Extending the electronic dictionary

They are wonderful things – electronic dictionaries. No bulky lumps of paper to carry and much quicker look-up are a given in any implementation. Beyond that, features vary. Some implement more of the features of a paper version, e.g. underlining and highlighting within entries. Others expand over the paper version using on the fact that storage is cheap, e.g. the integration of a big corpus of examples of usage in the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (a godsend to all of us non-native speakers who want to be really sure of actual usage). Then there’s, of course, the feature of playing back a recording of a word – which already goes beyond anything that’s possible with paper. What is unused in any dictionary that I’ve used so far is the ability to record user interaction with the program and transform this into extra value.

A simple yet very effective application here would be to support the user in actually learning the words he looks up. The program could easily keep track of the words the user searches for, and transforms these into flashcards for the user. More frequently looked up words could be presented with greater frequency as part of the review, and a user looking up a word again would mean that it’s back in the current deck for review. Since some dictionaries contain information about word frequency or word importance, these factors could be included in the weighing of which cards to present, and at which frequency.

Sure, I’ve seen an implementation that allows the user-initiated transformation of an entry into a flash card, but that’s not something you really do every time you quickly look up a word, just as you didn’t write a paper flash card of every word you looked up. It’s exactly the kind of easy-to-automate task that computers are there for – and a missed opportunity for the makers of electronic dictionaries.

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