Learning by osmosis: The importance of using context clues

Vocabulary is an important cornerstone to learning a language, and one where non-native speakers may often be at a significant disadvantage to their native counterparts. Acquiring new vocabulary words and understanding the appropriate contexts in which to use them is a fundamental factor in the learning process. By some estimates, you’ll need to know about 3,000  words to be able to interact in day-to-day situations. Native proficiency requires a much large lexicon -- over 150,000 words! Even to learn a conservative 3,000 words, flashcards and straight drilling won’t be very efficient, especially if used in isolation. Fortunately, there are a variety of useful non-drill methods that can help you increase your vocabulary retention and volume. One technique that can be both successful and fun is incidental learning, or what you might think of when you think of the term “context clues.” All you need to do for this method is read, watch, or listen to something in Spanish!

Incidental learning occurs when, through the language you encounter naturally, you pick up new vocabulary words without conscious effort or focus on doing so. There are a few noteworthy benefits to this strategy. Perhaps most obviously, this method allows you to pick up vocabulary as a secondary benefit -- that is, you can work on your Spanish listening or reading comprehension and pick up new vocabulary words almost by accident. One immediate benefit of this strategy it has the potential to expose you to new words long before you might have otherwise decided to look them up in the dictionary, and such repeated exposure to new words improves long-term retention and comprehension. In other words, the more frequently you encounter a word, the more likely you are to retain it. Additionally, in real life, words are used in a mess of different contexts and situations, so encountering them in this same way improves your command of the language. Finally, this style of learning has been shown to be comparable to or more effective than techniques like word lists, flashcards, and other forms of definition-based memorization.

How should you go about learning vocabulary through context? Perhaps most importantly, pick something that you can read (or listen to) almost comfortably, something that you can understand about 80-90% of the words in. If you pick a text that is far beyond your current comprehension, you won’t be able to recognize enough material to understand context clues. Worse, you’ll likely become frustrated or discouraged! Consider starting with a children’s book.

Once you’ve picked something to read and stumble across a word you don’t know, don’t ignore it -- but don’t dive for a dictionary, either! Instead, ask yourself a few questions: Who is speaking, and to whom? What words surrounding the new word do you know? Is the word being used to describe a noun or an action? If you're watching a movie or show in Spanish, you can use the tone of voice and body language that the actor to help clue you in. For Spanish beginners, children’s books are particularly helpful since they usually include illustrations. Going through this process means you’ll have an easier time remembering the word, too, because you’re not just reciting a definition from a dictionary. Remember that you might make mistakes when guessing, and that’s ok too. This kind of reading is a skill, and just like any other skill, you’ll need some practice! 

Finally, as important and effective as this incidental learning is, you don’t need to (and, in fact, probably shouldn’t) use it as your only vocabulary-building tool. The most successful learners use a mix of the strategies that work for them. Don’t be afraid of a little trial and error to see what works best for you!