Real language always belongs to a real context. A problem for all language teachers is that their work, to a greater or lesser extent, extracts language from its context and therefore makes it artificial. Usually different methods are devised to recreate a context for the particular piece of language being taught. This might be in the form of a story or dialogue in which the language is embedded; specific conversation practice using the target language or written exercises, such as sentences with gaps to fill in, which provide some sort of context that gives a clue to the correct answer. The worst kind of language class is one that only teaches grammar and lists of words without providing any kind of context in which to practice them. Whatever methods are used however, it is still true that for most adult learners the language classroom is an artificial environment.
When it comes to teaching children, the situation is somewhat different. Firstly, the classroom environment itself is part of a child’s everyday life, so activities such as learning words for classroom items (ruler, wastepaper bin); responding to instructions from the teacher (“Open your books on page 12) and engaging in appropriate linguistic transactions (“May I go to the toilet?” “Can I have a piece of paper please”) are carried out within a genuine context and are therefore more easily assimilated.
For adult students, these learning contexts are far more difficult to recreate. One of the biggest pitfalls is for a teacher to be limiting or unclear about context. Sometimes students are taught that a particular type of expression or verb tense can only be used in some particular, limited way. This creates confusion if the student then comes across the language in a different real-life situation. I often find that students themselves want to push me into stating that something “always” means a certain thing or can “never” be heard in some other situation. As hard as it is for us to accept sometimes “it depends on the context” is the only truthful answer. Where language is concerned, context is everything.
Another way to think about context is that it a most useful tool for helping us to understand the language we hear. We can deduce a huge amount of what is being said to us if we have a sufficient grasp of the context. If we’re making an appointment at the doctor or taking our car to be fixed, we can guess the meaning of language from the situation itself. We shouldn’t feel that we’re cheating in anyway, just because we’ve guessed what someone has said from the situation. This is a natural process and one that children engage in all the time.