Lesson 2: Context

Context in Language Learning

To introduce the topic of context in language learning, let us look at this list of Portuguese words. Take a moment to try to memorize the words.

  1. caçula ("youngest child in a family")
  2. cachaça ("distilled liquor made from sugar cane")
  3. petiscar ("to eat a little bit")
  4. xuxu ("chayote squash")
  5. caetanear ("to sing like Caetano Veloso")

Even if you succeed in memorizing these five words today, chances are pretty good that you will not remember any of them tomorrow. It is hard to retain a list of vocabulary words that have no association with anything real. However, when we link language to an experience, then we have a better chance of remembering it. Many of us can recall the specific moment when we learned a certain word or phrase in another language. (In my case, for example, I recall the exact moment when on a bus in Brazil I heard a mother yell at her young son, "Não faça isso, filho!" or "Don't do that, son!" Forevermore, that command form became part of me because of the association made with the moment I heard it.)

Technology Provides Context

One of the positive aspects of today's technologies is the potential to provide learners with a context for their language study. Part of this is because technology can help imitate and create the associations, the social settings, the events, the sounds, the sights, etc. Through video we see things in context. Through audio we make associations from the sounds we hear. Through online social programs we exchange real information with real people who understand what we communicate.