Thesis: Introduction

As a student, I have found standard or traditional dictionaries to be rather inefficient as they define a word simply by presenting more words in a sentence. When I refer to a standard dictionary, I am referring to paper or online dictionaries, such as the Oxford English dictionary, which list words alphabetically and give a one-or-two sentence definition in unsimplified English without the use of pictures. For one who is not yet literate in the language of the dictionary at hand, it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to come to understand a new word in this manner. Imagine not knowing the word ‘jump’. I look in the dictionary and read the definition: “Push oneself off a surface and into the air by using the muscles in one’s legs and feet” (NOAD, 2005). If you did not know an easy word like ‘jump’, you obviously would not understand this definition at all. It would be much better if you could look it up, and then actually see people, animals, and the word itself jumping. Using a video dictionary would give new meaning to the phrase looking up a word. Lost in a text-based world, such as a classroom, we can almost forget the very things to which words refer. On the alienation of language, Erich Fromm wrote, “One must always be aware of the danger of the spoken word, that it threatens to substitute itself for the living experience” (as cited in Freire, 1973, p. 37). The video dictionary, with its images taken from the world, can re-link the word with the world, to borrow the phrasing of Freire and Macedo (1987, p. 35). In the language of semiotics and phenomenology, it is true that the video is itself a sign, and not the thing itself. For Vidtionary, my intention, however, is for the video definition to point back to the thing that is signified, rather than getting lost in the cycle of words needing to be defined by other words which also need to be defined by other words, or what Wittgenstein would call the “regression of meaning” (Medina, 2005, p. 86).
In recognition of the fact that a standard dictionary is a book for the functionally literate, various alternate versions and formats of dictionaries have been created. There is a range of student dictionaries, which use limited vocabulary sets to create their definitions. There are dictionaries that offer translations from one language to another. There are picture dictionaries aimed at children, which, in a less than scientific manner, put a picture beside a word. One might look up the word glass and see a glass of juice, and then conclude that the word ‘glass’ means ‘juice’. There are also visual dictionaries, which in their most comprehensive form catalogue and label virtually every object and part of an object that can be shown in a picture. A visual dictionary generally shows only one image, but it might also show a sequence of still images through a page layout. A video dictionary has numerous advantages. The typical video conveys 30 still frames per second, which gives the sense of continuous motion as far as the human eye is concerned. Along with showing things or actions in motion, the video dictionary brings in the durational element, which shows how an action unfolds over time. Video makes accessible the familiar tools of filmmaking, such as camera pans, zooms, and transitions. In the soundtrack of the video, sound effects related to the object, recordings of the word spoken, and music can also be added. While each format of dictionary will still have its time and place, there are certainly capabilities within the video dictionary format that suggest it could be very useful.
There are, of course, a great number of words that cannot be visualized at all. To define certain words visually seems somewhat difficult. For instance, it would be very challenging (though perhaps fun to try) to give visual definitions for words such as ‘tangy’, ‘eloquent’, ‘seemingly’, ‘somehow’, ‘the’, ‘if’, ‘exclusive’, ‘nonessential’, ‘incorrigible’ and hundreds of thousands of others. There are also subtle differences between many words with similar meanings, and I do not think a video definition would have the same degree of precision in distinguishing these subtleties. For instance, it would be difficult to visually distinguish words such as ‘ashamed’ versus ‘embarrassed’, ‘think’ versus ‘ponder’, or ‘fumes’ versus ‘smoke’. Nevertheless, many of the words we use in everyday life can be represented visually.
The video definition is open-ended and for better or worse lacks the containing power of the written definition. With Vidtionary, I do not have any pretensions to replacing or usurping the traditional dictionary. A written definition acts as a container for the concept. The video dictionary cannot act as container, but rather works by example. The standard dictionary can be said to be deductive, in that the definition is given, and now it is up to the reader to fit things into that definition. The video dictionary is inductive, in that it is up to the viewer to create a mental link between the word and the example images that are shown. A combination of words has a very powerful ability to express complicated concepts. While a study of the evolution of language is beyond the scope of this project, language and words may have evolved because things in the physical world are too big or too small, too heavy or too light, too fleeting or too slight to be explained without creating a referential system. One must surely agree that it’s more convenient to say, for instance, that a house has burned down, rather than actually burning down another house to communicate what has happened. Advances in technology now make it possible to communicate events or concepts with images as well as language.
In terms of education, the distinction between visual and verbal modes of thought is important. The idea that there is such a thing as visual literacy is growing in education circles (Tompkins, Bright, Pollard, & Winsor, 2008, p. iv). Even as there is little agreement on what the term ‘visual literacy’ means, there is a growing consensus that to be able to navigate the world needs more than a textual mastery of language. Many introductory textbooks for prospective teachers, ranging from educational psychology to language arts, include sections on visual learning. In recognizing the importance of visual learning, introductory education textbooks often refer to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (Tompkins, et al., 2008, p. 405; Woolfolk, Winne, Perry, Shapka, 2009, p. 109). Of the eight intelligences Gardner described, it could be argued that the traditional dictionary would appeal to those who favor ‘verbal-linguistic’ intelligence. The video dictionary, however, could definitely appeal to students who favor the ‘visual-spatial’ intelligence, and also to a lesser extent the ‘musical’ intelligence. There are studies suggesting that visual thinking comes early and is connected to linguistic development. The much-cited work of Rudolph Arnheim (2007, p. 1) suggests that thinking is an inherently visual process, and that cognition and language development are tied up with visual perception. ESL (English as a Second Language) literature also widely suggests that visual aids are an important part of the learning process (Brinton, 2001, p. 459). Theories around the concept of visual literacy suggest that visual images need to be more closely examined in the education system. As such, in the next section, my literature review focuses on visual literacy.
Overwhelmed by the latest technology, it is easy to forget that a book itself was once considered to be amazing technology. It was only in the 15th century that Gutenberg became the first European to use movable type printing technology, while China and Korea began using movable type a few centuries previous. Meanwhile, the Modern English language was also emerging in the 15th century. The language was a mixture of native languages of old England and the languages of numerous nations, which had invaded over the years. The language was in quite an unruly state, with words ill-defined and inconsistently spelled. In the 1740s, Samuel Johnson was tasked with creating an English dictionary (Hitchings, 2005, p. 49). Completed in 1755, it is considered the first comprehensive English-language dictionary, and was the most pre-eminent one until the first Oxford English dictionary was created more than a century-and-a-half later (p. 5). Not only did many English words not have agreed-upon definitions, but the technology of the day made the process of compiling and writing a dictionary to be quite cumbersome. Over the ten years of writing his dictionary, Johnson had to evolve his own system of leaving blank spaces on pages or leaving enough blank pages in a notebook to accommodate words he would add to his dictionary (p. 79). Printing early drafts of the dictionary was an expensive process (p. 118). As for the writing itself, Johnson had to both remember his encounters with past words and search through libraries to find examples of word usage (p. 75). Johnson could not go on the Internet and use a text search tool such as the one Google offers. Eventually, Johnson’s final version of the dictionary contained more than 42,000 words (p. 3).
It is a fortunate confluence of emerging technologies that makes a video dictionary possible in the early 21st century. As I write this, in the year 2009, it is an idea not so farfetched at all. As little as 15 years ago, only massive media organizations might have been able to attempt such a project; if they had done so, they probably would have put it onto a set of CD-ROMs or a DVD, since the Internet itself would certainly not have been ready to contain and play back video. The project would have needed very expensive equipment, a sophisticated cataloging system, and a lot of labor. Now, the technology is cheaper, the cataloging systems have been created and are freely available, and labor time, while still necessary, would be less now, since computer software and hardware have improved greatly. The video recording device is no longer a luxury item; a middle-class person in a G20 country might have two or three electronic devices that can record video, since mobile phones, web cams, and digital cameras often have video recording functions. It is only in the last four or five years that video hosting sites have sprung up all over the Internet. In 2006, when I first conceived of doing a video dictionary, I could find no similar ideas on the Internet, which was still more or less the case in 2007 when I decided this could constitute my M.Ed project. Two years later, I realize that I am not alone in thinking the world is ready for a video dictionary. A search of the Internet, detailed in a subsequent section, shows that there are Internet websites exploring the intersection of the dictionary and video, but there does not appear to be a site sufficiently advanced in the project, nor a site that is approaching the task in the same manner as Vidtionary. In a later section, I will examine some fledgling video dictionary sites and other related sites, and discuss the similarities and differences between these sites and Vidtionary.
Vidtionary’s video definitions aim to provide a simple visual introduction to a word or concept, while creating a mental link in the viewer between the word and the world. It also aims to be engaging and entertaining so that students will want to use the site repeatedly. As television advertisers know, learners will better remember the word if the video engages the brain. Whether or not Vidtionary ever grows to be the complement to the traditional dictionary I hope it might be, I still expect its videos to be well utilized as an action-packed and high-tech alternative to the traditional flash-cards of the language classroom.

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