Friday, December 13

Japanese angle on English dictionary development


IN developing dictionaries for English learners, it is important to incorporate words that reflect practical and contemporary use, suggested a Japanese associate professor specialising in English linguistics.

Hosei University Assoc Prof Goro Yamamoto noted that the key point in developing and improving dictionaries for English learners is not just about increasing the number of entries but also focusing on vocabulary that reflects contemporary usage of English.

As part of a team that was involved in publishing the fourth edition of an English-Japanese dictionary called The Wisdom, he observed that Japan and the United Kingdom are advanced countries where dictionary development is concerned.

“We are currently in the fourth generation of dictionary development. We have a huge linguistic data called corpus and each publisher uses his or her own corpus.

“There are a number of dictionary franchises but they look similar in the fourth generation. It became really hard to put something unique or original into the dictionary, and that’s the challenging point in the fourth generation,” he told thesundaypost.


Assoc Prof Goro Yamamoto

Improvements to dictionary

Yamamoto said an obvious improvement would be increasing the number of vocabulary entries, but pointed out that more is not always better.

“The largest size dictionary is known as a comprehensive dictionary. These usually have 250,000 to 600,000 word entries. They try to put in every English word there is, but that is not very practical. You see those at the library but users don’t often use them.

“What we call English as a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) dictionary usually has around 100,000 word entries,” he explained.

In reflecting contemporary usage, a good ESL/EFL dictionary would include even acronyms used on the Internet such as IDK (I Don’t Know) or BRB (Be Right Back), Yamamoto opined.

He informed that the team added those expressions frequently used on the internet as well as technical and academic terms.

Yamamoto further explained since dictionary developers depended heavily on the corpus, the dictionary would have to reflect the frequency of words in the corpus with low-ranking words having minimal definitions and no example sentences.

“However, there are some low-ranking words that are of cultural, social or practical importance to dictionary users – in our case, for Japanese people.

“So another improvement we put into the latest edition of The Wisdom is to include a new specially invented logo to mark those low-ranking but important words.

Fourth edition of The Wisdom English-Japanese Dictionary.

“For example, ‘AA (double A) battery’ does not appear frequently in the corpus but it is a daily life word for users, so this entry would have that logo to indicate its importance,” he said.

As the dictionary is not only invented for school children but also for the use of university students, graduates and even researchers, a different logo is used to indicate words or expressions that are useful for research and academic purposes. Words like assume, attribute, and variable also get their academic usage explained.

Surprisingly, buzzwords that are of Japanese origin but have been popularised by westerners are also included such as anime (Japanese animation), emoji (emoticon), and even karoshi (death by overwork).

All these have resulted in the new edition, released in January this year, having a total of 104,000 entries – an increase of 2,000 new words from the previous edition.

With over 2,300 pages, The Wisdom 4th is delightfully lightweight, making it portable and practical for its users.


English language development

Last month, Yamamoto attended the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) international conference held here as a speaker for one of the parallel sessions.

“I shared about what we can do to make a good dictionary for English learners or users. To make a competitive dictionary, you can just change the target language but the same theories are applicable.

“I got some interesting questions about dictionary development at the conference. I thought there is a good potential to publish a better English dictionary for Malaysian English learners and users. If my presentation triggered a new publication project in your country, that would be more than great,” he said.

An entry on Double AA battery with the logo that reads ‘seikatsu’ (daily life) to mark its everyday use.

In English teaching, Yamamoto observed that there are now many new ideas and teaching materials, all thanks to smartphone applications and online programmes.

However, he cautioned against trying something new just for the sake of it being new in the market.

“The important thing is to not try something new or depend on the latest technology but finding out and making good use of teaching programmes, materials or techniques best suitable for your students,” he advised.

On the state of English education in Japan, Yamamoto said that Japanese people have better chances to use English compared to 20 or 30 years ago but English is generally taught as a foreign language.

“Japanese really do not have to communicate with people in English language on a daily basis, so we do not regard English as our second language.

The Japanese word anime is an entry in the latest edition.

“The government has been trying to focus on developing practical or communication English skills. Students, on the other hand, study English for better scores in the entrance exam for university or for better performance on some standardised tests like TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS.

“Usually students’ grammar and vocabulary are good, but they do not have enough experience or chance to use their English outside the classroom. That’s the challenging task for English educational programmes or English teachers in Japan,” he observed.

He believed improvement is happening ‘little by little’ with a number of schools and universities developing and providing good English programmes for their students – not only study-abroad programmes but also content-based English courses in Japan.


Popular Internet acronyms like IDK are also included.

Learning from each other

At Hosei, a major private university in Tokyo, Yamamoto is in charge of the English programme as well as working on developing study-abroad programmes and dealing with international students.

He works at the Faculty of Social Policy and Administration which focuses on three major areas – Community Development, Clinical Psychology and Social Welfare.

Alluding to the population crisis in Japan where many young people are moving to big cities, Yamamoto said it is a concern on how to revive those small communities that the young had left behind.

“This is where Social Welfare and Community Development come in – to help those communities where there are very little young people left to take care of the old. These are things applicable to any country these days. Greying population is not just a problem in Japan, but is a huge problem in many parts of the world.

“The idea is that if we can set up educational programmes to learn about those things in English in Japan, then we can accommodate international students from Asia or other countries to join the programmes and we learn from each other.

The word assume is frequently used in academic papers, marked here (b) with a logo that reads ‘ronsetsu’ (dissertation).

“If there are such programmes in place at Hosei, these students can learn about those issues and bring the knowledge back to apply in their home countries,” he reasoned.

He thought it was necessary because not every student who is interested in those courses would be interested in learning Japanese language first.

“Many might find it a challenge that they need to learn Japanese in order to take those courses which are our speciality. I think that’s how our faculty can contribute to Asian countries and we hope to develop such educational programmes soon.

“I believe there is demand for the courses as the issues they deal with are relevant everywhere,” he said.