Language In Context

Did you know that language-in-context is a vital part of learning a language?

by Louis Alexander


Most students, almost without exception, feel they have to learn some grammar to master a foreign language and they are right. But grammar on its own is dry as dust and can't teach you the skills you need to communicate. Grammar is necessary because it answers most of your questions about the way a language works. For example, what's the difference between 'some' and 'any'? What are the main uses of 'if' in English? The answers to questions like these are grammatical. But you will understand these answers best if you see grammatical structures used in context, not simply by learning abstract rules.

It is a well-known fact that context makes language memorable. I'm sure that students of Direct English remember the vivid episodes they watch on video and listen to on CD. The most observant students among you will have noticed that every one of these episodes in Books 1-6 presents the grammar that is going to be learned in each lesson. Which item of grammar do you think is being presented in this relatively easy dialogue in Unit 1, Lesson 3?

ANNE: Come in Dean. Please sit down.

DEAN: Thanks.

ANNE: Now we can go over your job description. Can you use a word processor, Dean?

DEAN: Yes, I can.

ANNE: Other computer programs? Databases? Spreadsheets?

DEAN: I can work with computers very well.

ANNE: Good.

ANNE: Can you speak any foreign languages?

DEAN: Not really. I speak a little Spanish, but I can't understand a word.

ANNE: I see. Well, you can't translate Spanish for us. But maybe you can help us understand our computers.

DEAN: I can do that.

The answer is probably immediately obvious to you! It's the use of 'can' to express ability.

If I were to ask you how you express ability in English, you would undoubtedly find my question rather abstract and difficult to answer. If I were to ask you if you can remember the dialogue called 'Job Description' in which Anne interviews Dean for the first time and asks him questions about his abilities, you will probably tell me you remember it very well. Not only that, many of you will remember the entire dialogue by heart. In other words, you will have learned about this particular use of 'can' (there are several other uses as well) because it was presented to you in context.

So what is being taught in this extract from Book 1, Unit 9?

ELENA: I need to look for Dean's birthday present.

WENDY: What does he like?

ELENA: He likes computers, sports. The usual. Look at that hat.

WENDY: It's beautiful. Do you want to try it on?

ELENA: Yes.

WENDY: So what sports does he like?

ELENA: Baseball.

WENDY: Do you like baseball?

ELENA: I enjoy it. But I'm not a maniac.

You're right! It's the first introduction to the use of the simple present tense in English.

 

© LG & DE Limited 2006

 

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