English monolingual learner s dictionaries in a cognitive perspective (working title)

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1 English monolingual learner s dictionaries in a cognitive perspective (working title) 1. Research background and research question Pupils in Bavarian Grammar schools are allowed to use an English monolingual dictionary from year 10 onwards when completing homework or when sitting exams, for example the famous Oxford Advanced Learner s Dictionary; students of English are encouraged to use it all the way up to their final examinations. But despite a long history of using a monolingual learner s dictionary, only a very small number of users is able to make the most out of the tool: many admit to not knowing how to handle the dictionary but stress that they preferred bilingual over monolingual dictionaries anyway, since the former offered the requested information much more easily and at a higher speed. This incompetence in use is on the one hand often a result of a lack of instruction, on the other hand, it seems to be a sustained fact or even a curse : I had the opportunity to gain experience as a teacher in this field and had to accept that even a well-prepared and well-intended instruction is by far anything but a guarantee for the successful use of a dictionary by the pupils. But dictionary use is not solely a didactic matter; many experimental scientific studies have dealt with the topic and have tried to find out how users perform e.g. in reading or text production tasks. Apart from the (not surprising!) insight that success in dictionary performance strongly correlates with a learner s proficiency level of the language, studies have mostly dealt with performance tasks and left out cognitive processes of the user. But what does actually happen in the brain of a user when consulting a dictionary? Lexicography, the science of compiling dictionaries, follows certain conventions; but how are those in line with insights into how humans process language or store vocabulary? This question is even more interesting with regards to learner lexicography, since learners of a language might need more hints at guessing the right meaning of a word than a native speaker. Are semantic fields or associations being made use of in definitions? Are frames, scripts or prototype theory taken into account when writing the definitions of a dictionary, or is lexicography still a world of its own with certain isolated rules and conventions? 1

2 All in all, dictionaries are like bottles that only wait to release the djinn ; using only very little space, they describe a complete language and offer help on how to use it correctly. You only have to rub the bottle respectively open the dictionary (or insert the DVD-/CD- ROM!) and a whole range of information is at your disposal. But what happens if you actually do open and use it? And finally: what would a cognitive dictionary have to look like? These are the questions that my PhD project aims to tackle. 2. Aims and hypotheses The aim of the project is to bring together the fields of lexicography and cognitive linguistics, that is to find out how cognitive linguistics can be mapped onto lexicography on the one hand, and how lexicography on the other hand can confirm and possibly even enrich insights into cognitive linguistics. In order to find out how cognitive linguistics can be mapped onto lexicography, it will first be important to discover what modern monolingual learner s dictionaries today look like and which conventions lexicography follows, as well as how humans store and access language in their mental lexicons and which problems they might encounter in a retrieval process. The two fields of lexicography and cognitive linguistics with their respective theories will form the basis from which any empirical research into the topic can start. My hypothesis is that the two fields are still quite apart but it will be my task to discover any overlapping so that both fields can profitably be combined. For this, the next step entails an analysis of monolingual learners dictionaries with regards to cognitive theories; the aim is to find out how (and if?) cognitive theories are presented in the format of monolingual learner s dictionaries and if there has been a cognitive turn in lexicography, or how lexicography could profit from cognitive linguistics and its theories in the future. In order to see how cognitive linguistics can profit from lexicography, empirical tests will try to enlighten which cognitive processes are at play when reading a dictionary entry. The question is which cognitive theories can be confirmed with the help of the tests and which insights practical lexicography therefore has to offer and contribute to cognitive linguistics. 2

3 3. Theories The theories used are those of lexicography and cognitive linguistics. Lexicography has established over centuries certain conventions of presenting lexemes; since there is little space but a lot of information to give, questions of format and layout are even more important. Let s take a look at the lexeme restaurant from the latest Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 1 for a very brief exemplification of the microstructure of a dictionary: the headword is presented first, followed by information about the importance of the lexeme 2, as well as phonological and grammatical information. A definition is given in normal print followed by several examples in italics. The information in this short entry is quite straightforward; longer entries, especially for polysemous or homonymous lexemes might pose further problems, not only in relation to the different senses but also to the structure of the entry as a text. LDOCE5 (2009) Cognitive linguistics deal with how humans store language and meanings in their minds; the work of Fillmore, Lakoff and Langacker with the theories of frames, domains and spaces, as well as Rosch s prototype theory are among the theories that seem to me to be of greatest value for the project, but the project will also address questions of sentence comprehension, the role of context, conceptualization and categorization, as well as cognitive processing of information. 4. Methods and material expected outcome In order to map cognitive linguistics onto lexicography, a closer examination of the learner s dictionaries in question will be in place as a first step. My basis for my work will be the most important and successful English monolingual learner s dictionaries on the market, all in their latest editions: the Oxford Advanced Learner s Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Collins COBUILD and the Cambridge Advanced Learner s Dictionary. Next to micro- and macrostructure, the wording of definitions (and example sentences as well) will play a central role for my analysis. Let s return for a brief analysis to 1 All monolingual learner s dictionaries follow more or less the same rules, be it the Oxford Advanced Learner s Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Collins COBUILD or the Cambridge Advanced Learner s Dictionary. 2 S2 W2 signifies that the lexeme belongs to the 2000 most important lexemes in written and spoken English. 3

4 our example of the lexeme restaurant from LDOCE5. If we compare it with the restaurant script 3, it quickly becomes visible that many key elements that people have in mind about restaurants are missing in the dictionary definition. Elements such as ordering, a waiter, the table and the menu aren t mentioned in LDOCE5 whereas the definition can be said to remain quite vague (possible with the reason to cover as many senses as possible). If we turn to another dictionary, namely COBUILD5, we find a more elaborate definition: A restaurant is a place where you can eat a meal and pay for it. In restaurants your food is usually served to you at your table by a waiter or waitress. (COBUILD5 2006) Although COBUILD dictionaries have been found in previous work to be pedagogically more demanding than their competitors, COBUILD seems at a first look to be the more cognitive dictionary. The emergence of cognitive theories has indeed prompted a change in the dictionary writing process: when selecting lexemes for the entries of a dictionary (nowadays usually from a corpus), prototype theory is used to discover single senses and rank them according to their importance (from very common to only marginal senses). But this contribution seemingly hasn t always found a way into the dictionary text. Possibly, LDOCE5 has put a restraint her for itself: LDOCE writes its definitions with the help of a defining vocabulary 4 of 2000 words, but e.g. the lexeme waiter can t be found in it and should therefore be avoided. Having analysed (passages of) the dictionaries with regard to cognitive linguistics, the next step will be to find out what effect the different definitions have on the user and if possible shortcomings from the dictionaries can be remedied (and if so, how?). For this, tests will be designed that focus on e.g. the wording of definitions; a test design could be that several definitions are offered to test candidates for evaluation or test persons are asked to write definitions themselves in order to see on which aspects of a lexeme they put stress, which can again be compared to the definitions offered in dictionaries. In order to understand what happens in the brain of the dictionary user, it might be more appropriate to move away from questionnaires to tests where test persons e.g. have to insert words in a C-Test which either belong or don t belong to a cognitively inspired surrounding or where they are asked to memorize words; the success of the test persons may give an indication which kind of mental processing the users have gone through. 3 E.g. according to Andreas Blank (2001), Einführung in die lexikalische Semantik, Tübingen: Niemeyer, p A defining vocabulary is a list of lexemes which function exclusively as the material for writing the definitions. Given that an advanced learner of English can be expected to be familiar with these lexemes, a defining vocabulary aims at ensuring or at least facilitating comprehension of the definitions. 4

5 5. Working Programme My PhD project is supposed to start in the format of a full time project in the winter term 2009/10 and is designed to last three years, respectively 6 terms, with the submission of my thesis in spring A provisional working plan could be as follows: In the first term in winter 2009/10, I will dedicate myself to a further thorough analysis of the literature available on the topic, regarding both lexicography and the field of cognitive linguistics, and developing hypotheses and theories regarding cognitive processes in dictionary use. This will lead to a decision about the possible forms and the design of the empirical part of the thesis in the second term, which will be tested in pilot studies. In the course of the second year, the final studies for the empirical part will be designed, carried out and evaluated, as well as the theoretical literary part will be finished. Finally, the last year will be dedicated to the writing process of my dissertation and the disputatio. 5

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