“Of all the knowledge and skills which a language learner must master, the most important element, and the one involving the heaviest learning load, is an adequate working vocabulary.” – Foreword to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 8th edition, 2010
Of course dictionaries are about vocabulary, but the key lies in the “adequate working” vocabulary designed to bridge the gap between the classroom and the outside world.
In addition to headwords and their definitions or translations, most dictionaries contain a treasure trove of aides to hone your writing, reading, and speaking skills. Depending on the type of dictionary you select – mono- or bilingual, school level or advanced learner, thesaurus combination or subject-specialised – your dictionary is sure to offer extras apart from general spelling, grammar, meaning, and usage.
You may also find pronunciation guides; collocations; word origins; common mistakes; word formation strategies; labels; different senses; common phrases and idioms; synonyms and antonyms; technical and scientific vocabulary; rare, archaic and literary language; abbreviations; tips for writing or speaking; writing exemplars; or thesaurus-type factual information about people and countries, weights and measures, chemical elements and special symbols, etc.
A good dictionary will track developments in a language by drawing on constantly revised corpora of common language made up of texts from a variety of sources. It will be concise, clear and accessible, using ordinary current language to explain complex terms. It will also represent local varieties of the language, often including slang and dialect.
But the real value of dictionaries lies in developing discourse skills, employing communication strategies, and expressing exact meaning. Attaining such a level of language skills will enable you to perform competently in ‘real-life’ situations, whether partaking in debates or discussions, giving oral presentations, engaging in negotiations, or managing conflict in everyday communication – in short, interacting clearly and effectively with the world around us.