Who needs dictionaries?

Michael Rundell discusses the future of dictionaries. October 2012, London.

Michael Rundell explores the future of dictionaries. In this seminar he discusses the idea that dictionaries are going the same way as encyclopedias. In just a few years most activity has moved from paper to electronic media and for pedagogical dictionaries, whose users are mostly young and therefore digital natives, the switch from old to new media is even more advanced. Is there any future for dictionaries? 

Dictionaries evolved to meet specific communicative needs: 

  • What does this word or phrase mean?
  • How do I say it?
  • What’s its equivalent in my language?
  • How can I use it correctly and idiomatically?

However, although ‘the dictionary’ is a well-embedded cultural artefact there is no particular reason why it should survive in its present form. It is equally plausible to imagine that its various functions might be better performed by separate resources, such as automatic translation tools or text-remediation software.

What are the implications for the learning, teaching, and operational use of L2s? The future looks like being more fragmented than the old one-size-fits-all model. The commonest forms of look-up (meaning, spelling, pronunciation), have already become subsumed into the larger enterprise of ‘search’, where the starting point is typically Google, not a dictionary. Even this can be problematic, as many online dictionaries marry cutting-edge technology with horribly outdated dictionaries. Meanwhile, far more needs to be done to meet the receptive and productive needs of users in EAP or ESP environments.

The new situation, though unpredictable, is full of opportunities. New technologies, such as ‘adaptive’ systems (which ‘learn’ about the needs and wants of individual users, and adapt themselves accordingly – think of your Amazon account), offer the possibility that the next generation of reference tools could be far better than anything we currently call a ‘dictionary’.

Michael's seminar is divided into four parts. You can watch all four parts as a playlist or select from the list below by clicking on the links.


  • The session outline and references and slides are available for download below.
  • You can read a report of the seminar in the downloads below.

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