Meaningful Context in Language Learning

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk about the importance of context in language learning. As is usually the case with these, I don’t have them written out in advance so my thoughts are going to be a little disjointed. Bear with me here. Let’s start with what sort of triggered this thought in my mind.

I met this morning with a family; again, Chinese immigrants, father, mother and their daughter. They’ve been here for 12 years. The daughter speaks fluent English, of course, has been here since the age of four, she’s 16 and both parents struggle with their English. The mother there said yes, you know I find it very difficult when I go to study a list of words. I can’t seem to remember them and it’s very frustrating. She’s been here 12 years and she really can’t speak English very well at all. I thought to myself well, I can’t learn from a list of words because a list of words has no meaning for me. It has no resonance. There’s nothing there for me to grab on to.

Context In Daily Dialogue

Both the parents have lived here for 12 years and don’t speak English very well. Obviously, English is not very important to them. That’s another context that’s not there. They don’t have a strong sense of wanting to participate in an English-speaking society so there isn’t that context of wanting to participate in the language, but context goes beyond that. In my experience, if I learn from some content it has resonance for me. It’s interesting to me when I’m listening to some of my Czech material about the history of Czechoslovakia or whatever it might be. That’s of interest to me. Other people are interested in other things. It might be music, it might be whatever, but whatever you’re learning from has to be relevant, has to be meaningful, has to have resonance, it has to have credibility.

This is another problem. Very often if we’re learning from the typical sort of beginner text, we’re not entirely sure that that’s how people speak, at least I’m not. I’m not entirely sure that this is authentic and credible because, in fact, it’s scripted for me and I know that some of the words they’re teaching are not very important. Most beginner texts have you going through Customs. I wonder how many people have ever used the language they’re learning while going through Customs, I know I haven’t. You start to question the relevance of this context. It’s low resonance.

Reading Content

Obviously, reading a list of words has very little resonance. I think it’s so important that we get engaged emotionally with the language and the context that we’re learning from. That context is not only the subject matter we might be reading or listening to, it’s also the people we associate with. It’s our desire to be part of that community that gives resonance, that creates a meaningful context, makes it real, credible, authentic. I think one of the difficulties very often that immigrants from Asia have is that they seem to be less willing to inject themselves into the local scene and, therefore, English becomes less relevant to them. It’s not a meaningful context for them.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but I think it’s extremely important. The brain is not just some kind of a machine that you throw some stuff in, turn a handle and out comes language ability. It’s not just the so-called left-side of your brain, which is good at dealing with rational explanations or whatever. I think there’s ample evidence that it’s the whole of the brain that gets involved and that emotion is a big part of it and if the learning environment or the living environment or the learning materials, the context in which we are learning in every sense of the word, if that context is not rich, is not authentic, credible, vibrant, if it doesn’t grab us, then we’ll have a lot tougher time learning.

That’s really all I wanted to say. I don’t know what we can do about it, other than trying to find or create meaningful context. In other words, learning from material that we like and find interesting where the voice has resonance, where the subject matter has resonance. I can still remember a text that I listened to in Italian, I Promessi Sposi or Anna Karenina in Russian or some of the material I’m listening to now in Czech. It creates an attachment and that’s going to help you learn.

Content In Conversation

Also, in terms of interacting with the language, as you know my preference is to wait until I have enough of a vocabulary that I can actually have a meaningful, again, interaction, one that’s authentic and real and we’re actually communicating meaning so that I am driven by the desire to communicate my meaning and understand the meaning of the other person. I’m not displaying my ability to use the subjunctive or worrying about whether I say everything correctly or not because I’ve got a meaningful context and it’s meaningful because I have enough of a vocabulary that I can actually have a meaningful conversation and have a chance of understanding what the other person is saying. That makes that whole context meaningful.

Do with this idea what you want, but I think those people who are able to create meaningful, rich, authentic, credible learning content are generally more successful language learners. So, I look forward to your comments. Thank you for listening, bye for now.

3 comments on “Meaningful Context in Language Learning

Alex Wu

Hi, Mr. Kaufmann, I am Chinese and used to struggle with English until I find Economics interesting(lucky for me, it was not Accountancy), and since then my English improves tremendously as I tried to read as many articles about this topic as possible. What is more, my Economics teacher, Mr Harper, gave me a lot of encouragement by crediting good marks for my homework essays. I never look back since and now read the Economist routinely, which broaden my English as well as the topics.
Now I am teaching my 7 years old daughter English, and I try to act the part or share a joke to strengthen her memory on any new English words. For example, I walk like a drunk when teaching her the word “zigzag” or find/twist the Chinese pronounciation of the word which may give rise to a totally different meaning(of course I don’t overdo it, otherwise she would learned that different meaning instead of the correct one) Anyway, I tried to make learning English as much fun as possible for her, sometimes when the jokes run out, my help come from the internet, mainly Youtube. She learns the word “dead”,”parrot” by heart by watching the “dead parrot” sketch in Monty Python. So your take on the brain functioning as one when we learn is exactly correct: I learn the word “lovesick” when my puppy love left me!


I am currently teaching myself French with a combination of using LinQ, Radio-Canada, France info, youtube videos on French history, whatever I can get my hands on with content that is enjoyable and compelling for me personally. I totally understand what Lingo Steve is saying when he talks about content that resonates. When I can get my hands on texts and audios that are about topics that I am curious about, then I can stay in contact with the language because I am so interested in what is being presented or discussed. I teach high school students. One of my students loves to cook so he goes on youtube and finds all kinds of recipes in Spanish. He watches the youtube video in Spanish and he ends up cooking the meal in Spanish. It resonates with him. Another one of my students is a guitar player, and she goes on youtube and watches all kinds of tutoring videos in Spanish about different ways, different strumming, plucking techniques, how you can use the guitar as a percussion instrument, etc, and that is how she can stay in contact with the language. The internet is replete with all kinds of compelling content in different languages. In 2015, in these awesome times, if you really want to become fluent in another language, if you take the time to look for content that resonates with you, you will find it and then you can download it and watch it, read it and listen to it whenever you want. The human brain is wired to soak in languages with all their components, their structures, forms through content that resonates with you.



” I think it’s so important that we get engaged emotionally with the language and the context that we’re learning from”

i’ve got an italian podcast about goals, time management a subject that interests me,
i understand 95% without using a transcript

then the other day someone explains the 6 articles, none of them stuck
except the ones similar to spanish

lingq is an excellent system, especially i like the counting words you’ve learned
which gives you an idea of how many you need to achieve fluency etc

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