In buying a dictionary for advanced learners, there is a strong case for looking at
the publication date, especially if the dictionary is to be used for vocational purposes.
Fields such as information communication technology develop very rapidly and new
words can become common very quickly.
At lower levels of proficiency, clarity of presentation and the criteria used to select words matter more than recency. Clarity is facilitated by having a suitable defining vocabulary so that definitions of word meanings are comprehensible to learners at relatively low levels of proficiency. Picture dictionaries can be useful to have around in kindergartens and nurseries, but the modern English language coursebook has all the illustration an elementary learner is likely to need, supported by the realia in the teaching situation. Maps and wallcharts can be very helpful where everybody in the class can see them.
At intermediate levels, publishers are now offering dictionary materials which encourage learners to activate their language and string words together. These are especially useful in the writing class, where use of a bilingual dictionary will normally prove disastrous. You will not get very far in learning written English without models of texts written by people who are already proficient. The possession of an English : English dictionary is essential if you wish to get good results in any recognised examination where written English is tested.
Be prepared to leave your dictionary at home when you are attending language classes emphasizing listening and speaking. Overuse of a dictionary can also delay the development of good reading strategies, especially when the difficulty-level of the texts provided by your teacher presents a fair challenge.
The dictionary habit can be a bad one when learners attempt to look up too much of what they read and hear. Guessing should be encouraged, inference skills should be developed and often a single tonic syllable within a word carries most of the meaning of a whole sentence. Students who use dictionaries on sentences from beginning to end are often caught up in trying to decode the meaning of unimportant words occurring near the beginning of sentences. They then miss the important words nearer the end, which carry the meaning of the utterance. Do not be surprised if your English teacher bans the use of dictionaries in the classroom. If you are studying in a country where English is the native language, a valuable use of lesson time is to let you hear the language being spoken. The teacher does not want you reading it or switching back to your native language, but will want to help you with word meaning through intonation and stress patterns, mime and gesture or presentation of visual aids. Look out for these ways of drawing attention to the elements of English containing the main message.
Dictionaries designed for English language learners should always provide pronunciation guides and it is worth checking that phonetic transcriptions of each word are included. The International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA] should be used for this purpose. All the major ELT publishers will offer dictionaries based on corpus data showing how English is actually used both in speech and in writing.
Bilingual dictionaries are not generally welcome or needed in language schools in countries where English is the native language and can cause a lot of irritation in multilingual classes where switching to languages other than English is bad etiquette and often a poor learning strategy. However, there is a case for bilingual dictionaries in independent learning sessions and where reference is to a precise technical term, which is difficult to explain by using a simple English defining vocabulary.
Oxford Elementary Learner's Dictionary [ published 3rd February, 1994 ]
Clear presentation of the meanings and use of essential vocabulary with extra help on difficult areas of language. Includes a guide to phonetic symbols at the bottom of every page as well as vocabulary building notes and illustrations.
Oxford Wordpower Dictionary: Interactive Pack [ published 21st February, 2002 ]
Suitable for learners at the intermediate level. 30,000 references. Example sentences based on the Oxford Corpus of the English Language, reflecting contemporary usage. Clear simple definitions, 200 illustrations of difficult words and coverage of idioms and phrasal verbs. Designed to help students make the breakthrough from a basic survival vocabulary to greater spoken fluency and confidence with the written word. Phonetic spelling and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) reference.
Longman Language Activator [ published 5th November, 2002 ]
Suitable for learners from Upper Intermediate to Advanced including candidates taking the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English or Cambridge Proficiency examinations. The organisation differs from that of most dictionaries, though a conventional index permits you to find the right word quickly. Words appear in word banks which help learners to unlock their writing. You will be given other words, which share the same semantic fields and plenty of examples where the words are used in their natural contexts. There is wide coverage of collocations.
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary [ published 30th April, 2000 ]
Suitable for learners from Upper Intermediate to Advanced containing 63,000 references, 65,000 definitions, 90,000 examples, 11,600 idioms and phrasal verbs, 1,700 words illustrated and 2,800 new words and meanings, based on the British National Corpus. This is one of the top dictionaries published in the UK and meets all the important criteria for a dictionary at this level.
Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary [ 20th February, 2003 ]
Another top UK dictionary meeting similar criteria to the above - formerly "The Cambridge International Dictionary of English", but completely updated and redesigned.
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English [ 8th June, 2001 ]
84,000 words and phrases with clear definitions given in order of frequency and natural examples using the Longman Corpus Network. The dictionary offers the most comprehensive comparison of spoken and written English, including frequency information. The 3000 most commonly used words are highlighted and over 25,000 fixed phrases and collocations are included.
Collins COBUILD Concise Learner's Dictionary [ 20th January, 2003 ]
This has many of the features of the high level dictionaries listed above and is
especially suited to learners who need English for academic vocations, for example,
those planning to study in a UK university. It was the Collins Cobuild project which
revolutionized dictionary design in the early 1980s. It is fair to say that the other
publishers have caught up and there is really little to choose between other than slight
differences of emphasis, which will appeal to different learning styles and
Conclusion: Go for an English : English dictionary and forget about buying a bilingual one. You will learn more on a visit to the UK if you have the confidence to stick to explanations in English. Carrying a bilingual dictionary with you wherever you go is about as safe as carrying a mobile phone. It won't stop muggers, but is more likely to invite their attention.
If you want UK English, then select a publisher known for ELT materials rather than one which is really just serving the travel trade. If you are looking for dictionaries focusing on specialist areas such as business, commerce, computing, economics, law and medicine, it is also worth searching for books published by Peter Collin.
I own English language dictionaries from all of the four publishers whose materials are listed above, and go to each one on different occasions. A Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary is sitting next to my computer keyboard at the moment, which was ahead of the game when I bought it, but that was in 1987.
I do not own any dictionaries of American English, so a reviewer who can go beyond trust in the reputations of Longman, Oxford and Cambridge needs to advise.