In this article, I’m going to look at the importance of using guesswork in language learning. Why do we need to use guesswork? in scientific subjects, guesswork is frowned upon. However, there is a special reason why guessing is good when you’re learning a language.
The best way to learn a language is by consuming content in the language, using it to find out information, engaging with it and practicing it. You expand your vocabulary when you encounter new words and phrases and find out what they mean, in the context of the information presented in the language.
Whenever you encounter a new word or phrase, it’s always best to try and guess the meaning first. Then you can check if you were right. The reason for this is that if you put some effort into working out the meaning from the context, you will remember it more easily.
Think of the text as being like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are the words in the text. If you understand most of the words, you can build a picture of the content in your mind. But there are some pieces missing. These are the words that are new to you.
Even though you’ve not seen them before, it’s often possible to work out the meaning from the context. The more you do this, the more you can develop your guessing technique and improve your ability.
Why is this ability useful? Well, in some situations, you will come across words and phrases you don’t understand, but you may not have access to a dictionary. These situations are for instance if you are in conversation with someone and they use a new word, also in an exam situation.
Many students look at the word in isolation and are puzzled by it. They just say to themselves: I haven’t got a clue what that word means. They might stop at that word and try in vain to work out the meaning. But the best thing to do here is to continue reading or listening and come back to the word.
Many course books and tutors make the mistake of giving new vocabulary first, before asking the students to read or listen. This reduces the students’ ‘guessing power’. The most powerful form of language learning is working things out for yourself, rather than being told.
There is a very effective technique you can use to enhance your guessing power and it involves translation. We take the sentence including the new word and translate it into English, saying ‘blank’ just like in the TV show ‘Blankety Blank’.
Let’s try it first in German:
Diese Studentin ist sehr intelligent und sehr fleißig.
Let’s assume you don’t know the meaning of fleißig. You need to ask yourself, what are the words that a teacher would use to describe a student. Intelligent? We understand that, but fleißig? It could be ‘lazy’ but we have ‘and’. It must be a positive word. It could be ‘flighty’ but that doesn’t fit.
Let’s try translating the sentence into English, apart from the word we don’t understand.:
This student is very intelligent and fleißig.
Can you guess?
This word means ‘hard-working’.
There are many other examples of sentences where you understand all the sentences except one word.
Let’s try it with this sentence about a new electric helicopter-taxi
Der Volocity ist autonom gesteuert, ohne Pilot, eine Drohne für Menschen.
Let’s assume we know ‘ohne’ means ‘without’ and ‘Menschen’ are ‘people. What is the meaning of ‘gesteuert?’ Any guesses?
Let’s try translating the sentence into English
The Volocity is autonomously [blank] without a pilot, a drone for people.
What word comes after autonomously’? The answer is ‘steered’, you could also use ‘controlled’, or maybe ‘piloted’.
And there’s another way to figure out a new word, and that is the fact that ‘gesteuert’ and ‘steered’ are similar, they are cognate.
If you can develop this ability to, as if by magic, deduce the meaning of new words, you could improve your language learning effectiveness and make progress more quickly. Supposing you could improve your performance by 10% or 20%, maybe even more. That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?
So that’s an important language-learning technique that not many people are aware of. I believe in encouraging language learners to become more autonomous, to become better at figuring things out and improving in the language more effectively. Yes, a tutor like me can help, but when there is no tutor available, you need to be able to learn the language more effectively using your own resources.
I’m here to develop your powers of language learning. I hope you’ll try out this technique and that it will help to make you a ‘Super Language Learner’. Read my article on that subject for more tips.