The language of learning, or, content with context

It's a puzzle(meant)--literally.I read once that in ancient Greece, the equivalent of “it’s Greek to me” was “it sounds like Hebrew.”  I’ve never found documentation of that, although Mark Liberman at Language Log recently presented a chart showing a complex of “it’s X to me” relationships–e.g., Romanians think it’s Turkish, Turks think it’s French, and lots of people think it’s Chinese.

Which leads to the ChinesePod blog and Ken Carroll’s latest post, Learning from Context. The language-learning approach at ChinesePod (and its siblings for learning French, Spanish, Italian, and English) doesn’t start with vocabulary lists and grammar rules.  Ken’s post helps explain why–and relates well to other kinds of learning.   He offers five reasons for a focus on context:

Context shows, it doesn’t tell. Outside of academia, when someone says you’re getting into semantics, it’s usually not a compliment.  In part that’s because they seem to be looking for overly discrete separation of meaning.  Showing words in context — like, say, showing good customer service in context — helps people understand how things work in real human interaction.

Context makes it natural. No traditional language course will prepare you to say to the waiter, “She’s the broiled scallops; I’m the tuna.”  (Baeed on an example Ken cites from John Pasden.)

Context goes beyond semantic meaning. I’ll let Ken do the talking here:

In linguistics, the relationship between context and meaning is known as pragmatics.  If semantics are concerned with what words mean, then pragmatics are concerned with what speakers mean.  The fact is that literal explanations of what words mean are neither inherently interesting, nor remotely memorable…

Far better to… [let] the learner figure out the meaning for herself, since she already knows what most of the concepts are…The learner figures out meaning by focusing on what speakers mean, which is why drama, sound effects, etc., can be so effective.

Context leverages pragmatics. Think of the many meanings for “That’s some outfit you’re wearing!”

That color doesn't look good on just anyone.For beginning language learners, you might put that into a literal context, or into an easily-perceived, non-literal one.  As Ken says, this can open up “a world of inference, subtlety, and color.”

None of this is to say that semantics don’t matter.  To speak French, for example, sooner or later you have to know that adjectives agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify (le cheval blanc [the white horse], la Maison Blanche [the White House]).

But few beginners come to a language thinking, “All right!  I’m going to learn number and gender.”  Instead, from the start they envision contexts: I want to order lunch in Lyon, I want to do business in Québec, I want to get a date in Paris.

And the final point: you can use different types of context. Ken gives an example of social context based on the relationship between speakers.  In a job-related setting, you might have a context related to a specific field (like information technology), or to a specific process (like manufacturing), or to an economic setting (like domestic versus international marketing).

Rosetta Stone jigsaw puzzle photo by Kaptain Kobold.
Distinctive outfit photo by Thirteen Of Clubs.