Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why Context Matters in Language Learning

Context matters - Gamesforlanguage.comLearning a new language is a pretty complicated process. When someone speaks to you in a foreign language, there are so many things going on at the same time.

You need to decode the sounds and figure out the meaning of the words; you have to understand the underlying grammar (verbs forms, pronoun objects, etc.) and also determine the sentence structure (question, statement, imperative, etc.)

Finally, you have to connect everything to the context of the situation. That's a lot going on at once.

So, how do you best learn to master this process, step by step?

Advice Galore

For sure, there's plenty of advice floating around on how to best learn a language. You'll find a language learning expert on almost every “corner” of the Internet.

One may tell you that all you need is to repeat and memorize words and phrases; another may insist you should just read and you'll absorb the language automatically; a third expert may say that all you need to do is copy the language and start writing on your own.

Someone else advises that watching TV or YouTube clips in the language will have you speaking in no time. Then, there's the “natural” method where you “learn like a child”; and there's the grammar-drill method where you grind your way through “pattern practices.”

In my own career as a college language teacher, I've watched various waves of teaching “methods” come and go. They are all helpful to some extent. People are learning languages all over the world using many of the above suggestions.

Do you really want to learn a new language?

Then be in control of your own language learning. It's your project. No-one can do it for you. You have to be passionate, persistent, and also patient.

Research has shown that to learn a new language “mere exposure is not sufficient … interaction in the language is needed in order for the learner to communicate personal meaning in the target language. ... Language practice which takes place in relevant context will then result in the acquisition of the language.” as Dr. Marjo Mitsutomi  in “Some Fundamental Principles of Language Teaching and Learning" describes.

If your goal is to engage in relevant, personal conversations with others – the “Context Approach” is a good way to get there. As the "Language Lizard Blog" stresses, the value of context should be remembered even when teaching language to young children: "We use language for communication and therefore it is best learned in its natural form: through discussions, conversations, and stories."

Why Context matters

Taking a sample German “core conversation,” I'd like to illustrate how a learner may focus on different aspects of the language at different stages, and why context is important:
A young man, Michael meets is at the home of a friend. He meets Claudia for the first time.
Michael: Hallo Claudia! Freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen.
Renate: Michael, sei nicht so formell. Ihr könnt euch duzen!
Michael: Wenn es dir recht ist Claudia?
Claudia: Natürlich, wir Studenten duzen uns alle!
English translation:
Michael: Hello Claudia! Pleased to meet you. (formal)
Renate: Michael, don't be so formal. You can say “du.” (informal “you”)
Michael: If it's all right with you, Claudia?
Claudia: Of course, we students all say “du.”

Initially you may mostly focus on:

-Individual vocabulary (about 20 content items):
-learn their meaning practice their pronunciation practice their spelling
-find a way to practice the sentences:
(Speak them aloud to whoever is willing to listen, type them out, write them out by hand, hang the page up in the kitchen or your office.)

Soon, you may also want to know:

-the subject pronouns: ich, du, er, sie [she], es, sie [they] – in addition to Sie (formal “you”), ihr, wir
-basic conjugations of the verbs used: freuen, kennen lernen, können, sein, duzen

Replaying this dialog again later on, you may discover and understand:

-sentence structure: the form of a statement, a command, a type of question, a complex sentence
-other grammatical forms (eg. direct and indirect object pronouns [mich, dir], reflexive pronouns [euch, uns])

Key Points to consider:

What is important about the context the dialog provides?
-the age of the people (here they are students in their twenties)
-how well people know each other
-the circumstance of the conversation
Why take a conversation rather than individual phrases or sentences?
-you'll better remember the words/phrases related to the context
-you'll pick up cultural information (i.e. students say “du”)
Why only about 20 words?
-It's a good number to practice and remember.
What will you have learned initially?
-20 useful words, in a meaningful context
And, later on either explicitly or intuitively?
-all the subject pronouns
-6 verbs and a conjugation of each
-3 types of sentences

Once you've absorbed a few dozen conversations and acquired more than 500 content words, you're probably ready to engage in relevant, personal conversations with others.

If you're not in the country and don't have a live community that speaks your new language, you should head to one of the virtual “language learning communities,” which Kirsten Winkler, Founder and Editor of EDUKWEST, calls “Pubs of the Global Village.” There, you can practice what you know and continue to learn.