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Understanding Dictionaries: Survey Findings

Questionnaire surveys can be a good way of finding out about the behaviour and attitudes of dictionary users.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

Questionnaire surveys can be a good way of finding out about the behaviour and attitudes of dictionary users and are probably the only way of investigating long-term and historical aspects of dictionary use.

However, people may not give reliable answers to questions about how they looked up words and interpreted dictionary information. It’s almost impossible to remember the exact details of dictionary consultation and people can only report what they think they did (or perhaps what they think they ought to have done). Alternative methods of gathering data about dictionary use include observations and experiments of various kinds – but they too have their drawbacks because dictionary use is essentially a private activity and people are likely to change their dictionary-using practices if they are conscious that someone is recording their behaviour.

Perhaps the earliest survey of dictionary use was conducted by the dictionary editor Clarence Barnhart in 1955. Barnhart sent out questionnaires to teachers at 99 colleges in the USA, asking them what they thought university entrants used dictionaries for. Barnhart’s questionnaire results indicated that students looked up meaning most frequently, spelling almost as frequently and then information about pronunciation. The teachers thought that students consulted the other types of information in dictionaries – synonyms, usage notes and etymologies – far less often.

In the early 1970s, another questionnaire survey was conducted by Randolph Quirk to find out about British undergraduate dictionary use (Quirk 1973). As with the college students in the USA, the survey results indicated that British students searched for meanings most often, followed by spellings but Quirk also noted that 57% of dictionary use at home was in relation to word games.

There is still a strong connection between dictionary use and word games in the UK – when Susanna Bae and Hilary Nesi recently examined dictionary-related education and reference queries from Britain and Ireland posted to the question and answer website Yahoo! Answers, they found that many of the queries fell into the words and wordplay category (Bae and Nesi 2014).

The first survey of dictionary use by language learners was conducted by Jerzy Tomaszczyk in the 1970s (Tomaszczyk 1979). The Polish students who responded to this survey said they used bilingual dictionaries more often than monolingual dictionaries, even though they thought monolingual dictionaries were better. Of course, bilingual dictionaries are much easier for beginner language learners to use because they list words in a language the learner already knows. Whether language teachers prefer their students to use bilingual or monolingual dictionaries probably depends on whether translation activities are encouraged or discouraged in the classroom. On the whole, surveys such as those conducted by Battenburg (1991) have found that language learners progress across dictionary types, starting with bilingual dictionaries, moving on to greater use of monolingual learners’ dictionaries and then, if they reach an advanced level, increasingly using dictionaries intended for L1 speakers of the language. Even very advanced language learners may continue to use bilingual dictionaries, however, alongside monolingual dictionaries (see for example Lew, 2004).

When pocket electronic dictionaries (without internet access) first started to appear in the 1990s, Andrew Taylor and Adelaide Chan conducted a dictionary use survey in Hong Kong (Taylor and Chan 1994). Many of the students in their survey liked electronic dictionaries because they were so easy to use and carry around, even though the information they provided was sometimes inaccurate or lacking detail. Taylor and Chan also interviewed language teachers and found that they didn’t know much about the content of electronic dictionaries, were suspicious of them and preferred their students to use print dictionaries.

Tono (2001), Lew (2011) and Nesi (2013, 2014) describe a number of studies of dictionary use in the era when most dictionaries were in book form. Times have changed, of course, and recent surveys of English language learners show increasing use of smartphone dictionary applications, with very little use of paper dictionaries.

The recent European Survey on Dictionary Use (Kosem et al. 2018) involved 29 countries and 26 languages. The ESDExplorer, developed by Sascha Wolfer, is a tool that helps you conduct simple analyses of the data from the survey. You can select individual questions, check data for all or only selected countries and use different variables, such as age group, gender or professional background.

Your task

What kind of dictionaries do your friends or colleagues use, and what do they use them for?
Has a teacher ever recommended a dictionary for you to use? What advice did they give, and was it useful?


Bae, S. and Nesi, H. (2014) ‘Korean and English ‘dictionary’ questions: what does the public want to know?’ Lexicography [online] 1 (1), 53-71. available from [4 November 2019]

Barnhart, C. (1962) ‘Problems in Editing Commercial Monolingual Dictionaries’. in Householder, F. W. & Saporta, S (eds.) Problems in Lexicography. Bloomington: Indiana Research Centre for Language and Semiotic Studies. reprinted in R.R.K. Hartmann (ed) (2003) Lexicography: Critical Concepts. Volume 1: Dictionaries, Compilers, Critics, and Users London: Routledge, 285-301.

Battenburg, J. (1991) English Monolingual Learners’ Dictionaries: A User-oriented Study. Lexicographica Series Maior 39. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Hanks, P. (2009) ‘Compiling a Monolingual Dictionary for Native Speakers’ in Research Institute in Information and Language Processing (RIILP), University of Wolverhampton [online] available from [4 November 2019]

Kosem, I., Lew, R., Müller-Spitzer, C., Ribeiro Silveira, M. and Wolfer S. (2018). ‘The Image of the Monolingual Dictionary Across Europe. Results of the European Survey of Dictionary Use and Culture.’ in International Journal of Lexicography. [online] 32(1), 92-114. available from [4 November 2019]

Lew, R. (2011) ‘User studies: Opportunities and limitations.’ in: Akasu, Kaoru and Satoru Uchida (eds.), ASIALEX2011 Proceedings Seventh ASIALEX Biennial International Conference. Kyoto, Japan, 22-24 August, 2011. Kyoto: Asian Association for Lexicography [online] 7-16. available from [4 November 2019]

Lew, R. (2004) Which Dictionary for Whom? Receptive Use of Bilingual, Monolingual and Semi-bilingual Dictionaries by Polish Learners of English. Poznan: Motivex [online] available from [4 November 2019]

Nesi, H. (2013) ‘Researching Users and Uses of Dictionaries’. in The Bloomsbury Companion to Lexicography. ed. by H. Jackson. London: Bloomsbury, 62-74.

Nesi, H. (2013) ‘Researching Users and Uses of Dictionaries.’ in H. Jackson (ed.) The Bloomsbury Companion to Lexicography. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 62-74.

Nesi, H. (2015) ‘Thirty Years of User Studies– And what we still need to find out’. in L. Li, J. McKeown, and L. Liu (eds.), Words, Dictionaries and Corpora: Innovations in reference science: Proceedings of ASIALEX 2015 Hong Kong: Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 1-8

Quirk, R. (1973) ‘The Social Impact of Dictionaries in the UK’. in R.I. McDavid and A.R. Duckert (eds) Lexicography in English. New York: Academy of Sciences, 76-88. reprinted in R.R.K. Hartmann (ed) (2003) Lexicography: Critical Concepts. Volume 1: Dictionaries, Compilers, Critics, and Users. London: Routledge, 312-326

Taylor, A., and& Chan, A. (1994) ‘Pocket Electronic Dictionaries and Their Use’. iIn W. Martin, W. Meijs, M. Moerland, E. Ten Pas, P. van Sterkenburg & P. Vossen (eds.) Proceedings of the 6th Euralex International Congress. Amsterdam: Euralex, 598-605. [online] available from [4 November 2019]

Tomaszczyk, J. (1979) ‘Dictionaries: Users and Uses’. Glottodidactica 12, 103-119.

Tono, Y. (2001) ‘Research on Dictionary Use in the Context of Foreign Language Learning: Focus on Reading Comprehension.’ Lexicographica Series Maior 106. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Further reading

These two articles review previous dictionary user studies – and discuss what we still need to find out. The first article is by Robert Lew (2011), User studies: Opportunities and limitations (PDF) and the second is by Hilary Nesi (2015) Thirty Years of User Studies – And what we still need to find out, in Proceedings of the ASIALEX Conference 2015, pages 1-8.

See also a talk by Patrick Hanks. Specifically look at 18.25-21.00 for his comments about checking dictionaries for spelling and usage, Compiling a monolingual dictionary for native speakers.

This page from Adaptive Learning in ELT, a blog by Philip Kerr might be useful for those of you who are English language teachers.

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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