Foreign Language Resource: The importance of context

Cover of "Principles of Language Learning...

As discussed in this blog, learning a foreign language depends much more on the tools you use that your innate “language ability”. Use the wrong tools and you can easily start believing that you don’t have the necessary talent to learn a language (when you absolutely do). Use the right tools and methods and you’re natural language ability kicks in. Here I outline the second language method that is independently researched and proven to work.

 Foreign Language Method – Make it meaningful

Research shows that words and phrases need to be learned in context and built on prior knowledge in order to avoid the dreaded fate of “Systematic Forgetting”. At all costs, therefore,  you should avoid learning from random lists, phrase books, and vocabulary drills. It is a waste of time!

However if you learn words when you need them and then immediately place them in context with known words (i.e. make a sentence) YOU’LL LEARN FAST! By putting words into context you give your new vocabulary meaning. Meaningfulness is a central plank for getting words into your LONG TERM MEMORY.

Meaningful learning means connecting new information with information that is already known. This creates what is called a cognitive structure – in essence the new information is “hooked” in by the known information. And the more hooks there are, the more “anchored” the new information becomes.

Dr Brown says that this theory “provides a strong theoretical basis for the rejection of conditioning models of practice and repetition in language teaching. In a meaningful process like second language learning, mindless repetition, imitation and other rote practices in the language classroom have no place.” He goes on to expand the point: “Too many languages are filled with rote and practice that centres on surface forms. Most cognitive psychologists agree that the frequency of stimuli and the number of times spent practicing a form are not highly important in learning an item. What is important is meaningfulness. It appears that contextualized, appropriate, meaningful communication in the second language seems to be THE BEST POSSIBLE PRACTICE THE LEARNER OF A SECOND LANGUAGE COULD ENGAGE IN”

So there yo have it. Have a meaningful relationship with words and they’ll love you and stay with you.

Dr H. Douglas Brown is a professor of MA-TESOL at San Francisco State University and has written many books, articles and textbooks on language teaching including The Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.

Make sentences with French cards

Making sentences makes sense

KLOO is a language game in French and Spanish in which you put words into sentences so your words have meaning and you can learn a foreign language more easily.

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