What Is Context & Why Does It Matter?

February 18, 2021Klein E

What is content in English Language?

In this article, I am going to be demystifying the term 'context'... it seems to be thrown around a lot with students in VCE English Language and it seems that many students don't understand this crucial concept underlying all of our communications. It's very important you understand what context means simply because it could be assessed in your short answer, but it definitely is assessed in your analytical commentary! You can also (and I highly recommend you do) refer to it in your essays. So, as you can see it plays an important part in all of your English Language assessments.

To begin, let's look at a brief definition sourced from Dictionary.com:

the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect

the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.
These are the two definitions found from Dictionary.com. To put it simply, it's the surroundings around language being used. For example, when you start speaking with friends at school, there are a variety of noticeable contextual factors:
  1. You're at school (situational context)
  2. You're Australian (cultural context), so you may use Australian colloquialisms
  3. You're relationships with your friends will drastically affect your language (e.g. swearing)
  4. The topic! Yes, the topic can affect the semantic field. For example, if you're discussing English Language ideas with your friends, the semantic field will include an immense amount of English Language jargon
  5. The purpose - every form of communication has a function, so when you're talking at lunchtime with your friends at school, the purpose is usually to build rapport (known as the phatic function), so language will be geared towards that social purpose. Therefore, you'll use slang terms and swearing to effectively strengthen the relationship with those around you.

Different types of context

Below I have summarised the main contextual factors you can talk about in any given text:

  • Situational context (literally where you are)

    • For example, if you're in a library receiving tutoring, you may speak in a quiet voice compared to if the lesson were to be conducted at your home. I've noticed from prior experience that when I conduct lessons at libraries I am much quieter compared to when these lessons occur at home.
  • Cultural context (what culture are you in and what are the values of that society)

    • For example, it is taboo to openly talk about death in western societies, so we euphemise much of our language to negotiate this taboo topic.
    • If you're in Australian society, the lexical choices you employ will oftentimes reflect underlying Australian cultural values such as egalitarianism, mateship and friendliness.
  • Relationship with participants

    • Whether you've just met the person or you're best friends with them, the language will be drastically different. For example, compare a relationship with a prospective employer at a job interview with a conversation at a party.
  • Topical context

    • When you're communicating with someone, there will be an underlying topic you're talking about. This will therefore affect the language choices used - often reflecting the semantic field. For example, if you're talking about footy with one of your best mates, the semantic field will include jargon from the AFL.
  • Purpose

    • With each form of communication comes a social purpose. WHY are you communicating? The language used will reflect this purpose. For example, think of an evacuation procedure at your school - you'll notice that the instructions are clearly formatted (discourse: coherence) to ensure intelligibility and clarity of the information being presented.

So, now with that in mind, I'd like you to comment and/or think about the following contextual factors above and apply it to a hypothetical scenario. This scenario is this:

You're receiving tutoring in a public library for VCE English Language and you've known your tutor now for six months. The tutor is a university student who is 20 years old and you both get along well with each other.

I'd like you to ponder this hypothetical situation and APPLY all of the contextual factors noted above. Write your answers down on a piece of paper and always ask yourself, "HOW WOULD THIS FACTOR AFFECT THE LANGUAGE BEING USED?".

Once you've done this, you may choose to comment your answers below. 🙂

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Klein E

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