Just as “location” makes all the difference in real estate, context plays a huge role in how well we understand what we hear or read. Last week I was listening to two of Deutsche Welle’s great language learning offerings, the “slowly spoken news” (langsam gesprochene Nachrichten) and the “word of the week” (Wort der Woche). In the first case, I had some idea of the topics being covered because I’d seen newspaper headlines or photos (the flooding in southern Germany) or because the stories detailed ongoing events (the efforts to prevent Iran developing nuclear capabilities). In the second case, all I had to go by was the word of the week itself, der Troll, and the understanding that the meaning being explored was somehow, although perhaps very tenuously, related to the standard meaning of this word that is common to both German and English. This was not enough context to help me understand what I was hearing and, as these snippets are at level B2, even after reading the transcript I still needed to check Wikipedia to get the meaning.
To give you a somewhat similar experience, here is a paragraph from a wonderful psychology experiment by Bransford and Johnson (Bransford, J.D., & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726. I found this material here, thanks ScienceBlogs™). Read, record your hypothesis about what the paragraph is about and then scroll down for some context.
If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying, since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Since the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course, the fellow could shout, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far. An additional problem is that a string could break on the instrument. Then there could be no accompaniment to the message. It is clear that the best situation would involve less distance. Then there would be fewer potential problems. With face to face contact, the least number of things could go wrong. (p. 719)
In Bransford and Johnson’s experiment, some of the participants read the paragraph on its own and tried to remember it. A second group had the picture first and then read the paragraph. Having just experienced the first of these two conditions (note that there were two others in the actual experiment), you will likely not be surprised to hear that this first group was able to remember very little of what they had read. If you went back and re-read the paragraph after seeing the picture, you experienced the second condition and thus probably correctly anticipate that the second experimental group was able to remember much more about the paragraph given they had the context available.
I have to say it feels fabulous to see my old role as cognitive psychologist and my new role as flâneur (Flaneuse) on all things English-Deutsch coming together to assist me in seeing the basis of some of the cognitive challenges I face in learning a new language!