Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Language Building Blocks: Words, Phrases, Sentences in Context

Building blocksNo matter what stage you are in when learning a language, think of "building" your skills, step by step. Words and phrases that you learn in context provide you with "building blocks."

Most people learn a new language to communicate with others.

To really understand a conversation and take part in it, you need more than just words or a series of phrases.

You need to understand how words and phrases connect to create meaning. Nothing does this better than learning language in what the linguist Stephen Krashen calls "comprehensible context."

The Context Helps You Remember

There's another reason for learning language in context. You remember words and phrases much better if you can associate them with a real situation.

Yes, there are ways to create associations to boost your memory. But to do this for every word seems impractical if you want to speak in full sentences.

On the other hand, if you can create a situation in your mind and connect certain phrases with it, you'll have the language ready when you need it.

For example, when shopping in a Spanish speaking country, the following phrases would be very handy: "Estoy buscando ...." (I'm looking for ...); "¿Tiene usted un/una ...?" (Do you have ...?); ¿Cuánto cuesta eso?" (How much does this cost?).

Or a practical example from our FrenchTraditional French soup course where the origin of the “bouillabaisse” is explained: “Pour réussir cette soupe, quand l’eau bout, tu baisses le feu!” (To succeed [with] that soup, if the water boils, you lower the fire [heat])

Now, you may need to learn the verbs, nouns, etc. individually, but will certainly remember them better when you recall the context of this sentence.

Listening to and singing foreign songs is another excellent way to increase your vocabulary, especially if a song's refrain stays with you. (For a post on a German song for learning, click here.)

Build Your Language With All Four Skills

To really absorb a word or phrase, you need to read and write each one of them, in addition to hearing and repeating the sounds.

Small children obviously learn just with spoken language, but don't forget, they'll spend years learning to read and write their first language. The same would be true for fluency in a second or third language.

For adults, reading and writing are highly effective tools for learning and practicing a foreign language. According to a post on the Lifehack blog post: "... it seems that writing anything down makes us remember it better." 

Learning just with audio, leaves you clueless as how to spell many of the words. Should you travel to the country, you may experience quite a few funny or unwelcome surprises.

Grammar Holds Language Together

Learning words and phrases in context also provides another benefit: You'll absorb plenty of grammar without needing to memorize rules. The key is to pay attention. Your brain is wired to figure out and interpret the "grammar" of a sentence.

As a matter of fact, Human Braindifferent areas of the brain seem to respond to various types of sentences.

A study at the University of Rochester suggests that "...humans rely on several regions of the brain, each designed to accomplish different primitive tasks, in order to make sense of a sentence... Depending on the type of grammar used, the brain will activate a certain set of regions to process it."

Just by paying attention, you'll easily notice how the language you're learning is different from English.

For example, things to look out for: Does your foreign language normally drop pronouns?; Are articles used and do they have gender?; How is the word order different?; How do you make a question?; How do you make a negative sentence?

Once you've noticed details like that, you'll see them again and again as you continue to read and practice. Also, when you do look up some rules, they'll start to make a lot more sense.

Intensive and Extensive Learning

It's not a bad idea to alternate short texts that you work with intensively, with reading longer texts rapidly or "extensively," where you only occasionally look up a word.

For a short text you can practice each word individually, listen to it, pronounce it, write it, and pay closeAmelie attention to the grammar.

With a longer text, you would read freely and guess from the context what some of the unknown words mean.

Of course, you also have the option of watching short and long videos, or once you are up to it watch foreign movies.

The more clues the text or the video gives you, the better you'll be able to guess what it's about and the more you'll understand.

Use as many tools as you can for building your language with words, phrases, and sentences that fit together.

It's a great feeling to start taking part in foreign language conversations with friends and new acquaintances!