conditioner as context
Sometimes the tangles look huge and overwhelming, but with a little help, things can soon get back to neat and smooth.

“You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.”

My mum used to despair at how tangled my hair would get when I was little. Both me and my little sister have great volumes of hair. So much that it even amazed the hairdresser. It’s long, mostly straight, but comes at you from every angle. After an hour or two of playing in the garden it did look like we’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.

It used to get into the most dreadful knots.

I remember my mum lecturing my dad on the importance of using conditioner

After giving us our baths one evening, and sending the first of us downstairs to have our freshly washed hair combed, my dad thought he had done a good job. That was until my mum tried combing our hair.  My dad had not used any conditioner and so the dry, rough hairs matted together. However, hard my mum tugged, the comb wouldn’t go through.

We returned to the bathroom, and with a dollop of gloopy conditioner she smoothed the hairs, making them less likely to catch on one another. Finally, she could untangle our hair.

Conditioner was not optional in our family. It was essential for pain-free combing.

But how can we apply these principles for pain-free language learning?

Context is the extra gloop you need so new vocabulary lays smoothly in your mind

Unless we have context, all that vocabulary becomes knotted. You’ll have words you know you know but can’t remember, and words you know but are meaningless because you have no idea of what they mean.

As we get more proficient learning, we tend to start thinking that we’re cleverer than we once were. We repeat a word a few times in our heads and imagine that we’re just going to remember it. We rarely do. Instead, the words that stick are those that we feel something about, the ones we’ve used, the ones we have associated with other ideas.

Which is why learning with context matters

However, context is not simply a matter of learning all the words to do with the beach in Tuesday afternoon’s class and words to do with a hospital all in Friday morning’s class. And it’s often impractical to go to the beach or the hospital for a language lesson.

Instead, sometimes you need to play pretend

If the vocabulary is about going to the beach, then perhaps pack your bag and get ready for a beach trip, noting the vocabulary you’re coming across as you engage with the items. These items can become a show and tell game. Everyone has a story about a time they visited a hospital. How many of the words you’re learning can you fit into your story?

Perhaps a brief account of that time you went to the beach, when your son was stung by a jellyfish, had an allergic reaction and ended up in the accident and emergency department. Use props.

Does it feel a little childish?

Probably. Sitting behind a desk and writing words on a piece of paper is often easier than acting a story. There’s less chance you’ll look foolish. I don’t say it lightly. I’d take silent reading over charades any day. However, if you watch children playfully learning to speak a language, it’s hard not to be jealous of how they adapt.

Moving around in role-play (games of mummy, daddy and baby dolly for example), drawing pictures and singing songs might seem childish, but children do these things because it’s how they learn.

We learn in three distinct ways

Kinaesthetic learning is about doing. This means lying down on the floor and pretending to sunbathe. Having a make-believe conversation with a friend in which you argue about the price of an ice-cream, with one person playing the role of vendor, and the other playing the role of sunburnt tourist.

Visual learning is about pictures. Photos are great because they refer to specific memories. But making a collage from magazines (or a travel brochure), drawing pictures, doodling and watching videos all helps.

Auditory learning is about hearing. What television adverts can you find telling you to visit so and so country. Or look up adverts for package holidays or airlines. But even small things help, like putting on a recording of the sea, gentle sloshing waves, or squawking seagulls and children crying.

There are many online tests to work out your predominant learning strategy, but you will learn through all three methods, and it’s worth using them all if you can.

All these small context prompts act like conditioner

They organise the vocabulary in your mind, allowing you to move through the words to find what you’re looking for. It stops you getting stuck on the wrong word, instead you can think of others and keep up the momentum. Like the comb sliding through the hair. Finally, you land on, if not the perfect word, something you can use.

With a little bit of context to help organise your brain, your mind won’t feel like it’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.


  1. Textbook learning can tie us in knots. We end up knowing a lot of words, but not necessarily what they mean. Or we can’t reach them, quickly, from our memories.
  2. Building a context helps us integrate the words into our minds.
  3. The building blocks for context building are the visual, kinaesthetic and audio cues that we learn from.

Sometimes it’s worth getting creative about how you find your context

When I first learnt Italian numbers, it was after a glass of wine (or two) during a game of monopoly. The Italian young men whom I was playing with had no qualms about stealing from each other. They would lie openly about who owed whom what amount. And, when convenient, pretending not to understand English.

Determined that the Italians wouldn’t swindle me. I learnt to count my lira, make demands and gesture in wild Italian. It was playful, fun and hard work. Sentences were beyond me, but even a few weeks later, I could order whatever weight of salami Milano I wanted from the butcher. I had all my numbers.

Have fun with your language learning.

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Article written by Catherine Oughtibridge.

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