Why Context Is No King of Mine. Rebel!

context is no king

How many times have you heard it? Context is the king. It’s so important. You simply cannot ignore it.

But it’s no king of mine! Why?

Well, using this metaphor, I can only arrive at one conclusion. Most kings are evil bastards and don’t want you to succeed it in life. Just stay where you are a stable boy and scrape the dung off my shoes!

I strongly believe that when you start learning you don’t need and you should not use context-rich learning materials. I think that the there is a fundamental flaw in reasoning that the context is that important

We are cognitive misers. We follow the path of least resistance. Such is our nature. We may choose to oppose or we can accept it and use it in our favor.

How?

When you start learning a new language, the priority is to be able to express yourself clearly as soon as it is only possible. Diving into too many contexts taxes us immensely. There is no denying it. If we are to pay the price, shouldn’t reward be at least satisfying?

And it is not. Not for me anyway. Why should you spend hours and hours reading texts and listening to things which you can’t make sense of?

You can’t because you don’t know the vocabulary, and learning from context at the early stage of language learning is not always possible, nor is it pleasant. Such approach is not efficient.

WHAT’S DICTIONARY FOR ANYWAY?

My philosophy of learning is drastically different. If my aim is to get to B1 level as quickly as possible, I very often neglect extensive reading.

Why is that?

Because that’s always been a purpose of dictionaries. If I provide myself with a small, good dictionary I get an immediate access to the most popular words in a given language.

Good (yet still small) dictionaries are also characterized by other important features: they include pronunciation, the most important meaning of words and popular phrases and collocations.

If I want to get the most out of, say, 4 hours of learning, I’ll spend roughly 70% percent of this time trying to learn vocabulary from a dictionary.

This way, I can rapidly learn new vocabulary without spending a lot of time on thumbing through texts.

Provided of course, that I already know at least basics of grammar. Thus, my means of communication are greatly increased.

CONTEXT IS ROUGHLY THE SAME IN MANY LANGUAGES AT A BASIC LEVEL

There. I said it. Have you ever tried to listen, really listen, to many of your everyday conversations?

Are they really that complicated? Is the language really that bombastic? It is not.

You don’t usually use flowery expressions to impress anyone. I don’t deny that if you truly want to master the language, you need a lot of practice and a lot of materials and contexts.

But it’s not half as important as many people and polyglots claim if you want to learn to communicate.

How wrong can you be when you use words “eat”, “drink”, “assume”, “bad”, “good” (etc.) and their counterparts in other languages?

Speaking from my experience, not very wrong. Sure, sometimes you get the context wrong. Sometimes, some collocations simply do not exist.

But because you’ve learned quickly enough how to communicate, you can now start adjusting what you already know to the real-life situations.

Just to be clear – I don’t advocate abandoning other activities and sticking only to learning vocabulary. I simply believe that in order to speak as quickly as possible such an approach works fantastically.

I spend about 70% learning vocabulary and 30% listening on my journey to B1/B2 level.

If anyone wonders – yes, I haven’t mentioned grammar on purpose. That’s a topic for another article.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF SUCH APPROACH?

I start speaking very fast, imperfectly though. Extensive vocabulary practice gives me a huge advantage when I start listening.

The answer to “why? is obvious – it’s much easier to listen when your vocabulary is big.
Reading also becomes easy, once I start doing it.

I try to keep an open mind about my abilities and every time when I can confront my knowledge with real-life context, and I see that I’ve been wrong so far, I revise my outlooks.

I’m sure that it doesn’t sound like fun for many people. But the question I always ask is: do you learn for fun and you or do you want quick effects?

I want effects – but we’re all different in that manner. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t have fun while learning!

I’m aware that for many people my approach is quite ludicrous.
But it’s always good when we read something that triggers our emotions as long as we approach them with an open mind and curiosity.

How often do we discard theories and opinions of others because we can’t seem to look at them differently than through the lens of our biases?

What do you think about the importance of learning? Let me know.

6 comments

  • This is a good point; I used a frequency dictionary a bit in the beginning with Spanish and found it helpful. And it’s true that these days the average TED Talk I go through has only about 20% unknown words (and some grammar stuff). The only thing that makes me uneasy about it is that there are so many set phrases in language [make yourself at home, loud noise {vs fuerte parece mas común en español}, strong tea, heavy rain] and it seems like by using a dictionary you don’t get that nuance and instead it’s just “un perro -> a dog” and that’s it. Though I know you don’t advocate for that totally context-free method either, so I’m probably missing part of the picture.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      This is probably the first article I have ever written, and I think I have done a poor job of explaining what I mean.
      Basically, language learners are terrified of creating sentences on their own. They refuse to learn anything that hasn’t been created by native speakers. In this sense, context is no king of mine. You can create your own context initially. This action and effort are what helps you memorize information much faster, and it’s a necessary component of rapid learning. Context is very important, but constructing your own sentences at the beginning of your language journey is what allows you to progress significantly faster.

      I hope that makes more sense now 🙂

  • Huh, I wish I’d come across this advice last year when I started learning Spanish (I do believe in grammar, to be honest, but to start speaking quickly enough, I’d focus on present and simple past as well as tons of vocabulary- so I found that my reading comprehension was great but listening… uh). But I will do this when I’ve gotten decent with this language and move on to an L3. Thank you for your articles, they’ve been very helpful. Especially the approach that if you want to learn the language you have to suffer. That made me get over my princess attitude, sucked up the pain, and kept it moving.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks! Remember – better late than never! 🙂 It’s not that you have to unconditionally suffer. I simply believe that if you want to learn a language fast, you need to be very focused in your efforts. And yeah, that’s quite taxing! 🙂
      So how is your progress in Spanish?:)

      • My Spanish? It goes. I’ve found that repetition helps a ton, so I can identify words and read relatively easily, even with newspapers. I might not be able to have the immediate reaction like I do with English (it takes a couple of seconds where the words look jumbled until they clear up and understanding comes), but it’s encouraging enough to go on.

        I am trying to get my head around your use of the dictionary though. So you get the grammar basics down (as in present and simple past tense), and then go for the vocabulary from the dictionary and listening, you mean?

        Cheers for this. Happy Easter!

        • Bartosz Czekala

          Glad to hear it:) Yeah, that’s a little bit simplified version but that’s more less what I do. I learn the grammar essentials. Then I learn about 2000 words and start listening and reading. But mostly listening at this stage. What’s important, I look up new words in a dictionary each day. Regardless if I have come across them or not. It’s quite logical when you think about it. Besides about 3k words which are used frequently in every language, there are thousands other which are (very) situation specific. I don’t want waste 1 hours of my time every day to read an entire article and jot down 15 words. It’s counterproductive. I can write down 30 words which I find useful from a dictionary in under 30 -40 min. And then I can read something for 20-30 min and write down some more words. Or I can do it just to consolidate what I already know. Hope it makes sense 🙂
          Remember this one thing. Grammar is very repetitive. You can’t really produce any sentence without using grammar. Automating the use of your vocabulary is much more challenging! 🙂

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