Linguistic research frequently makes use of large databases of frequency data among words in a language. These databases organize and compile words as functions of frequencies of being used together in phrases.
There are two important points to make here that illustrate your impressive intuition for your native language.
First, you intuitively know that not all words that you know can be combined in ways that make sense. When you speak, you don’t think about this, but nonetheless your output in your native language reflects this intuition.
Second, you intuitively know that even if words could be combined in a way that follows a rule, they don’t always sound natural. If you’ve ever spoken with someone whose second language is English, you’ve likely encountered times where you’ve said, “Well, you could say it like that, but it would sound better like this.”
These linguistic databases compute these intuitions that you have as a native speaker and compile them for analysis. The important point of this is that your brain is organized in much the same way as those databases, organized according to word and phrasal frequencies. This organization is what makes the two intuitions above possible.
When learning a second language, however, you don’t have these intuitions because you haven’t been exposed to enough of the language yet. You don’t have that “It just sounds right” intuition yet. But, all second language learners can and will develop that “It just sounds right” intuition through increased time of exposure to the second language.
The crucial point to consider, though, is that you can eliminate a vast amount of the time that’s required to develop this intuition by building up your mental lexicon (the linguistic database of your brain) in a way that’s easily compiled by your brain.
How Classes Teach Vocabulary
Notice that in most textbooks and classes, students are given seemingly endless vocabulary lists to memorize. Yeah, that’s great that the students learn how to say some new words, but these vocabulary lists provide absolutely zero frequency information! You have no idea how to use the words; you simply know what they mean.
So, you need to build up your mental lexicon by using chunks that provide the necessary frequency information. Remember how I said that the linguistic databases are organized by this frequency information? Well, since you know that your knowledge of this frequency information in English is intuitive, just how did these databases figure out the frequency information in the first place?
The surprisingly simple answer: context
And that’s exactly how your brain organized its own database in English when you learned it as a child. The best part is that you don’t need to create a computer program to make sure you organize your mental lexicon in this way for your second language. All you need is context.
By learning words in context, you’ll effortlessly compile your own database of knowledge about how a word is used and what it means. And over time, as you see the same words used in multiple different contexts, you’ll increasingly develop this lexical database and increasingly develop your intuitive understanding of your second language.
You’ve probably been told that context is important when learning words many times before. But each time you hear this, you probably have no idea how to use context to learn words.
As a strategic language learner, you want actionable steps that produce visible results! In a following post in this series, you’ll learn exactly what the actionable steps to learning words in context are.
For now, let’s hear from you. Have you been told before that learning words in context is the most efficient way to learn? If you have been told this before, have you ever followed the advice? Let me know in the comments!
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