Bilingual Dictionaries in Written Language Examinations: Why New Zealand Needs to Catch Up with Australia

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Premature discontinuation rates among second language students in New Zealand are higher than for most other subjects in secondary schools (McLauchlan, 2006), although this phenomenon has not given rise to a great deal of debate within the NZ language teaching community. Rather, researchers have focused on reasons for students' initial uptake of languages. This paper argues that the difficulty of vocabulary acquisition is a key factor behind the high number of students prematurely dropping out of their second language learning programs. It also argues the case for allowing the use of standardised bilingual dictionaries in written second language examinations as a possible way of reducing the burden of memorising vocabulary, the stress and dissatisfaction associated with this task, and of enhancing the work of language students. In spite of the evidence supporting the value of dictionaries in second language assessment, NZ lacks the enlightened and eminently more practical approach of most Australian State and Territory senior secondary assessment boards which allow students to use a monolingual and/or bilingual dictionary in language exams (see ACACA, 2006).

METHOD

In a recent study into premature discontinuation in Christchurch, NZ, the most frequently cited study-related reason for premature second language discontinuation was 'too difficult' (McLauchlan, 2006). Moreover, among students who cited 'too difficult', vocabulary learning was the most frequently cited biggest problem. Because attrition and persistence are dynamic phenomena and immeasurable by cross-sectional research, for the Christchurch study a three-year longitudinal method was used. The project began in 2004 when 765 Year 11 (third year of secondary school in NZ) language students of Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish were surveyed as to why they had chosen to learn a second language and their intended study duration. In subsequent years of the study, all students who had discontinued their language learning (excluding those who had left school altogether) were contacted and asked why they had prematurely given up the subject they had so willingly chosen. (All students indicated having voluntarily selected their language course without pressure from parents or school.)

DISCOURSE

Most research into bilingual dictionaries has been conducted in Great Britain in response to their own high second language attrition rate and calls to ease the burden of vocabulary memorisation. The debate gained considerable momentum in 1998 when educational authorities in the UK announced that bilingual dictionaries would be permitted in GCSE second language examinations, and again in 2003 when dictionaries were suddenly banned once more. British research into the issue has typically involved very small samples and writers have focused on the subjective attitudes of teachers and pupils towards dictionaries and how to use them, rather than on dictionaries themselves as

* legitimate tools of trade of second language learners

* a means of creating a more level playing field in subject selection

* away of augmenting academic performance.

Concluding that 'design and quality of the dictionary is crucial to ensure its rapid and effective use', Tall and Hurman (2000) evaluated a range of dictionaries used in the UK experiment and found, not surprisingly, that language students preferred dictionaries which provided more than just vocabulary, namely verb forms, expressions, and useful phrases. Asher (1999) looked at the practicalities of dictionaries and the attitudes of language teachers, concluding that most language students were ill-informed about the correct use of bilingual dictionaries. Asher's 'howler' examples of the pitfalls stemming from poor dictionary skills such as Ich Testament nicht ('I will not', using the German noun for 'will' and not the verb) and je feutre ('I felt', using the French noun for 'felt' and not the verb) are relevant and totally credible. …