How to learn vocabulary effectively: the power of context

Mastering the context is the simple answer on how to learn vocabulary effectively

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Average adult knows 60 000 words but only 10% of them is a result of deliberate teaching. The rest 90% of words we know and understand comes from oral or written context. Master this technique (incoded in the scientific world as Context Vocabulary Acquisition) and you will find the answer on how to learn vocabulary effectively. And, yet, this strategy is fairly unknown to language learners and, as a result, greatly underused. Let’s fix it.

What’s wrong with the typical vocabulary learning approach?

At the very beginning of the language learning journey your main task is to quickly gain new vocabulary in mass. Various sources indicate different numbers: you will read that you have to know 1000 “core” words, 2000 most frequent words, 2568 general service words and so on. And guess how all these words are represented?

That’s right. As a list.

Honestly, what can you do with a list? The only way to conquer this mountain is to add them all into a spaced repetion system and regularly assault your brain with reviewing these words.

Let’s be frank here. That’s what every single language class tries to achieve. They give you a bunch of words, expect you to cram them somehow, then check your knowledge and see if you remember anything. I remember doing something like that in my high school English class. I also remember that these words meant for me so little that they magically evaporated from the surface of my brain immediately after the test.

And, yet, I kept making this mistake even knowing that it certainly wasn’t the way how to learn vocabulary effectively. And then everything changed. In  that moment I took my first book that was completely in English and decided to read it from cover to cover.

Because in this moment another player got in the game: context.

What is context?

The meaning of “context” is so vague that you can only guess it from the context.

Nevertheless, for many of us context is a text surrounding an unknown word. And this is a fairly good interpretation except for the fact that it’s missing 3 other game-changers.

Context: introductory anatomy 

Word “surroundings” are only one (external) part of a gross anatomy of context. The main part is actually hidden deep in the reader’s brain.

We make sense of everything we are reading and listening. And words are just links that allow your brain to connect to various concept: “word”, “brain”, “anatomy”. Think of it. These words do not exist on their own; they are parts of your perception system. So when you encounter a word that you consider as unknown, the problem can be in that system, rather than in a word itself.

Let’s do some troubleshooting. These are the majot trouble-makers:

1. The lack of prior knowledge

Prior knowledge is sometimes called commonsense knowledge or world knowledge. It consists of all those simple facts that water is wet, that grass is green, that birds fly and that cars usually get stuck in traffic. As an adult, you know all these common concepts so it rarely poses a problem for you. However, when children learn a language, their main problem is that they don’t know a concept and therefore cannot tag it with a word.

2. The lack of background knowledge

Background knowledge is something that the author of a text expects the readers to know prior to reading his work. Unlike prior knowledge, background one is often technical or domain-specific. For example, if you’re reading the care and maintenance manual for a semi-closed circuit rebreather with no domain-specific knowledge, I’m sorry, but you’re screwed. To understand the meaning of unknown words, you will have to actually learn new concepts like “rebreather”, “solenoid” and “bailout valve”.

3. The lack of language knowledge

As you can guess, this is the main problem of language learners. In this case, the concept is usually known – but under the different word from a different language. In first days of learning vocabulary, you actually rediscover old concepts like “the sun”, “a car”, “to run” and connect them to new words “le soleil”, “une voiture” and “courir”.

There is no way how to learn vocabulary effectively, even with an explicit context, if one of these three parts is omitted. Why?

Simply, because no word surroundings will help you to understand the following if you never learned Chinese:  我不明白. Or this, if you are not in the world of nuclear physics, even if it’s written in English: “Plotted on a chart as a function of atomic and neutron numbers, the binding energy of the nuclides forms what is known as the valley of stability”. Or even this, if you’re an anglophone child but have no idea what “red” means: “Tommy, look at this red car!”

But the game is actually even more complex.

Few words on perception

The game is more complex because what you think the text is doesn’t necessary equals to what the text really is. What you have read is not always the same to what was actually written. It’s especially true for physics and mathematics textbooks. Come on, didn’t it happen to you that after reading a whole paragraph of a book you had this screaming “WHAT?!” inside?

Like after this one?

“There are 49 dogs signed up to compete in the dog show. There are 36 more small dogs than large dogs signed up to compete. How many small dogs are signed up to compete?”

It’s called a math problem for a reason. You have to read it at least twice to understand what the author actually wants from you.

Or consider the next one:

Finally, I checked the garage and came to the conclusion that my cat was really gone.

If by any chance you misread “cat” as “car” your expectation will be quite different from those if you read the sentence correctly.

So when thinking on how to learn vocabulary effectively you have to go further than just looking at the word surroundings. Rather, you need to aware of this preception trap and see how all parts of the context work together: internalised word surroundings blended with prior, background and language knowledge.

Sounds formidable, I know. But it’s easier to digest with a real example.

How does the context work?

Let’s imagine that you have this sentence in English with one of the words unknown:

“The waiter, previously friendly and good-humored, was tonight solemn and taciturn.”

Your written context looks obviously like this:

“The waiter, previously friendly and good-humored, was tonight solemn and _____”

Now, let’s see how our prior knowledge helps us unveil a meaning of “taciturn”. I’m saying a meaning because the whole point of the game is to get any temporary meaning that will allow you to read on.

First of all, words “friendly” and “good-humored” describe qualities of a person (the waiter, in this case). We can say that he is an outgoing guy who usually loves a good laugh. However, words “previously” and “tonight” indicate the change in the behavior of the waiter. Consequently, “friendly and good-humored” is opposed to “solemn and ___”. As the word “solemn” usually describes someone who behaves in a very formal way, we can conclude that the waiter lost his outgoingness and cheerfulness. As we had a chance to observe this kind of people in real life, we can notice that they are somber, sad and fairly silent.

We don’t know which one of these meanings the word “taciturn” really has. The main thing is that we understood the concept and, with this new information in mind, can keep reading.

If something contadictory to our “taciturn” hypothese appears in another sentence, we simply adjust the hypothese according to this new input.

Why is it better to learn vocabulary in context?

Well, as it’s been noticed at the beginning, your only alternative is to grab a prepared list of 2608 words, translate each of them in your target language, integrate them in any flash-card-spaced-repetition-system and cram them till you exhaust your motivation.

It’s a boring way to learn a language. I don’t like boring ways.

Moreover, how many meanings can you actually learn with flash-cards? One, maximum two. And yet even simple words like “to undo” have many more:

  • He could hardly undo her bra – “to open or loose by releasing a fastening
  • By no means we can undo the past – “to make of no effect or as if not done
  • The sudden shriek undid the campers – “to deprive of courage or confidence
  • That polititian was undone by greed – “to seduce

You can’t copy and paste all the meanings from Merriam-Webster and expect your brain to learn it this way. It will simply get numb to all this.

By contrast, when instead of cramming different meanings of a word, you access that vague general concept behind it you reduce the amount of work. And how can you find that general concept?

From the context.

Read “undo” examples one more time. You will see that this vague general concept is hovering behind this word in each of the sentences. The more examples you have, the more precise will be your understanding of the underlying concept.

How to learn vocabulary effectively from the context?

Now comes the practical part.

First of all, learning vocabulary in context is impossible without having unlimited access to written or spoken language. So from the very first day, set yourself a challenge to read and listen a lot of authentic content in your target language.

Second, don’t jump too high. If you language knowledge is zero, start with easy concepts and easy texts (preferably with pictures). There’s no need in research (though, there was one) that you will have less troble with 1 unknown word on each 25 familiar ones rather than if this proportion is 1/10.

And third, don’t try to learn anything too complicated in a language you haven’t yet mastered – as I did with linguistics during my French experiment. Otherwise, you will have a problem not only on the level of language knowledge but also on the background knowledge one.

Your plan of attack

  1. Understand the category of the unknown word
    Is it a verb, a noun, an adjective? You do need some background knowledge of grammar to deduce that but it’s an important step;
  2. Identify its relationship with other words in a sentence
    If it’s a verb, who does the action? Is there an object? If you deal with an adjective, what word it describes? If it’s a noun, what does it do?
  3. Find morphemes
    Does it sound like grammar again? Hell, it does. But if you want to know how to learn vocabulary effectively, morphemes should become your best friends: to see that “to work” in sentences “I work”, “Paul is working”, “I worked yesterday and all in vain” is the same verb.
  4. Find a meaning (vague, wrong, whatever – as long as it allows you to keep reading)
    This is where all the magic happens (or not happens). If some kind of “shumgrod” bites a young hunter and the hunter dies in pain, you can conclude that the shumgrod is some kind of poisonous animal. Or insect. Or snake. Because these guys are the ones who usually bite.
    You can actually brainstorm for a bit or quickly mindmap the qualities to grasp a vague meaning of a word.
  5. Save this word in the context
    You may encounter the word again but later on. It’s always beneficial to have your history of relationship at glance so you don’t have to painfully recall what this word supposed to mean the last time.
  6. Keep reading
    Keeping in mind the nature of human brain, good authors make about 50% of a text redundant, or repeated twice but in different words (like in this sentence). So very often you actually find additional information about the new word in the following sentence. And this is the right place to test your hypothese and precise it if possible.

Should you use a dictionary?

As you have noticed, there is no such an action as “look up the meaning in a dictionary”. I didn’t simply forget it.

The whole point of learning vocabulary in context is to avoid using dictionary, translator or other external help (like a native speaker luckily hanging around). However, this level is available to you when you already have a good language knowledge. And this is the preferable way.

But how to learn vocabulary effectively if you don’t know a single word? At this level your language knowledge is zero and you can’t use a context in your advantage. Here, you can by no means survive without a dictionary. So go on and use it. The only thing – do not look up the meaning, check it. Make your guess first and only then turn to a dictionary.

And when it actually comes to dictionaries, I prefer to use one that gives the context for the sought word in both languages. Like in this example from Context.Reverso:

This is how to learn vocabulary effectively with Context Reverso

This approach helps you to expand your mental language database related to that word by x10 times. So even if your guess wasn’t that precise you still come out winning.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthousiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.

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