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Interview with Della Summers

della_summers.jpg Della Summers is the Director of the dictionaries department at Longman in the UK. ELT News editor Mark McBennett spoke with her on her visit to Japan in September, 2003 to promote the publication of the 4th edition of Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE4, pronounced 'eldos 4.' Also in Tokyo to promote LDOCE4 was renowned linguist Prof. David Crystal, the subject of the next ELT News interview). Ms. Summers is from Swindon in Wiltshire.

As the original publisher of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, Longman is the oldest British company in the business of managing and marketing language reference material.

ELTNEWS
ELT: Can you tell us a bit about what you do at Longman?
Della
DS: I've been in dictionaries for about 30 years and at Longman for 26 years, most of the time doing ELT dictionaries. I was the publisher of the first edition, in 1978, and the second edition, and the Dictionaries Director for the third edition in 1995. I'm also the person behind the Activator, various other Longman dictionaries, and also the corpus developments have been things that I've tried to make happen. That includes the British National Corpus, the Longman Corpus Network, the Longman Learner's Corpus and so on.
ELTNEWS
Did you join Longman specifically to take over the first edition of the dictionary?
Della
I suppose so, yes. That was why there was a vacancy, and I'd worked on native speaker dictionaries before - I was one of the founding editors of the Collins English Dictionary.
ELTNEWS
And what is your role there, on a day to day basis?
Della
I run the dictionaries department, a department of about 30 people, made up of seven nationalities. We have staff in the US and in Japan, and the people that you don't see are the freelance lexicographers, software developers and so on, who are all accessing our material from a server. So we have a network of about 75 people who regularly access our databases from different countries around the world. And I have publishers and editors who report to me.

And if I can just explain what it's like to be a lexicographer, not that I have been one for some years! They work seven hours a day. Everything is highly computerized, leading-edge or state of the art, you might say. They're usually revising or compiling a new entry or word. And the way that they work is that they look at the corpus first, looking for the patterns of language, collocations, semantics, and grammatical information obviously. And by analyzing these, they split the use of the word into different meanings.

And they input everything into a, well, a horrendously complicated computer system, I'm afraid! They complain about it rather a lot, but that system enables us to make CD-ROMs for most of the dictionaries.
ELTNEWS
So the CD-ROM, rather than an afterthought, is an integral part of the whole dictionary compilation process?
Della
Yes, we plan that from the very beginning. With LDOCE4, we knew from the beginning that there was so much more information that we could give, but that just wouldn't fit in the book. So the book got a lot bigger, about 15% bigger. But with the CD-ROM we were able to add encyclopedic entries, the whole text of the new 2002 edition of the Longman Language Activator, another 70,000 edited examples based on the corpus, and 1.3 million extra sentences which are connected to phrases in the dictionary - when you click on a phrase or collocate, the computer creates a list of examples from the corpus. So there's a lot in this edition about phraseology, collocations...this is way in advance of what any dictionary has done before.
ELTNEWS
Longman was a bit hesitant about getting involved in the handheld dictionary market a decade or so ago. What's the situation now?
Della
The Longman Advanced American Dictionary is on the ExWord, the Casio handheld dictionary which is one of the best sellers in Japan. And Seiko have LDOCE3 and the Essential Activator on one of their products. So we are publishing through another party and we leave the technology side of it to them.

The technical ideas that we have, which are usually grounded in ELT rather than just the technology itself, are focused on the CD-ROMs that come with just about all the dictionaries. For example, the CD-ROM links to the Internet, so you have the dictionary in a pop up and you're online; you press control and hover your cursor over a word and it looks the word up for you. I often compare it to having your dictionary beside you, always open at the right page.
ELTNEWS
What do you think of the handheld dictionaries that are on the market today? How useful and user-friendly are they?
Della
I think they're very useful, there have been lots of great developments and obviously they're extremely popular. They also contain lots of dictionaries, twenty or thirty in some cases, which you would never be able to carry around.

My only reservation about them is that they perhaps are offering a solution which is a bit too quick. The kind of information we have in our dictionaries, there's a lot - there's collocations, examples, usage notes, word focus boxes. But if you're looking at a handheld, you don't see allof that because the screen it just too small compared to two pages of a book which you can easily scan.

If you're studying, and you want to internalize something, I don't think the handhelds are the way. I don't think they're really cognitive or good for long-term language acquisition. Whereas I think you can really improve your English if you look at the "peripheral" content of these ELT dictionaries.
ELTNEWS
What dictionary do you yourself use generally?
Della
I don't need one! (laughs) No, I would use LDOCE. And if it was an obscure word, I would probably go to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). David Crystal made the same point about using the OED for rare or historical words or LDOCE, which almost all the time is going to have the best definition.
ELTNEWS
You restrict definitions in LDOCE to the DV, the defining vocabulary of 2,000 words.
Della
Yes, if lexicographers go outside the DV, it's ringed in orange so they know they've done something wrong! It's the basis of the Longman ELT dictionary approach. It was invented in 1935, when Longman published the first ELT dictionary. It only uses words that the student is assumed to know to explain words that they're looking up. This improves the definition so much.
ELTNEWS
An example I saw was that the word "aircraft" would be replaced with "flying machine."
Della
Well, that must be an old example because we wouldn't do that now. It would almost certainly be "plane" or we'd actually use "aircraft." We revise the defining vocabulary, which is listed in alphabetical order at the back of the book. When we revise it, we use two things - the Native Speaker Corpus, which shows the frequency of usage of words in natural English, and we compare that to the frequency of words in our Learner's Corpus. Longman's is the first learner's corpus and is made up of scripts from some 50,000 students all round the world - the biggest part is from Japan. It's put into the computer, preserving the mistakes, which we're interested in too. And the bits that the students get right, we are justified in adding them to the DV.
ELTNEWS
What is the current situation and the future for machine translation?
Della
I sometimes get e-mails from Japan from people who use machine translation, and I spot them straight away. They really are unbelievable. I think we're still some way off, aren't we? I suppose that at some point it will happen.

I think there's something like 50-60% satisfactory resolution of translation on the Internet with things like AltaVista's Babel Fish. But it's still nothing like true translation. I have to be honest and say that I don't know what the problem is. But my assumption is that there isn't enough linguistic information in the system. I think parallel corpora is the way forward, but it would require a huge amount of data and money.
ELTNEWS
What unique challenges does the Japanese language present as far as translation is concerned?
Della
Well, the total lack of congruence between Japanese sentence structure and English is a major hurdle for students. There are other problems, cultural problems, issues of social hierarchy that often come into play. As David Crystal says, language is culture. So if you take a sentence like "Would you please close the window?" there are several different ways of rendering that in Japanese, so the person translating it will need to put in that there's a social hierarchy which is not usually implied in the English. English is more neutral in that sense, or less dependent on the context, on whether one speaker is older or younger, a man or a woman and so on.
ELTNEWS
Can you tell us a bit about the whole area of corpora? Was the British National Corpus the first major project of its kind?
Della
Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by major. The person who started the whole corpus revolution was Randolph Quirk at the Survey of English Usage at University College London, which involved surreptitiously recording people talking. Professor Crystal was a student of Quirk and they are both still advisors of ours. There was also the Brown Corpus of American English. The next major development was the COBUILD work by John Sinclair at Birmingham University, where they started off with a small corpus based mainly on newspapers.

The way that we developed the British National Corpus was in a way a kind of response to that. I've always been extremely committed to the idea of a representative corpus. So if you just use newspapers and you look at the word "interest," it's quite likely that one of the most common usages will be about interest on a loan or financial interest, but in a representative corpus, that's never going to be the first meaning.

So at Longman, we put the most frequent use of a word first, even if that meaning is a phrase. A classic example of this is "on the lookout" - "lookout" meaning someone up in a treetop or something is a pretty rare usage. So we have built balanced corpora. The BNC is made up of 100-million words, about 90% written and 10% spoken. The written content is made up of a certain percentage from newspapers, a certain percentage from fiction and so on.

We worked mostly on the spoken part, using a market research company to select people demographically, a thousand volunteers originally, from all over the UK. They carried a Walkman around with them all the time, recording what they said or people said to them. David Crystal made a joke that we didn't have anything about sex in the spoken corpora. I'm afraid it's not true - we had lots of sex! Some purists say that the language recorded that way is not really spontaneous and natural but when you hear some of it, you realize that it is. Because people who are speaking to the person with the Walkman don't know they're being recorded.

So all that is then keyboarded and used by the lexicographers to review on the screen, along with the written usage for the word. An example from the corpus for LDOCE is a couple of American "valley girls" using the word "like" as in "He was like, no way!" So like is used as an adverb, and we think it's important that this authentic language be incorporated. Of course, there are many teachers who say that that's unacceptable usage and shouldn't be included in a dictionary. But our users are people who passionately want to improve their English, that's why they bought an English-English dictionary, because it has so much more information. So with an example such as "like," it's marked "spoken" and they have to realize that they may not be able to use it in every context, such as in an essay.
ELTNEWS
It's a huge topic for teachers too, isn't it? Knowing where to draw the line between "correct" English and authentic english. Most students are very curious about swear words but not many teachers will teach them.
Della
Our policy is to include swear words in the dictionary, if it's for advanced level students. Swear words after all, are quite an important language phenomenon. We have loads of stuff (a full half page on the "f-word", for example - ed.), because it's obviously very common. It's very productive use of language and is becoming so much more common that it would be linguistically indefensible to leave it out.
ELTNEWS
Do you think that with the advances in speech recognition and other technologies, writing - and in particular handwriting - will become a marginalized skill?
Della
Yes, I think it's imminent. I don't think it's because of speech recognition, more the Internet and mobile phones. I'm very worried about the future of young people, even in this generation, because their primary medium for written communication is not going to be the pen. Language change is inevitable, it's such a powerful force that if there's a reason for enough people to change the way they communicate, that will happen. You can no longer say, "You must never spell 'Good for you' with a 4U." Or LOL (laugh out loud) or all those abbreviations, they're all part of the language.

If you look at how people write e-mails, you can see that they're very different from...they're in between what we would call "good" English and spoken English. And punctuation is changing drastically. Our policy is to describe the way language works, not to be proscriptive, which I don't think is possible anymore. All we can do is, with an entry like "ain't" is to indicate it as "nonstandard" and "spoken." But in terms of being able to express yourself, it's a simplified form of language and that's what I'm worried about.

Then again, we're talking about the parts of the world where people have access to a computer or a mobile phone. It's very cheap to have a pen and paper, and it would be a retrograde step if that was no longer available to keep as an option. But you can see a computer orientated/non-computer divide opening up in the world.

It's interesting in the UK, where the education system ignored grammar for many years - it was regarded as impeding fluency and expression - there is a big movement back now to teaching grammar. And also to teach pragmatics and semantics, so there's more attention being given to teaching the right way to express yourself, saying the right thing in a given context, saying exactly what you mean. We realize now the importance of building strong foundations.
ELTNEWS
So now that LDOCE4 has been completed, what do you have on the back burner?
Della
We usually have four or five dictionaries on the go, with different teams working on them. We have dictionaries at every level, from beginner picture dictionaries to the very advanced ones like the Language Activator...
ELTNEWS
Ah yes, I meant to ask you about the Activator. What is that exactly?
Della
The Activator is my response to requests from students in research that I've done for many years. Situations where they say "I want to know when it's correct to use this word rather than that word." The Activator is so called because it "activates" your vocabulary. It concentrates on the most frequent words and phrases and brings them all together under big concept words. These are divided into headings which have options, choices which the user can make, leading to a very precise definition and lots of examples and collocation.
ELTNEWS
Okay. And back to the future?
Della
We're publishing bilingual dictionaries, in Spanish and Italian because those are interesting languages for us to do something new and different in. What we don't do is small-scale revisions. When we bring out a new edition, it's very like bringing out a new dictionary. So much about the future is to do with technology. So we're improving our CD-ROMs all the time, making them completely interactive so that users can jump from word to word and see how words and meanings overlap, which is what we're mainly interested in.
ELTNEWS
Ms. Summers, thank you very much for taking time to speak to us.
Della
My pleasure.



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