Why Context is King When Learning a Foreign Language

  • March 12, 2018

Your typical language class or course teaches you new vocabulary by supplying you with list of individual words that linked by a subject or theme (for instance colors, foods, traveling, etc). 

While this form of learning has it's place, if shouldn't be your main method of vocabulary acquisition. Ideally you should be learning words through context: ie in the context of other words in a full phrase, passage, or conversation. 

In this post we look at three reasons context is king when it comes to learning new vocabulary, and how it can help you reach your fullest potential as a language learner. 

1) It opens the doors of communication

Learning through context is the gateway to effectively communicating with another person. If you study new vocabulary in language "chucks" versus just individual words, it will help you develop the skill of inferring the meaning of a word or phrase based on the context it's used in.

This is huge. If you simply learn new vocabulary by rote, it's easy to get stuck in the world of grammar sheets and word lists while training to talk to someone during a conversation.  

It's hard to get the gist of what someone is saying when you're stuck in the habit of training to nitpick each individual grammar nuance or word to find the correct meaning. This just isn't practical in real time.  

If you practice using the context of a word to figure out it's meaning you'll be much more nimble while using the language in the real world. Yes you probably won't get the exact verbatim meaning of what someone says, but you will be much more likely to understand the gist of what they mean. 

Context opens the doors of communication

2) It helps you remember

Learning new words in isolation makes it hard to remember them later. Simply studying words as a direct translation from your native language turns them into little more than data points. 

Thus learning new words becomes comparable to memorizing a sequence of vaguely related numbers. That's neither fun nor effective. 

When you encounter a new word in the context of a full phrase, sentence, or even conversation, suddenly that word is full of life. You see it as a piece within the whole. 

Also the experience of how you encountered this word will help it stick with you. You won't just remember the definition, you'll remember the conversation you were having, the podcast you were listening to, or even how you felt when you first saw the word. 

All this serves as an emotional and experiential glue, cementing the new word into your memory. 

3) Context is a language you're already fluent in

Believe it or not context itself is almost like a language, one that every human being has been speaking since they were born.

If you're in a famous tourist spot and a woman comes up to you and says something about a camera and points, you can easily infer that she probably wants you to take a picture of her.

Similarly if a man is struggling to put his suitcase on the overhead shelf of a train and motions to you, you can probably guess that he's asking for help to lift his baggage. 

These are simple examples, but they ring true. While speaking a foreign language context itself will communicate a lot to you without words, you only have to listen. 

You'd be surprised how much you can pick through context!


Learning vocabulary through context is an important but often overlooked aspect of language learning. Your typical course or learning app probably doesn't help you learn in this way. 

If you want to unlock the potential of learning contextually you will have to make a conscious effort to incorporate it into your language learning. Rest assured if you do make the effort, it will definitely be worth it!

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