Contextual Learning

03.03.2017 |

Episode #4 of the course How to learn a foreign language by WordBrewery


In today’s lesson we will discuss how to apply contextual learning.

Language learners can optimize vocabulary (and grammar) study through contextual, authentic sentences. In fact, this is how native speakers use and encounter language.

It’s tempting to isolate a word, slap it onto a flashcard, and start memorizing. But this technique is harmful in the long term. You run the risk of not only misusing the word, but also forgetting it.

That said, flashcards aren’t a bad way to learn. In fact, they can be a useful tool. Instead of word-based flashcards, try instead to include a full sentence. Involving your other senses may also be advantageous; including native audio and images will help you to create a solid memory.

But how do you find vocabulary? Here are some tips on finding, using, and creating context:

• Learn words thematically. Learn lists according to topic, such as business, medicine, or household items. This helps you to make associations.

• Read news articles. The news is a fantastic source of authentic material. Vocabulary found in the article may be specialized or used together commonly. If you are reading an editorial, you are likely to find many colloquial phrases.

• Read stories. Like news articles, fiction has a story element. Being interested in that story will help you to retain the new information.

If you want to further master your study time, start with high-frequency words. Typically the most used 2000-3000 words, otherwise called high-frequency words, make up 80% of the language. Having a strong grasp of these terms will help you to communicate on a general level. Based on vocabulary, someone at this level is considered an intermediate learner.

There are a plethora of resources that can help you find context. One is WordBrewery, which helps you find sentences for a word from news sources. You can create a list of these sentences and export them to Anki. You can also use Linguee, and many online target language dictionaries offer example sentences pulled from the internet.

Searching the term on Google or YouTube will give you more visuals and example text, helping you to understand the word’s complete meaning.

But what if you want to learn vocabulary related to your profession? Also not a problem! One strategy is to use translation glossaries. These are used by translators working on technical or specific texts. Check out this German-English example from the Technische Universität Chemnitz.


Bonus tip

When you encounter a new word, try to learn all of the variations of that word. A noun might also have a verb and adjective form. Doing this will help you to expand your vocabulary, as well as internalize word creation patterns—a topic reserved for advanced students.

Get psyched for tomorrow’s lesson. We will help you learn how to approach grammar.


Recommended reading

Why fluency is achieved one sentence—not one word—at a time

Internalize, don’t just memorize: why we always teach vocabulary in context

Why you need to master high-frequency vocabulary in your target language

Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever


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