Carlos F.Márquez Linares
A junior high school Spanish student of English produced the following text: ‘He see a tall man. His hair see grey and he see old.’ The teacher was initially astonished at this shocking display of visual perception on the part of the ‘man’, only to discover after some thinking that the reason for it was very simple. The student meant to say that the man was tall, grey-haired and old. He knew that the Spanish verb for ‘was’, is ‘era’, third-person singular of ‘ser’ (to be), so he looked up the translation of ‘era’ in a dictionary, where he found: ‘see ser’. He obviously chose the most English-looking translation.
Mistakes based on inadequate use of dictionaries are not limited to the beginning stages of language learning. An English-speaking lecturer at a Spanish university was surprised to find that many of her students wrote ‘overcoat’ when they meant ‘above all’. Puzzled by the recurrence of this mistake, she did some lexicographic research, only to find that what her students had done was to look up in their bilingual dictionaries ‘sobre todo’, the Spanish equivalent of ‘above all’. There they found an entry for ‘sobretodo’, and they obviously thought the fact that it was a single word was an irrelevant detail, and they incorporated its translation, ‘overcoat’, into their compositions, with results such as ‘I liked the book very much, and, overcoat, the description of…’. Every language teacher can probably recall some examples of his/her own of this type of ‘dictionary-generated’ mistake, which, in fact, emphasizes the importance of the role that dictionaries play in language teaching and learning.
Dictionaries have traditionally been essential tools for language learning and have consistently been considered as such by most lexicographers, language teachers and language learners. In addition, publishing companies have become increasingly aware that language learners around the world represent a huge market whose needs deserve attention. Thus a considerable number of dictionaries specially designed for language learners have appeared in the last decades creating a tradition which fulfils one of the basic maxims of lexicography, as formulated by Householder and Saporta (1975:279):