Words at the touch of a keyboard

3rd January 1997 at 00:00

For IBM and compatibles (needs 4Mb memory and 20Mb hard disc space) HarperCollins (Tel: 01903 873555) Pounds 64.63


For Windows 486 SX (needs 4Mb memory) Windows 3.1; OUP (Tel 01865 267815); Pounds 120 (inc VAT)

Electronic dictionaries are around in numbers these days, and most modern linguists must have some knowledge of how they operate, but are they a good idea? Where's the advantage over a traditional book version? And are they worth the money?

I started by thinking they might be expensive toys, (the Oxford CD-Rom costs Pounds 120), but I was quickly won over by the user-friendly nature of both pieces of software.

Both were running within seconds of opening the box, and both offered a clear operating environment from the outset. I could imagine them being used by students from upper primary level onwards, and can see them being popular with adult language learners.

So what do you get for the money? Both demonstrate what PCs can do best in the classroom: enhance traditional teaching and learning styles via clever and innovative software that appeals to the young mind, while offeringnew and open-ended learningpossibilities.

With the Collins CD-Rom, you get all of The Collins Robert French Dictionary, together with powerful software to enable instant access, even to feminine and plural forms, and any tense or part of a verb. You can also carry out wildcard searches, look up phrases, browse lists of different types of headword, etc.

However, two other useful features are the ability to call the dictionary from a word processor (a feature which would surely become indispensable for those preparing written assignments) and the possibility of customising the software to include screen preferences, etc, a particularly attractive feature, in making this suitable for a variety of ages and uses. At Pounds 64.63, the Collins French Dictionary on CD-Rom must surely be on any modern languages department shopping list.

The Oxford CD-Rom takes this concept one stage further, with three languages - Spanish, French and German - available "at the touch of a button", on one CD-Rom. This is an enormously powerful resource and could be integrated into the classroom as a much more important learning aid than a simple printed dictionary. The icons are clear, with the possibility of directly accessing any section of the dictionary, and the possibility of finding words from a variety of starting points, from "headwords" through acronyms and including idiomatic uses. Further background information is automatically displayed in a separate window and can be read easily if required.

Anyone who has taught youngsters to use an English dictionary will be familiar with the pitfalls; bilingual dictionaries are notoriously unhelpful for young learners of a second language, but this software really does take much of the guesswork out of consulting a dictionary, and gives the curious browser a mine of peripheral information concerned with the topic chosen, which would undoubtedly help in overcoming the usual mistakes connected with simply looking up a word in a bilingual dictionary. The scope for cross-referencing automatically means that these packages become more like a "language encyclopaedia" than a mere dictionary, and their flexibility is one of their greatest strengths.

The sample letters, advertisements and other documents are a good example of this, as is the novel "maps" feature, allowing the browsing of various maps (with bilingual labels), which would appeal to many users, and could well help to bring reluctant linguists to the pleasures of language learning.

However, even a busy teacher would quickly find further scope for setting tasks, exercises and other assignments, based around this excellent package.

At Pounds 120, it is not to be missed.

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