Meaning of Words in Context

The best way of improving your English is not by looking up words in the dictionary, and not even by taking college writing classes.  The best way is READING for pleasure. By this we mean reading anything you like, permitting yourself to be emotionally gripped by what you read, and consulting a dictionary only when you cannot otherwise understand the text.

Some people find it hard to believe that the best path to language proficiency can be so simple and, at the same time, so pleasant. They imagine that English proficiency involves a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears--grammar, translation, and drills. Nothing can be farther from the truth, and, unless you realize this, your hopes of mastering English will remain unfulfilled. The point is important enough to justify quotations from some of the more insightful experts in the field:

"Studies that sought to improve writing by providing reading experiences in place of grammar study or additional writing practice found that these experiences were as beneficial as, or more beneficial than, grammar study or extra writing practice" (Stotsky 637). "It is only through reading that anyone can learn to write. The only possible way to learn all the conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, even grammar, and style, is through reading. Authors teach readers about writing" (Smith 177). "Reading is the only way . . . we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way we become good spellers" (Krashen 23). "Writers need to project themselves into the role of the reader. . . to attempt to become readers and to imagine what someone other than themselves will need before the writer's particular piece of writing can become intelligible and compelling. To do so, writers must have the experience of being readers. They cannot call up a felt sense of a reader unless they themselves have experienced what it means to be lost in a piece of writing or to be excited by it" (Perl 50). "Not only can we recognize 50,000 words on sight--and also, of course, by sound--we can usually make sense of all these words. Where have all the meanings come from? Fifty thousand trips to the dictionary? Fifty thousand lessons? We have learned all the conventions of language through using language, by speaking it, reading it, and making sense of it" (Smith 182).

Let us illustrate this limited reliance on a dictionary with "Phaedo." The first paragraph of the Instructors' Note tells me that "Phaedo" is a dialogue. This seems a rather important point: I want to know what it is that I am being asked to read. So I look it up. In my dictionary there are four definitions. One of them, for instance, is: "a musical arrangement suggestive of a conversation." That's not likely to be the meaning of "dialogue" in this context. Another is: "a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing." "Phaedo" is indeed a written composition and, when I look at the piece itself, I see that it involves at least two speakers. So this is the probable meaning intended in the passage.

I also don't know the meaning of "capture" in the Instructors' Notes, but I understand the meaning of the sentence and the paragraph as a whole without looking this word up. So I don't consult the dictionary, knowing that if I come across this word a few times I shall be able to decipher its meaning without looking it up. I keep reading, not fully understanding a word here and there, but still readily following what's going on, so I don't look any of these words up. Towards the end of the dialogue itself, Socrates asks if he can pour a libation from the drink, and I don't know what "libation" is. This word seems important enough for me at this point and it also arouses my curiosity, so I look it up. Again, there are a few definitions, but I am only interested in the meaning of this word in this specific context, which most likely is, according to my dictionary, "an instance of pouring a liquid as a sacrifice to the gods." I now understand Socrates' quandary. On the one hand, god-fearing Greeks used to pour libations before drinking. On the other hand, in this case, doing so might appear as an attempt to avoid drinking the full measure of poison.

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