When you come across a word that you’re not familiar with, chances are that you’ll search for a dictionary to find the meaning. It can be a word you haven’t encountered yet (‘mellifluous’ or ‘ascertain’), or a word like ‘heart’ that is used differently, as in this sentence:
‘He found himself right in the heart of the city.’
In the dictionary, the word ‘heart’ refers to several things: it may refer to the muscular organ that pumps the blood through the circulatory system (‘his heart stopped beating for a minute’); it may also refer to the mood or feeling (‘they had a change of heart’).
But when you look further down the page, you will notice that the word ‘heart’ has a lot more entries: phrases like ‘by heart’; ‘heart of stone’; ‘have the heart to do something’, etc. How would you know the right meaning of a word?
For learners of English, it’s important to know not just the meaning of the word, but what it means when used in a specific context. When not used in a sentence, a word does not have a definite meaning: ‘heart’ can simply mean many things!
Although some words are easier to get to know because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, words like ‘heart’ have several different meanings.
But not all dictionaries are comprehensive enough for non-native speakers; only a good dictionary that is appropriate to your level of English can guide you through the language.
An up-to-date learner’s dictionary offers more explanation about all the essential things: how the language works in context, the etymology of the word—that is, the source of the word and its real meaning—and how to pronounce the word. Simply put, a learner’s dictionary puts the word in context and shows you how to use it.
It’s good to look up the definition, but don’t stop there. A learner’s dictionary gives you all sorts of useful expressions and phrases based on that word: medical phrases like ‘heart condition’ and ‘heart transplant’; idioms like ‘it breaks my heart’ and lots more. It helps build your vocabulary as it tells you the difference between the physical ‘heart’, for example, and the word ‘heart’ when used in emotional expressions.
Bit by bit, you will come to recognise these new words and phrases. With the right practise and environment, it will soon become part of your day-to-day language.