Nowadays people rarely look up words in a dictionary. Having said that, there is still no tool to help find the best way to phrase one's thoughts, or to recall forgotten words. Expectations are high for a Japanese dictionary able to understand Japanese grammar and syntax, which can provide people with the right words depending on the context.
■ The role of dictionaries
When using a dictionary, you don't always know the word you are looking for. Often, you are looking for the best way to explain what you want to say, or trying a recall a word you have forgotten. What's more, when you look up a specific word in a dictionary, its original linguistic role is disrupted, however slightly. When put like this, we can say that a conventional dictionary is not a very user-friendly tool.
With the proliferation of computers and the internet, the need for physical dictionaries has virtually disappeared. With mobile devices now at saturation levels, anybody can easily search for anything, anywhere, at any time. It is against this backdrop that the dictionary, whose role is fading, is steadily evolving into a higher-level, more flexible language support tool.
■ Meeting individual needs
Native speakers of any language cannot simply convey meaning—they must master the art of using language and expressions which are appropriate to whatever particular situation they find themselves in. Obviously, children and adults display the same ideas in different ways, and language is expressed in contrasting ways for each linguistic activity—writing, speaking, reading and listening. A dictionary flexible enough to adapt itself to the abilities and usage of individual users is a very contemporary and challenging research theme.
Buzzwords and particular expressions used on the internet are good examples of this. Ideas are probably conveyed accurately among people familiar with each other, but unexpected blunders can happen when communicating with a person in a more senior position, or with people from different cultures. It is therefore critical to not only show the meaning, but to explain how to use words in the right way. People would clearly benefit from a tool which allows them to thoroughly search for appropriate expressions, and during a conversation, a device which enables people to search for a word rapidly and then display the results would be very handy. This new dictionary development needs a two-pronged approach—software and hardware.
■ Getting closer to a person's thinking patterns
In our minds we organically associate multiple words and images. We change direction and leap around and eventually pull our thoughts together. This word search mechanism is fundamentally different to that used by conventional dictionaries, which mechanically put words in a particular order and give exhaustive lists of their meanings. This 'mismatch' is perhaps what makes them difficult to use. If the search procedure can resemble human thought patterns more closely, dictionaries will become a more natural language support tool.
This has led to the idea of context recognition. This means that the computer does not simply examine the input sounds and words in isolation, it recognizes the context and produces the most appropriate words and/or meaning. In Japan, this was first proposed around twenty years ago in the development of Japanese language word processing systems. The accuracy of kanji conversion systems has improved greatly in recent years. The aim is to create a dictionary which will select and display, with an appropriate level of detail, the words and meanings selected from multiple candidates, which are the most appropriate in terms of text or conversation content and context.
■ Quantitative measurement of language ability
We gradually increase our vocabulary and master a range of linguistic patterns throughout elementary school and high school. Even within the same language, developmental stages have an important influence on the words and expressions a child is able to use. Therefore, in addition to grammatical correctness, language support must take into account the fact that there are generational limits to words and patterns.
These limitations are evident from statistical research such as that of the language patterns found in essays, and types of words used and the frequency of their appearances in text books in each stage of education, from elementary school, through junior high school, to high school. Abstract nouns, such as 'complexity', 'function' or 'element', are almost never used in elementary school, but increase dramatically in high school. In line with this, a wider range of patterns is used, and expression becomes richer and more logical.
■ Dictionary creation is an interdisciplinary project
The major premise for logical thought is the correct use of language and the ability to use appropriate language to describe the thought in question. Also, as globalization progresses, people must be aware of differences of expression and of paraphrasing between Japanese and other languages. It is essential that all future Japanese dictionaries be a language support tool which will help native speakers use the language effectively.
The development of a Japanese dictionary able to meet diverse needs requires linguistic research into the meanings of words, grammar and generational differences in vocabulary and expressive ability, the construction of a context-recognition based search system, and a user-friendly interface. In other words, it requires a fusion of a wide range of fields, such as pedagogy, psychology and engineering. In addition to this, collaboration with publishers and companies in the information industry will be an essential element in device design, particularly if devices are to work in tandem with other dictionaries. This will change the face of research into humanities and social sciences. Anticipation is increasing for the next generation of Japanese dictionaries.
Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations
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