Dictionaries Integrated into English Learning Apps: Critical Comments and Suggestions for Improvement

  • Fang Huang Centre for Lexicographical Studies, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China
  • Sven Tarp Centre for Lexicographical Studies, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, China; Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; International Centre for Lexicography, Valladolid University, Spain; Centre of Excellence in Language Technology, Ordbogen A/S, Denmark, and Centre for Lexicography, Aarhus University, Denmark
Keywords: media convergence age, English learning apps, integrated dictionaries, embedded dictionaries, lexicographical databases, user interfaces, pop-up windows, context-awareness, Xun Gu tradition, personalization, incidental and intentional learning


Digital applications to assist language learning are becoming increasingly popular. They typically incorporate one or two dictionaries to improve the service so that users avoid leaving the app to consult external resources. This paper deals with the two dictionaries used in a learning app for Chinese learners of English. Initially, it describes the functioning of the app as well as the two dictionaries that have different roles in the app. It then focuses on the one that is integrated into the course texts and can be activated by clicking on a word or a multiword unit. A number of deficiencies are discussed such as inconsistent treatment of words and senses, data overload, difficult access, and inconvenient location of the pop-up window that displays the lexicographical items. These deficiencies may impact negatively on the learners' motivation and the learning process in general. The paper traces the problems to the database that sustains the dictionary as well as the design of the user interfaces that filter the data offered to the users. Finally, and inspired by the classical Chinese Xun Gu tradition, it suggests an alternative, context-adapted approach that breaks with traditional features of the dictionary article and reduces the content of the pop-up window to an absolute minimum. The idea is to avoid a consultation process that interrupts the learners' reading flow and focus on learning.