If you stay with a language long enough, eventually you come to a point where grammar books and beginner materials are no longer enough, and you move on to reading books and watching television shows and movies in the language. This is the point where everyone before you tells you to “learn from context” and resist the urge to look up every unknown word.
As someone who really likes to know definitions of every word I see, this was a very hard point to accept. After all, how am I really going to understand what I’m reading/listening to if I don’t know what each word means? I think a lot of language learners are like this, especially in the first foreign language. By the time we’re adults, we’ve had vocabulary tests drilled into us, that it’s almost counterintuitive to think we don’t need to know every word. But…
We already do this
We actually learn through context in our native language all the time. Take, for example, this passage in Wikipedia on slavery in the United States. Now, I would consider myself to be a pretty well-read person, and pretty well educated. However, here is an example of using language through context (paraphrased of course): “The historian Ira Berlin noted that what he called the charter generation was sometimes made up of mixed-race men who were indentured servants…” Now, I do understand what this sentence says, however, the word “indentured” is fairly unknown. Of course, I know it in the context of indentured servants (one who works for an employer for a fixed period of time who in return receives food, clothing, housing, etc.) However, I don’t know that I could use the word “indentured” in any sentence relating to something other than slavery. Still, because this is the only word that I wouldn’t be able to define or really use in any other way, I can understand that it’s discussing people who worked in some kind of labor. I don’t necessarily need to know the definition of that one word, because it isn’t fully necessary to understand that particular context. Further along in the passage, it says that “the major problem with indentured servants was that they left after several years.” Now, with this sentence, the same word comes up again, but this time it makes it fairly clear that this is talking about a type of service that has a starting and ending point, it’s not an indefinite period. By the way, the definition for “indenture” is “a formal legal contract, binding, or document.”
But what about in foreign languages
Now, in the context of foreign languages, the problem isn’t necessarily with unusual words, but it’s also with less common words/phrases that may not be used often, but every native speaker will know what they are. There are so many of these words, that it’s really difficult to look up every single thing you want to be able to say. This is where context makes it easier. With my German, I’ve learned several words through context. Some examples of words I’ve learned just through listening and reading include: Milzbrand (anthrax), Kaiserschnitt (Cesaerean section), Vorhölle (Limbo), Spieluhr (Music box), Verstopfung (constipation), Enthauptung (beheading), and Korinthenkacker (nit picker). I have absolutely no idea where any of these words fall in terms of the most common 3000 words list, but you can’t deny that all native speakers will know what these words are!
How to actually learn from context
There are several ways to do this, depending on if you’re reading or watching tv. In television or movies, it’s sometimes easier because you can have visuals going along with it. For example, “Spieluhr” was in a television show, and it was said with a music box visible on the screen. Actually it makes sense as a word too (I know that “spiel” is related to playing an instrument or a game, and that “Uhr” is a clock–it’s not too much of a leap to come to music box). “Verstopfung” (thankfully!) didn’t have an explicit visual, but I heard it on a science show and it was said not only with vocabulary that I already knew, but also with appropriate sound effects. Again, it was a really easy leap. “Milzbrand” was a little more difficult; again, I saw it on a show, and would have been able to figure out that it was a disease, but if it weren’t for the fact that the show was a dubbed version of something I already watched in English, I wouldn’t have made the “anthrax” connection–and actually, I think Germans might also say “Anthrax.” Yet another reason why I’m not against watching dubbed movies or shows.
In reading, the idea is the same, but obviously it’s less likely that you’ll have a visual unless you’re reading children’s books. The way I manage to do this is by trying to understand the rest of the sentence around it. Now, the first time I saw “Enthauptung,” I really didn’t know what it was. However, I could figure out that the text was talking about someone committing a crime in Saudi Arabia, and knew they were talking about an execution. In going back to the word “Enthauptung,” I used my knowledge that this is something talking about the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, and that in Saudi Arabia, executions are done through beheading. So I made the leap that “Enthauptung” means “beheading.” It also helps that combining the prefix “ent” (equivalent to “un” in English) with “Haupt” (head), makes it pretty logical. “Vorhölle” is less intuitive, but again, the context was very obvious. The story was discussing a miscarriage (Fehlgeburt) and a Catholic woman wondering what would happen to her unborn child. Knowing that during the time this book was written, Limbo was seen as the general state for miscarriages, I knew almost immediately what the word meant.
Although I wrote a pretty long post about this process, the reality is that the more you read and listen, the more automatic it becomes. The key is to constantly read and listen to the language–everyday. Don’t worry so much if you can’t reproduce the word yet; eventually it will stick in your vocabulary and you will eventually recognize situations when it is used.