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Form, Meaning and Use ... oh my!

New tools help language learners achieve depth and breadth in their vocabulary by learning from context

By Meredith Cicerchia, @Merelanguage

There are more ways to know a word than the average language learner may realize. You can recognize a word when you hear or see it, be familiar with its parts and their related meanings, understand form and how it varies by context and even get friendly with words that often show up alongside the one you are learning.

But being on good terms with a “term” through rote memorization alone is a recipe for disaster. That's because most of the information a learner acquires about a new word is gathered through meeting vocabulary in context. Good language learners, and often those at an intermediate level or beyond, implicitly know this. They seek out target language input to expand the breadth of their vocabulary, while also enhancing depth for known words encountered in new and diverse use cases.

Yet for beginners and those with a narrower lexicon, there is a less widely publicized requirement for learning from context that can mean the difference between successful word acquisition and the frustrating and disheartening experience of cognitive overload. For input to be considered “comprehensible” and conducive to learning, it must contain a 90:10 proportion of known to unknown words, and it also helps if the topic is of interest to the individual.

Content with the right mix of new and familiar terms provides the perfect storm for learners to make good guesses of unknown words, while still paying attention to form and intuiting use and part of speech. We may not be aware of everything our brain is learning when we read, but we're picking up on much more than meets the eye. This is how curriculum developers and language teachers go about selecting content and realia for courses. However, locating reading or listening material that fits working vocabulary is not always so easy for self-study learners following several programs, sources or apps. And while exploring new content found online can be exciting, solo-learners risk reading more of the dictionary than the source they had originally selected.

Nonetheless, thanks to innovations in big data, there are a few new platforms out there that can help, namely, Lingua.ly and Bliu Bliu. Both run free and open learning systems which marry users with comprehensible target language input from the web that fits each individual “like a glove” and contains the right mix of known to unknown words to facilitate acquisition. Lingua.ly even goes so far as to provide a flashcard maker and smart spaced repetition solution so users can review words they met in context and use their practice sessions to inform future article suggestions.

What's unique about the learning from context approach is it allows the learner to direct the experience and choose the words they want to learn. Users simply identify terms they don't know and look words up with an in-app dictionary, which in turn helps the programs more accurately judge their vocabulary. These tools are thus an excellent complement to more structured learning programs as they allow learners to supplement curriculum driven vocabulary learning with real world content and use classroom word lists to direct independent study. They're also great for seasoned polyglots as they can serve as maintenance tools that encourage immersion in digital content on a regular basis.

Of course, isolated vocabulary study does have its place. It's a good start for absolute beginners, for example. But when it comes to learning all there really is to know about a word, context is key and so are platforms like Lingua.ly and Bliu Bliu.

About Author

Meredith is a linguist and polyglot who has spent the last seven years working across the language learning industry in various roles from teaching to curriculum development and teacher-training. In her previous position, Meredith managed the special projects team at Education First where she led development of the EFSET, the world's first free standardized adaptive assessment tool and platform. She holds an M.Sc in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition from the University of Oxford and a B.A. in French language and literature from Georgetown University.

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