The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 05, 2021

Motivation, mindset and guessing vocabulary from context

When it comes to ELT vocabulary, the idea of guessing the meaning of unknown words from context seems intuitively a useful strategy. However, its effectiveness both in terms of reading comprehension and how well it helps learners retain new vocabulary has been questioned – see this blogpost from Philip Kerr for a summary of some of the arguments. I just went back to reread it after something that happened yesterday.

Since my partner recently took Swiss citizenship (via his father), we've been receiving regular piles of paperwork from the canton in which he's registered. It's mostly to do with voting, either in referenda or local elections and is all in French. We both speak some French, but far from fluently.

A pile arrived yesterday and I was flicking through it, mostly just to practise my French as I waited for the kettle to boil on a tea break. There were three referenda questions, two of which I understood quite easily, the third I hesitated over. 


Image of red booklet with referendum question

It read: "l'interdiction de se dissumuler le visage." Which I read as "Prohibition/Ban on [reflexive verb which I don't recognize] the face." My first thought was it might be something to do with banning facial recognition software or something similar – it was about banning something to do with people's faces and based on my current world knowledge, that seemed like a logical guess. I read the first paragraph and it initially seemed to fit – it talked about the ban applying in public places such as in the street, on public transport, in sports stadiums, etc.

I still wasn't quite sure though, so I scanned through a bit more of the text. Then I came across a section about the arguments in favour of the ban and it said that "[the noun from the unknown verb] of the face in public spaces symbolises the oppression of women and is against the liberal spirit of living together/community cohesion". Aha! It was at that point that I realized that dissumuler means to conceal or hide or cover and that the question was about face-coverings – presumably in the sense of a niqab rather than a medical face mask (the irony of the timing wasn't lost on me!).

That aha moment was incredibly satisfying – perhaps an under-rated motivator in language learning? Or is that just me? It often strikes me that teachers and linguists, who are inherently fascinated by language for its own sake, may not be the best people to judge what works and what doesn't for the average language learner for whom learning a language may just be a means to an end. Does the average learner get that same sense of achievement from working out meaning? Would they have bothered to form a hypothesis then read on to check it in the way that I did or would they have just given up? It's hard to say and I'm sure it would differ enormously from student to student.

And of course, now I'm not going to be able to fairly judge whether my experience of guessing from context is going to help me retain the new vocab item either. Chances are I will just because I've done the diligent language-learner thing of processing and working with my new word by writing a blog post about it!

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