In linguistics, this topic often comes up in relation to language acquisition. Language acquisition doesn’t necessarily mean you’re learning a foreign language. It could be that you’re developing your vocabulary in your primary language. Almost everyone uses dictionaries in elementary and secondary school to learn the meaning and spelling of new words. People who study foreign languages use dictionaries to learn the meaning and spelling of new words in a separate set of vocabulary.
Foreign language dictionaries are cumbersome because they are repetitive. Most dictionaries used in language classes have the same information listed twice: once from the speaker’s primary language to the foreign language, and once from the foreign language to the primary language. This way, the language learner can learn foreign vocabulary by looking up words in their primary language, and they can look up foreign words to learn their meaning. For example, with an English-Spanish dictionary, I could use the English-first section to look up the word “tree” and learn that it is árbol in Spanish. Alternatively, I could use the Spanish-first section of the same dictionary if I came across the word árbol in my homework and I needed to figure out how to translate it.
As you can imagine, these dictionaries can get awfully heavy. They are also less comprehensive than a single-language dictionary, because including everything would be impractical. That’s a benefit of electronic dictionaries: they can hold a lot more information. It’s easy to type in a word and learn what it means and how to say it. Many people can access electronic dictionaries on their phones, and when they travel, they need only reach in their pockets to find a word.
For practicality, there are obvious advantages. But what about disadvantages? Let’s divide this into two sections: disadvantages of using electronic dictionaries in general and disadvantages of using electronic dictionaries for language acquisition.
In general, electronic dictionaries require power or the ability to charge their access device, which makes them ill-suited to situations where power sources are unavailable. Some electronic dictionaries require an internet connection, which means they cannot be easily used by people without internet access, especially people in developing countries. Some electronic dictionaries are created by software developers rather than professional lexicographers, which could result in less thorough or standardized definitions.
In language acquisition, the disadvantages of electronic dictionaries are more conceptual. Consider what happens when you look up a word using a print dictionary. First of all, you need to know alphabetical order. Searching for words in a print dictionary helps school-aged children learn alphabetical order and phonetics, and it helps foreign language learners do the same. For example, in English, the letter G is seventh in alphabetical order. In Greek, the G sound is made by a letter called gamma, which is the third letter in the Greek alphabet. If you use only electronic dictionaries, you may be less comfortable with alphabetical order.
Once you’ve reached the appropriate letter in a print dictionary, what’s next? You use your phonetic skills to figure out the next sound(s) and eventually find the word you’re looking for. As you skim each column, you’re probably reading other words. Maybe some stand out to you and you read their definitions, too. Print dictionaries can expand your vocabulary simply by exposure—that’s a great trick for an old technology.
Finally, some interdisciplinary research studies suggest that the excessive use of electronic resources leads to poorer learning outcomes. For some subjects, this is controversial. After all, electronic sources give us access to far more information than ever before. But knowing that we have access to these resources leads many of us to spend less time putting in the work of studying. If I know I can just look up a word using my phone, why bother remembering it? If a search engine can translate a sentence, why bother learning new languages?
I think electronic devices should help us expand our knowledge, but I don’t think we should outsource all of our knowledge to the devices. What do you think?