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Imagine this: you know all of the words in a language, but you are unable to speak it with anyone.
Sounds crazy? It’s actually possible and I can show you an example!
In 2015, a man from New Zealand memorised the entire French dictionary. He did this in order to win the French Scrabble championship.
But could he speak French? No! Because he learned the words without any context.
Memorising a dictionary is an amazing trick, but it won’t help you speak the language.
Many English learners try something similar. They try to improve their vocabulary by learning lists of words.
It’s a good technique if you want to win a Scrabble contest, but it’s a bad technique if you want to improve your English.
Instead, we want to learn vocabulary in context.
What do we mean by “learning vocabulary in context”?
Context simply refers to the meaning which surrounds the word. Let’s see an example:
Mary chopped some carrots, celery and gibble. She fried these three ingredients with a little oil in a pan.
Gibble is not a real word; I just invented it, so nobody knows the meaning except me.
However, from the context - the words and ideas that surround the word - you know quite a few things about ‘gibble’:
- We use this word when we talk about cooking
- You can chop it
- You can fry it
- It is an ingredient
- It seems to be some kind of vegetable
- It is an uncountable noun
Hence, when we look at a word in context, we can gain a lot of information about the word, even if we are not 100% sure of the meaning.
Why is context so important?
Let’s take the word ‘funny’. It’s a simple word, and any intermediate-level speaker of English knows the meaning, right? It’s not new vocabulary.
Then, one day, you watch a movie and the character says, “That’s funny… my keys are missing!”
Wait a minute. Why is it “funny” that someone’s keys are missing? The context does not seem to match the meaning!
You Google the word “funny” and see that it has a second meaning (“difficult to explain”):
Please remember that many words in English have multiple meanings (even seven or eight!). This is especially true for everyday words like “funny”.
By the way, the dictionary always lists the most common meaning first.
What about this sentence? Can we learn any new vocabulary from it?
The effect of the medicine slowly wore off and my headache returned.
I found that many of my students would look at a sentence like this and say that there is no new vocabulary here - they know all the words.
However, even though they know the word “wore” and the word “off”, they often do not know the meaning of the phrasal verb “wore off”.
Remember, when words are used in combination with other words, the meaning can be completely different from the component words.
Words can have subtle meanings
If something is subtle, it is difficult to understand 100% because the meaning is not obvious.
Let’s take the phrasal verb “doze off”. It looks like it means to fall asleep:
Pete dozed off on the train. He woke up ten minutes later.
So can we say the following?
I’m going to bed to doze off.
No! In fact, “doze off” has a more subtle meaning. It means to fall asleep for a short time (and usually not on purpose).
Hence, you might doze off on a train, but you wouldn’t go to bed to doze off.
Many English words have subtle meanings like this. You may only understand them when they are used in context and you may need to see or hear them more than once to get the full meaning.
You need to know HOW a word is used
Let’s look at the following sentence:
Fred plays a leading role in our organisation; he manages the finances.
Our vocabulary item is “a leading role”. From the context, we can guess that the meaning is “an important position”.
Let’s try to use our new vocabulary item in a new sentence. Is it correct?
George does a leading role in ABC Company. In fact, he is the manager.
The answer is no. Although we have got the meaning correct, we have not used it correctly. Going back to the original sentence, we can see that “a leading role” matches with the verb “play”.
So we should say:
George plays a leading role in ABC Company.
Knowing HOW to use a word is just as important as knowing the meaning. And context can help us do this.
Context can help you guess words
It is much better to try to figure out the meaning of a new word than to look it up in the dictionary. It is a more natural way to learn vocabulary.
Even if you guess the meaning incorrectly, you are forming a good habit and learning a more natural way to learn. In the end, this is more important than understanding a single vocabulary item.
If you do look up a word in a dictionary, always try to guess the meaning first.
Let’s take another look at this sentence:
The effect of the medicine slowly wore off and my headache returned.
As with many phrasal verbs, the meaning seems unrelated to the main verb (wear). The words themselves cannot help us to guess the meaning, but the context can.
What is your guess?
The meaning of “wear off” is “to stop having an effect”. Did you guess correctly?
Context can help you remember words better
If you take a list of words and meanings and try to memorise them, you are unlikely to have much success. Even if you do memorise them, like the Scrabble guy, you may struggle to use them yourself.
However, when you learn a word in context, such as…
Mary chopped some carrots, celery and shallots. She fried these three ingredients with a little oil in a pan.
…it will be easier to remember, especially if you encounter the word again.
When you are at the supermarket and you see some small red onions in a basket with the label “shallots”, you will remember the first time you heard the word in your cooking video.
Perhaps when you first heard the word, you guessed that it referred to some kind of onion. Now, you can pick up a shallot and confirm the exact meaning.
Context gives us a deeper, richer understanding of a word. It is also a more interesting way to learn.
How can you learn vocabulary in context?
Writing down new vocabulary
I have found that most learners write down new vocabulary in their notebooks with a translation into their own language, like this:
Shallot - chalote
Or perhaps they write the meaning in English, like this:
Shallot - a small, red onion
What I suggest is to write the entire sentence (or phrase). Underline the vocabulary item, but do not write the meaning.
Mary chopped some carrots, celery and shallots.
Using this method, when you review your vocabulary, you see it in context. Because you didn’t write the meaning, you are forced to use the context once again to understand the word.
Although this method may require more effort, it is a more effective way to learn, using the power of context.
Even a small improvement in the ability to learn from context can have a large impact on your vocabulary growth.
Reading is an extremely effective method of picking up new vocabulary. The advantage is that you have time to study the vocabulary item in its context.
You can see how it is used, whether it is a verb or noun, which words match the new word and so on.
I recommend reading short stories, such as the Chicken Soup series. Use a highlighter to mark out new words, so that you can revisit them later.
If you like to read things online, you can copy and paste them into a document for reference later. Remember to copy the entire sentence as mentioned.
Videos add visual context.
For example, if you read the word “shallot”, you may guess the meaning. However, if you watch a cooking video, you can see what the chef is chopping and you can be 100% sure that you know what a shallot is.
The disadvantage of videos is that you don’t get the spelling of the vocabulary item. However, many videos, such as TED talks, do offer transcripts so that you can check how the word is written.
Always look for videos with transcripts, but be careful of computer-generated transcripts, which may not be accurate.
Podcasts are fun to listen to and offer a great way to learn new vocabulary through listening. You can listen on the bus, while driving or while working out in the gym!
They do not offer visual context, like videos do. However, this can actually be a benefit since you will be more focused on the sound and pronunciation of the words.
Once again, keep a notebook handy, and write down the entire sentence or phrase when you hear a new word.
Like videos, many podcasts (like English Learning for Curious Minds) offer transcripts, so you can check the spelling and see if you got it right.
Learning in context means learning English naturally
Now that we have studied context in detail, the conclusion is clear.
If you want to win a Scrabble contest, memorise lists of words.
But if you want to be a confident English speaker with a broad repertoire of vocabulary, make sure you learn words in context.