19 Jul Context in Language Teaching: Developing Awareness
Author: Ilinca Stroe
Quite often, teachers of English as a foreign language (and, most probably, teachers of other languages, too) find themselves in the following situation: in the middle of a reading, speaking or writing activity, a student turns to them as to a dictionary, asking a short question and expecting a brief answer that is to the point and solves a linguistic blockage instantly – for example, “What’s ‘mean’?” or “How do you say ‘lloc’ in English?”
The student wants just a word: the one word s/he needs to continue a sentence or an idea left hanging for a moment because they were missing that word. They want that word delivered promptly by the teacher, so they can resume their sentence and the (speaking/reading/writing) activity quickly, almost without interruption.
But words are no islands: “a word never comes alone”, so the teacher’s most sensible response is likely to be another question, rather than the answer: “In what context?” For “mean” can mean one thing or another, depending on the context. And the Catalan/Romanian word “lloc” can be rendered in English through “place”, “space” or “room”, again depending on the context.
Getting another question instead of the quick answer expected delays the resolution of the blockage, hinders the continuation of the activity, calls for further clarification, causes interruption, and hence frustration in the student.
To prevent such situations, it’s probably worth considering developing in our students, besides reading, speaking or writing skills, a specific (meta)linguistic feature: context awareness. Obviously related to other (meta)linguistic skills such as guessing meaning from context, context awareness implies that students are (made) familiar with a minimal and a maximal definition of context.
The minimal definition of context might be “language item Z taken together with the immediately preceding and/or the immediately following item” – where “language item” can be a phoneme, a letter or a word (for example, phoneme /æ/, preceded by /k/ and followed by /t/). Further on, context has to do with collocations and grammatical patterns: for instance, “mean” plus a noun, or a to-infinitive or an –ing (as in “a mean cat”, “I mean to call the office”, “Relocations mean dealing with new cultures”). And more: context has to do with social, emotional, cultural and historical implications. Imagine a Cambridge exam task where examinees have to think of the word which best fits in the gap in the following sentence: “Female students must …… wear a veil.” Culturally, an examinee from Austria might think that “never” is the best choice, while a test taker from Saudi Arabia might choose “always” as the best option to fill in the gap. Strictly linguistically speaking, both choices would be correct; and yet culturally one of the two items, either “never” or “always”, would be incorrect in the context given.
Language students, therefore, need to be (made) aware that context in language learning ranges from the mere linguistic vicinity of a language item to the cultural/historical background of that language (item). To develop such context awareness, teachers can plan for classroom activities which practice contextualisation and recontextualisation – activities that allow students to make up and manipulate different contexts in order to notice how differently language items work, depending on them.
Here is one idea of an activity that teachers can organise in the classroom to raise context awareness in students: ask them to make up three short dialogues in which a language item like “Right” or “I do” has three different meanings, functions or contextual valences. They might come up, for example, with the following:
1) “Am I wrong or right?”
2) “I’ll go check the fridge.”
3) “Are Golden Dawn far left or far right?”
Also, teachers could plan for classroom activities that focus on developing one or another aspect of context awareness (e.g. phonetic, lexical, grammatical, emotional, cultural) and lead to practising language skills, too (e.g. speaking, writing). For instance, to work on phonetic contextualisation, you can elicit from students a number of sounds, write them down on the whiteboard in a phoneme pool and ask groups of students to combine them into as many different words as they can within an allocated time. To work on emotional and grammatical contextualisation, with some speaking practice, ask students to complete the following structures and then share and comment on the resulting feelings, opinions, etc.:
I feel tired because…
I feel strongly about…
I feel as if…
I feel like…
I feel I can/can’t…
Irrespective of the aspect of context that teachers may choose to focus on, or the type of activity they may prepare, developing context awareness in language students is at least as important as shaping language awareness: it empowers students to become independent language learners who are able to notice, harness and use the language not only correctly but also sensibly and resourcefully.