The power of context

Many times, when people learn English, they think about the big goals that they have: they want to get better jobs or maybe they want to move to another country. Sometimes, though, learning another language is useful because it helps you survive inside a context that isn't your own.

Here's the scene: it's 14:43 on a Saturday afternoon. The weather is really nice outside, which means that the bars and restaurants in my neighborhood are full of people.

If this were Canada, this bar would be twice as wide as it actually is, and the space would be big enough that people with kids, baby carriages and big backpacks could move freely throughout the bar without touching other people. In Canada, people try really hard not to touch people they don't know. We just don't do that. But I'm not in Canada; I'm in a very crowded bar in MalasaƱa, in Madrid, and beside me there is a small blonde woman with the very big purse. And that purse is ending up in my back more often than I would like.

This means that I have two options.

I can be Canadian about this and pretend that this is not happening. If I act Canadian, I have to pretend like neither the bag nor the woman are there, that the bar is not crowded and that everything is tolerable.

After spending over ten years in Madrid, however, I know that being Canadian in a Spanish city is...well...it's worse than useless.

"Excuse me," I say. She doesn't respond."

"/eI/!!" I shout.

One sound, one syllable, not really a word but delivered at high enough volume and pitch to let her know that if that bag ends up in my kidneys again, something nasty is going to happen.

She turns around and looks at me as if I'm crazy. I stick my right eyebrow up and stare her right in the eyes.

This is the power of context that makes language learning so important. If all you do is think about what individual words mean -- and not what the words can do -- you're never going to learn to really manage a language enough to get what you want. And that's why we, as human beings, have language. Language gets us what we want.

We assume that "getting what you want" has to be something big and important, but those big, important goals might not be realistic for most of us. For most of us, we just want the small things, even if it's as something as small as not being uncomfortable in a bar.

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