the caption gives you the requisite term. Coloured page edges help in finding chapters.
At Pounds 19.99, the Oxford Visual Dictionary is clearly not aimed at the individual learning just one of its languages, although the study of a second or third would make it a more viable proposition. A school, college or departmental library would find it an invaluable resource.
All French teachers have a fund of students' howlers: one of my favourites is Le bateau evia, purporting to mean "the boat sank" (in an attempt put the kitchen sink into the past historic).
These three resources aim not only to assist the student in avoiding such lexical misadventures but also in learning more vocabulary and using reference material to maximum advantage.
Dictionaries, as we all know, can be dangerous tools in the hands of the untrained. Nothing is taken for granted in Developing Dictionary Skills in French, a pack of photocopiable activity sheets covering the expertise needed for GCSE. There is even a section on alphabetical order (Why does bath come before both, cheval before chien?) before we are introduced to such lexicographical mysteries as headwords, parts of speech with their abbreviations (thus avoiding, for example, confusion between hirondelle and avaler) and the usual designation of gender variations, such as chien (ne).
Dictionaries also feature phonetic pronunciation guides, although at GCSE level these are probably of limited value and even potentially confusing: there are far more effective methods mastering correct speech patterns.
Using examples from the 1995 edition of the Collins French Pocket Dictionary, but clearly with a wider relevance, this pack aims not only to teach the required skills but also to discourage over-reliance on the dictionary.
Thus the differentiated variety of games, general knowledge and creative activities carry not only a positive score but also a statement J'ai utilise le dictionnaire...fois, aiming at the lowest tally possible, all to enter in the student's personal record.
Answers are provided in the teacher's notes. Three pages give advice on the use of dictionaries in examinations, increasingly permissible in certain syllabuses and papers, in which proof of candidates' dictionary skills is required.
One raison d'etre for language resources increasingly pleaded today is the need for independent exercises for cover lessons as well as for homework and revision periods. French Vocabulary Through Puzzles, first published in 1988 and now revised, is another photocopiable pack, aimed this time at key stage 3 or lower ability key stage 4 students.
The commendable ethos is language practice through entertainment, such as crossword puzzles, labelling, word-searches, mazes and anagrams. The six areas are what we have come to expect in topic-based materials; for each, the student is provided with an information sheet (in effect, an illustrated vocabulary list), the games and an answer section.
In what language should the rubric be? Gillian Taylor, always strictly PC in pedagogical terms, uses simple French, supported by examples in pictures for her younger and less able readers. Martine Pillette, on the other hand, permits realism, if not actual defeatism, to get the better of her, providing all explanations in English "to make sure that students understand clearly what they are doing and why."
Paul Humberstone in his Comment dit-on..? (subtitled A New Vocabulary for GCSE French) hedges his bets and provides all information bilingually. This self-help book, aimed at the student, practises the core vocabulary items of all the GCSE boards. Here again are those familiar topic areas, with word-lists and follow-up exercises, with answers.
Perhaps the most useful section is on how to learn vocabulary: the importance of quiet surroundings and the avoidance of overload is stressed alongside tips, such as writing down or saying words aloud, even in a whisper, looking for cognates and working with a friend.
This handy paperback is excellent value for the modest price well within the student's reach.
Michael J Smith is a former head, modern languages and examiner