Online Dictionaries

Online DictionariesAn increasing number of educators center their learning around solutions they find online these days. May this be watching educational videos, taking live classes online, practicing language exchange with peers or taking a self-paced course.

Digital tools are now available for just about every point of reference and learning. One reference that has been truly overhauled in this movement is the original reference book, the dictionary. If your objective is to reference words online or try and learn a new language, then finding the right online dictionary to fit your needs is essential.

Today, I’m going to introduce you to two different approaches or schools of thought if you will. One is the community driven or crowdsourced approach that we all know so well from Wikipedia. The other is the classic, curated approach in which experts pick the words based on their linguistic research. Both have, of course, their pros and cons.


The community driven approach

Crowdsourcing is a great way to get people involved and to develop a better sense of how a language is used. The bigger the community that works on the project, the faster and better the results are. One big pro of the community driven approach is the speed new words or expressions can be added to the dictionary. Another big plus is the opportunity to go into the community forums and ask for help when you need a certain expression or can’t find the word you are looking for.

The cons are usually centered around the quality of certain translations or simply missing words or topics. This mainly comes from the fact that most of the community driven online dictionaries are free or non-profits and don’t have huge sums to invest in the product.

LEO dictionary

LEO.orgLEO is a German centric online dictionary and aimed at German native speakers who want to learn one of the following languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese. Of course, LEO is applicable the other way round. If one of the languages mentioned in the previous sentence is your mother tongue and you want to learn German. Turkish and Polish online dictionaries are in the making, but the team is rather small and financial resources are limited, so additions come regularly but slowly.

Big plus about LEO to my mind is the quality in the respective forums as these are very active on the platform and native speakers give learners advice on the best translation based on the context. The discussion threads are highly interesting if you’re at an intermediate or advanced stage in your target language, and you’ll learn much more than only vocabulary.

Mobile apps for all major platforms, Apple, Android and Blackberry, are also available.

bab.laAlso from Germany, has a wider approach. The platform is currently available for 22 languages ranging from standard languages like English, French, Spanish or German to “rising stars” such as Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese. The platform also supports niche languages like Swedish and Swahili.

If a translation is all you want you’ll quickly be done as the interface is clean and self-explanatory, but has more to offer than translations only.

On the platform, learners find a variety of conjugation sheets, quizzes, flashcards, tests and more. What you have to keep in mind though, is that the community plays an important part in the creation of these additional resources and this means that they can contain occasional mistakes or imprecisions.

Numerous widgets and plugins are available as well as an iPhone/iPod touch app.


The curated approach

The curated approach is the dictionary most of us have grown up with. When the Internet became more popular, classic dictionaries also moved to the web and now offer parts or sometimes the entire online reference. The pro of these established brands is of course the quality and knowledge that is associated with the product. These companies have offered their products for decades, sometimes centuries and hence they know what they are doing.

The con is often that the content tends to fall behind the reality of spoken language due to the modus operandi. But the two examples that I chose for today’s post are trying to stay on top of the evolution while still maintaining their quality standards.


Merriam-WebsterMerriam-Webster, an American company, takes a curated approach for its online dictionary and Thesaurus, regularly integrating new words of common languages.The dictionary is kept well  up to date but unlike the examples above the company focuses on experts who decide which words will be added next.

Besides the dictionary there are additional offers like the word of the day, vocabulary quizzes, slang and more.

There are also plugins available for IE and Firefox.

Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO)

Oxford Dictionaries OnlineODO prides itself on being the world’s most trusted dictionary and relies on its experts when it comes to updating the online reference. They pay attention to modern terms and common language that emerges from fields like social media or technology, and we see these areas strongly represented in the latest quarterly addition to ODO.

However, for the interested learner or native speaker, more can be found on the website. ODO provides tips for better writing, puzzles and games and some free audio resources specially designed for children.


What’s your favorite dictionary online and which school of thought does it follow?


Image courtesy of Flickr, See-ming Lee

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