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How to Use the Power of Context to Boost Your Foreign Language Vocabulary

I've studied languages for over 30 years. Many long-time language learners may be able to sympathize with my love and hate relationship with flashcards and vocabulary lists.

Many moons ago I was quite zealous about creating cards and vocabulary lists. I even once created a list of over 35,000 German vocabulary words and idioms using books at the university library, etc. and then had the list bound into a book. I thought that if I could gather all the information I needed to know together in one place and then learn it, I would be fluent in the language. However, despite all my efforts, it turns out that learning advanced vocabulary like this is not only extremely boring, but you also tend to forget the words quite quickly if you do not later meet them in real life. Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t matter how long of a list you make, there are always more words to learn.

It did not take long before I realized that it was possible for me to put considerable effort into learning a particular word and then in reality, I may never ever come across it in real life or if I ever did encounter that word (while reading or listening), I may be able to guess its meaning through context anyway and I needn’t have spent the time studying it.

I took a variety of materials in my language (books, magazines, etc.) and read a random selection from each, writing down each word I did not know or had never encountered before and beside the word, I wrote down my best possible guess as to what the word might mean given the context. Sometimes the guess was obvious, sometimes a stab in the dark. There are always context clues that give you some idea of the word/phrase’s meaning. (Is it a noun? Does it describe something positive or negative?, etc.).
After obtaining a list of about 100 words in this way, I then proceeded to look them up in the dictionary. I gave myself one point if I correctly guessed the meaning of the word and half a point if I came reasonably close. It was kind of like a game. The result was that I found I was able to correctly guess the meaning of a word over 75% of the time. It is highly likely that if I were to see the 25% of the words I missed again in a different sentence or context, I would probably be able to increase this to 85%-90%.

Another interesting idea is to read a book (preferably not a library book) with a pencil in hand. As you read, lightly underline each word you do not know (and quickly guess at its meaning). After you’ve finished the whole book, go back to the front and look up the underlined words and I’ll bet you’ll find you won’t need to look up most of them. 

The trick is to find something you enjoy reading and since authors tend to re-use the same vocabulary, by the time you reach page 100 or so, you will be so into the story that there will be less and less unrecognizable vocabulary. Books for young adults (such as Harry Potter, for example) are good because there tends to be more context for unknown words.

Sometimes you meet a word over and over again that you just cannot seem to grasp. If you come across the same word repeatedly and still have only a vague idea as to its meaning, go ahead and resort to the dictionary. Since you have now seen the word a number of times before looking it up, you probably will never forget the meaning. This happens to us all the time in our native language. We hear people using a word that we do not know until finally we just have to go and look it up in the dictionary – and then you never forget it. 

By learning words through reading, I avoid the original problem of studying lists of words that I will never meet again. The more frequently I encounter the word (while reading), the faster it will become part of my vocabulary. If I never encounter the word again, then I won’t learn it – but then I probably don’t need to.

However, don’t throw your flashcards or vocabulary lists away too quickly. I still find them useful in two situations. Firstly, when you are studying beginner’s vocabulary (dog, cat, sing, wish, etc.) they can be useful because these are high-frequency words that you will soon encounter over and over again in your textbook.

Secondly, I still use flashcards and vocabulary lists
(and vocabulary notebooks) to learn words that I want to know, but am unlikely to learn through context. An example of this being slang, vulgar and very colloquial expressions. Depending on the type of books you like to read, it will take you longer to acquire this type of language through reading since these words occur more often in speech.

The same also works for listening practice. Just as it is possible for you to learn words by reading, it is also possible to acquire vocabulary by listening. 

The trick is that you have to find something to read or a program to watch that is interesting to you and that you would watch anyway. The more interested you are in the storyline, the more attention you will pay and the more you will learn. Chances are that if you are interested in a particular subject (other than languages), you are going to want to talk about that subject, so it only makes sense that if you read about that subject in the foreign language, you will acquire the vocabulary that corresponds to that subject.
Does reading in the foreign language work? Remember that book of German vocabulary I mentioned at the beginning – I dusted it off after it sat on the shelf for more than a decade. Guess what? I know more than 80% of the vocabulary in it and I didn’t have to study. If I had studied the list instead, not only would I have wasted a lot of time, I doubt that 10 years later I would remember more than 50% and I would have also wasted time studying the 20% of that vocabulary that I apparently did not need.

Find a system that works for you. If you enjoy making and studying flashcards, then by all means do it. Whatever works. But if you are not enjoying what you are doing – what is the point?

In summary while it may take you longer to acquire more vocabulary this way, you will be having fun and the words you do learn will be the ones you need to learn and not be so easily forgotten because you learned them in contex

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