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The Basic Newbury House Dictionary of American English

Chief Editor: Phillip M. Rideout
Heinle & Heinle, 1998
Pp. xix + 562

Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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Dictionary Use
Dictionaries are perhaps the most fundamental language learning materials. Yet the use of dictionaries lies at the center of the oldest and fiercest battles in EFL teaching. Which dictionaries, and when, how often, and for which purposes should students consult dictionaries? The type of dictionary used can have a major affect on all the other issues.

There are dozens of dictionaries catering to language learners in EFL environments. Bilingual dictionaries come in a number of variations, and the quality of the translations and the resources within range from quite good to fairly horrible. Perhaps the best of these would be the "English-English-(other language)" dictionaries, for the simple reason that they present an English definition as well as the translation. Also popular are pocket-sized bilingual electronic dictionaries, some of which even pronounce the words! However, teachers often discourage the use of bilingual dictionaries due to problems in translating complete concepts.

English Only
Some dictionaries for native-speakers of English are also marketed to EFL learners, such as Webster's New World Student's Dictionary (Macmillan, 1992). These may be appropriate and exciting for highly motivated students. Additionally, the availability of a large number of English Learner dictionaries offers "intermediate and above" students lots of choices, and many university courses require students to use them.

Few of these are appropriate for lower-level students, however. Far too many students waste valuable class time buried in dictionaries, or abandon English-English dictionaries altogether, because the explanations are beyond the students' comprehension. This is where The Basic Newbury House Dictionary of American English proves its value. Students are amazed to discover that they can quickly understand an English dictionary without translations, and it motivates them to work harder, faster, and better.

Words Defined
Chief Editor Phillip Rideout and team present only 15,000 words, somewhat less than might be desired, but we find the definitions are much simpler than in many other learner dictionaries-- and it is definitions we should be most concerned with. The Foreword notes that definitions for this Basic Dictionary are written in a controlled vocabulary of 2,500 high frequency, everyday words. This is similar to other "less advanced" learner dictionaries: Oxford Elementary Learner's Dictionary (15,000 words,1994) and Chamber's Students' Dictionary (Larousse, 1996, which contains over 20,000 words and claims to aim for lower-intermediate learners of English). Consider the word "decay": Newbury Basic – 1. to become soft and bad 2. to fall into ruin or poor condition; Oxford Elementary – become bad or fall to pieces; and Chamber's – to become rotten or ruined. Then look at The Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture (1992), one of the most popular English learner references, offers the following definitions for decay – 1. to (cause to) go through chemical changes which cause destruction; 2. to fall to a lower or worse state….

American English
As indicated in the title, The Basic Newbury House Dictionary of American English presents American English. This may be an important consideration. Many of our students in East Asia specifically want to learn American English -- some even worry about studying "too much British." While such fears are unfounded, the pronunciation guides in dictionaries are an important consideration. IPA phonetic transcription is utilized in the Basic Dictionary, but it is the Americanized IPA that many students (and teachers) may not be familiar with. Naturally there is a pronunciation guide, and the differences are not all that great (but you'll find "r"s in door and girl!). Chamber's and Oxford Elementary are decidedly British.

The principle advantage of using a dictionary designed for the student's level is that it encourages students to take risks in their reading and listening. When students know that they can trust themselves to quickly get in and out of a dictionary when they need to, they are more willing to try learning new words through inference, confident that if they can't guess a meaning from its surroundings, they can find it fast.

Carry The Basic Newbury House Dictionary of American English into your next "high beginners" class, and hand it to the next student who asks for a definition. Watch their eyes light up as they read and understand. No stronger recommendation for any dictionary could ever be "read."

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