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March 3, 2002 - Lida Baker: Using a Dictionary - 2002-03-01

A: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and, now that the Olympics are over, we're back with WORDMASTER. This week -- going for gold in using the dictionary!

RS: We looked up our friend Lida Baker. She teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, and writes textbooks for English learners.

AA: Lida Baker says a dictionary is "the most important tool that an English learner has." But, she says students often are not aware of the wealth of information in a dictionary.

RS: A good dictionary, that is -- one that lists not just all the definitions of a word, but also how to use that word correctly. For instance, a good dictionary warns you if a word is considered vulgar or otherwise offensive.

AA: Lida Baker says a good dictionary also helps you sort out the different meanings a word might have in different English-speaking countries.


"So if you look up, for instance, the word 'lift,' the first definition in my American English dictionary is, ‘if you give someone a lift, you take them somewhere in your car, and a synonym is a ride.’ So that is the most common meaning in American English, but if you read down a ways in this definition you will see a label that says 'British' and next to it you will see the words 'an elevator.'"

RS: That's right, an "elevator" in American English is a "lift" in British English.

AA: Lida Baker says another thing a good dictionary can tell you is how a word is generally used.


BAKER: "You'll see things ike 'formal,' 'informal,' 'humorous,' 'literary' or 'slang.' And a good example of this is the word 'chill.'"

RS: "C-h-i-l-l."

BAKER: "Right. When it's used as a verb it means to cool something down and it doesn't have any particular label, but definition number two has the label 'spoken and informal.' And the definition here is to relax instead of feeling angry or nervous. And there's an example sentence: "Shelley, just chill out, OK?"

AA: "That sounds like slang, to 'chill out.'"

RS: "Which is informal."

BAKER: "Spoken or informal, right. So the student looking at this definition would know that they shouldn't use this if they're writing a composition in a college course, or you probably shouldn't use this if you're talking to the president of your company during a job interview or something like that, a more formal situation."

AA: OK, now let's look up the word "frustration." Ah yes, here's the definition I'm looking for: "noun -- the feeling you get when you try to look up the correct spelling of a word that you have no clue how to spell."


"I do not know a magical solution to this problem. Students from Asia tend to be exceptionally fine spellers in English even if they don't know what a word means. Students who come from other regions of the world have much more difficulty with spelling and they really get stuck in a situation like this if they don't know how to spell a word. Now there is something called a backward or reverse dictionary. Instead of finding the word with its correct spelling, you can look up a word based on the way it sounds, but I haven't actually seen one of these."

RS: So how do you choose the right dictionary? Well, Lida Baker says it all depends on what you're looking for.


"If I'm reading a story for my own pleasure and I encounter a word and all I want is a quick and general sense of what the word means so that I can then continue with my pleasure reading, in a situation like that I might use a bilingual dictionary. I'll look it up, I'll find a one-word translation into my own language and then I'll keep on reading. But if my purpose is to learn English with the purpose of being able to use a word in an actual conversation or in writing a college composition or a business report, in a situation like that I would want to use an English-English dictionary that gives all the usage labels, the complete grammatical information, the example sentences and so on."

AA: Lida Baker comes to us from Los Angeles, where -- when she's not thumbing through dictionaries -- she writes textbooks for English learners and teaches at the American Language Center, part of the University of California Extension program.

RS: If you have a question, send it to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. Our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Your Dictionary"/XTC