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.
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.