English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History

English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History

English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History

English Dictionaries for Foreign Learners: A History


This is the first history of dictionaries of English for foreign learners, from their origins in Japan and East Asia in the 1920s to the computerized compilations of the present. Monolingual dictionaries for foreign speakers were a revolutionary development at their outset, and now represent a coming-together of intellectual, technological and commercial forces almost unequalled in book publishing. As the author shows, the early history of EFL dictionaries was research-driven, arising directly from research in linguistic theory and language pedagogy; now it is user-driven, determined by what users require or are thought to require. The pioneering dictionaries were the work of individuals. Current dictionaries are the products of huge databases manipulated by sophisticated processing, as publishers strive to share an immense and constantly growing global market. The book has both a thematic and a chronological structure. Three chapters describe the historical sequence over a period of some sixty years. These alternate with chapters dealing with phraseology, computers and corpus linguistics, and research into dictionary users and uses - three subjects central to the development of ELT dictionaries over the last thirty years. Dr Cowie examines the way in which availability of massive computing power has transformed the recording and analysis of current speech, and shows how the growth of research into the users and uses of dictionaries has led to developments both in ELT lexicography and method. This readable and non-technical account is directed both at professionals in applied linguistics and English language teaching, and at lexicographers, but it will interest and fascinate everyone concerned with the analysis of English and faced with the challenge of recording of the subtelties of its grammar and meaning.


At various times during its sixty-year history the learner's dictionary has been strengthened and enriched by programmes of lexical research with an applied linguistic focus. This chapter traces the multiple connections between research carried out from the late 1920s onwards--chiefly in the Far East--and four pioneering English dictionaries compiled specifically for foreign learners a decade or so later. Significantly, the three sole or principal authors of those dictionaries-- Michael West, Harold E. Palmer, and A. S. Hornby--were all centrally involved in major research activity, but the projects mounted by the Tokyo Institute for Research in English Teaching (IRET), of which, as we have seen, Palmer was director from 1923 till 1936, and where Hornby succeeded him as head of research, addressed so many issues of crucial importance to language teaching and dictionary development, that they will have pride of place in this critical survey.

The chapter is divided into three broad sections. In the first two, I shall survey two major fields of research and review some of the key publications which flowed from them, laying particular stress on those findings which had the greatest influence on dictionary-making. These areas are the vocabulary control movement (1.2) and pedagogical grammar (1.3). In the third major section (1.4), I survey the period, from the mid-1930s onwards, when the attention of the major participants was turning increasingly from research to the practical application of its findings, and attempt a critical analysis of the four dictionaries for the learner which then appeared. In order of publication, these were: The New Method English Dictionary (West and Endicott 1935), A Grammar of English Words (Palmer 1938a), A Beginners' English-Japanese Dictionary ( Hornby and Ishikawa 1940), and the Idiomatic and Syntactic English Dictionary (Hornby et al. 1942).

1.2. The Vocabulary Control Movement

The vocabulary control movement, which focused the intellectual energies of the leading figures in this survey during the late 1920s and early to mid-1930s, played a vital part in the genesis of the monolingual learner's dictionary. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that research into vocabulary control, with associated work on phraseology and grammar, gave birth to it, though--

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