Meaning and context in language teaching
As language teachers, we would want to engage our students to acquire language meaningfully, to negotiate meaning and get their messages through. We do that in activities involving reading and listening comprehension as well as other activities. But does teaching of formal properties of language through grammatical and vocabulary explanations satisfy these needs? It is doubtful that such a teaching would yield any positive results as it overlooks an important aspect of language, that aspect which takes context as an essential part in the construction of meaning. As a matter of fact any teaching that takes usage, the formal properties of language, as the only aspect to be taught will fail to develop adequate language skills in learners. In addition to usage, teaching language as it is actually used by native speakers in appropriate contexts is to my mind the cornerstone of second and foreign language teaching.
What does context mean?
Meaning is created not only through what speakers say to each other but also through what they do with words to satisfy the needs of their social environment. Meaning involves linguistic and situational factors where the context of language use is essential. This contextual use of language is what makes language unique to humans.
Types of context
Context means a variety of things. Context can be linguistic, involving the linguistic environment of a language item, as well as situational, involving extra linguistic elements that contribute to the construction of meaning.
Linguistic context or verbal context refers to the linguistic environment in which a word is used within a text. As a matter of fact, understanding the meaning of vocabulary items using linguistic context may involve syntactic and morphological interpretation of the elements within a text. In other words, to determine the meaning of an item, it is necessary to know whether the item is a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, functioning as a subject, a predicate or a complement. This information gives important clues to the meaning of the text. But it is not sufficient to provide a full understanding of utterances.
The following example given by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures demonstrate that a sentence that is grammatically correct, may be meaningless.
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Although the above sentence is grammatically correct, it is nonsensical , and thus demonstrates the distinction between grammar and meaning. It shows that relying on only the linguistic elements in a text to get meaning is not enough. Meaning involves more than the grammatical description and goes beyond the scope of grammar to an understanding of the situational context that involves individual beliefs and knowledge of the world.
Pragmatic or situational context
Part of the pragmatic context is what makes it coherent, those elements that tell us who and what we are talking about. This is achieved by using features such as the use of deictic, anaphoric and cataphoric elements as well as other information implied in the text. Meaning can be inferred from the linguistic elements surrounding a word. In the following example, the meaning of it cannot be attained without going back to what has been said before:
We went to the café. It was crowded
So trying to understand the sentence “it was crowded” can be fully understood only if we know that it is anaphoric and refers to the item the café.
By the same token, a sentence like the following:
When she arrived home, Nancy watched TV
involves a cataphoric use of the pronoun she. Without a the presence of the subsequent linguistic elements of the sentence one would be unable to know that she refers to Nancy.
There are of course other pragmatic elements that contribute to the meaning of sentences. Words like “there, here, that, it, tomorrow” are known as deictic expressions. The meaning of these expressions is fixed but what they denote depends on the time and place where the utterance is used. In the following sentence here is deictic referring to the place where the speaker lives:
I live here.
In fact, place deictic terms, like here, are generally understood to be relative to the location of the speaker.
Meaning can also be related to social variables involved in language use. Notions of politeness, shared beliefs, cultural features and social organization play an important role in the interpretation of meaning. For example the participants in the following conversations have different social status which is reflected in their utterances:
1. Excuse me Mr. Buckingham, but can I talk to you for a minute?
2. Hey Bucky, got a minute?
It is very probable that in the first example, a student is talking to a teacher or an employee is talking to his employer and in the second example two friends are talking to each other. The speakers are using markers that show social distance and power relationships. Unless we go beyond the text to infer these variables, meaning will not be fully attained.
As has been demonstrated, context may give important information in the interpretation of meaning. It is not enough to understand meaning of words to actually get the meaning of discourse. It is important to know why one has to say what to whom and where. Werth summarizes this as follows:
The context of a piece of language (…) is its surrounding environment. But this can include as little as the articulatory movements immediately before and after it, or as much as the whole universe with its past and future. (Werth 1999: 78 – 79)
For a language teacher, it is important to design language activities that takes into consideration the contextual dimensions of language use. But what kind of activities would be suitable and include both the linguistic and pragmatic dimension of language?
Chomsky, Noam (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton.
Werth, Paul (1999). Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. London: Longman.