Posted on by Ulrike and Peter Rettig

Why Context & Connections are essential for Language Learning

Context matters - We recently came across a very interesting article in International Business Times: Second language learning theories: Why is it hard for your adult brain to master another dialect? by Matt Atherton.

We have covered the topic of adult language learning in several previous posts. (see Language Building Blocks and Learning Grammar in Context, etc.)
The above article also provides some new insights why just learning vocabulary alone won't make you SPEAK another dialect or a second language. Interestingly, the Atherton's headline questions the difficulty of mastering "another dialect." In the text, the author switches between "dialect" and "second language."

There is no need here to discuss when a "dialect" becomes a "language." The interchangeable use of both terms in the article, however, made us realize again how important "context" is for learning both another dialect and a second language.

Learning Dialects

Both of us grew up learning different dialects in our native country, Austria. Ulrike grew up with "Viennese" German during her elementary school years and Peter with "Vorarlbergisch" German during his pre-school years.

We then learned Dutch and English (Ulrike) and High German (Peter) by the time we finished high school. (Later, Peter picked up Swiss German and French while studying and working in Switzerland and Ulrike polished her High German while teaching English in Germany.)

Looking back, it is quite clear that when we learned our dialects/native language as children, we did it in the context of playing and interacting with those around us and by imitating our caregivers and friends.

In fact, this is also how Ulrike learned Dutch during her two years of primary school in the Netherlands or learned English in high school in Canada. It's also how Peter picked up Swiss German as a young adult - by imitating friends, fellow students and teachers. (It certainly helped Peter's Swiss German that "Vorarlbergisch," like Swiss German, is an Alemannic dialect.)

Today, both of us still UNDERSTAND those dialects quite well. And, after a few days of hearing them, we can also SPEAK them again. Yes, studies have shown that young children have many more brain connections (synapses) than adults, and we have no reason to disagree with neuroscientist Arturo Hernandez of the above mentioned article:

"...some individuals may have a particular neuronal activity pattern that may lend itself to better learning of a second language.

But we also firmly believe - based on our own experience in learning other languages as adults - that learning a second language is much easier with a story and dialogues.

This mirrors how we learned our first language: relating the words we heard to the activities and dialogues around us, and making the all-important connections in our brain. That's why we are using a story with dialogs for our Gamesforlanguage courses.

Learning 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 answer some basic grammar questions before you can understand the meaning of a sentence. Which are the verbs, nouns, adjectives? Is it a statement or question? Is it in a past, present, or future tense?

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

The Power of "Context"Students talking -

Taking a sample French “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 student called Daniel is at the home of his friend Virginie. He meets her friend Mathilde for the first time.
[Click on the sentence to hear it.]
Daniel: Bonjour Mathilde, enchanté de faire votre connaissance.
Virginie: Daniel, ne sois pas si formel. Vous pouvez vous tutoyer!
Daniel: Ça ne te dérange pas, Mathilde?  
Mathilde: Entre étudiants, nous nous tutoyons toujours.

English translation:
Daniel: Hello Mathilde, delighted to meet you.
Virginie: Daniel, don't be so formal. You can say "tu" to each other!
Daniel: You don’t mind, Mathilde?
Mathilde: Among students we always say "tu".

Initially you may mostly focus on:

- individual vocabulary
- learning their meaning
- practicing their pronunciation
- practicing their spelling
- finding 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 study.)

Soon, you may also want to know:

- the pronouns: votre, vous, tu, te, nous
- conjugations of other verbs used: enchanter (enchanté), être (sois), pouvoir (pouvez), tutoyer, déranger (derange) 
- adverbs, prepositions. etc: bien sûr, toujours

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. negation with an object pronoun [ça ne te dérange pas]; reflexive verb forms
[Vous pouvez vous tutoyer!, nous nous tutoyons]; the use of "que" [bien sûr que non])

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 “tu”)

What will you have learned initially?

- 20 to 30 useful words, in a meaningful context
- how to respond when meeting somebody
- a typical French expression for emphatic negation "Bien sûr que non."

And, later on either explicitly or intuitively?

- all the pronouns
- 5 verbs and a conjugation of each
- 3 types of sentences

What Next?

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 just remember sentences such as: "Enchanté de faire votre connaissance", you'll be able to adapt it later on to other uses and circumstances.
(e.g. Enchanté de faire ta connaissance", "J'ai fait la connaissance de..." , "Je n'ai pas la connaissance de..." etc.).

And, when you later learn the word "connaître" (to know), you'll make the connection with "connaissance," and will have added another word that you're sure to remember.

Learning a foreign language is all about making connections and recognizing patterns. The more could can connect the words, phrases, and sentences you are learning in another language to your immediate environment, or topics that interest and engage you, the faster and easier it is for you to recall them.

The Polyglot Benny Lewis is certainly right when he advises you to speak your target language immediately. Maybe not everybody can muster the time or commitment that he promotes with Fluent in 3 Months.

But listening to stories, reading them aloud, singing foreign songs, etc. will create more connections in your brain. They will help you not only to retain vocabulary better, but also to use them right away in conversations.

Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are the founders of They are life-long language learners. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Disclosure: The link above to "Fluent in 3 Months" is to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to buy or subscribe.