February 20

The Power of Guessing in Language Learning

So you maybe are wondering why guessing is so important in language learning. Especially when your experience may well have been similar to mine. I recall in my schooling some of my teachers were quite dismissive about students guessing answers. Looking back I can now see why they may well have been mistaken in their attitude.

There are however 2 kinds of guessing and I am not sure whether this distinction was appreciated. One is the kind of guessing you do when you have no idea of the answer and you make some stab in the dark based on who knows what. And the result is a guess that is probably way off. Usually this kind of guess results in no learning, in fact, that was not the intention. This is the kind of guessing that my teachers had some basis for their bias.

Guessing in language learningThen there is the kind of guess which is based upon, what has been seen, surmised, understood or heard. This is the kind of guess that leads you to closer to the “right answer”. This kind of guessing my teachers should have been encouraging. In language learning this kind of guessing is essential. I will suggest that infants who are learning their first language resort to guessing continually. We just don’t recognise it like that, just maybe smile or laugh at their attempts to get things “right”. They don’t care if they get it wrong, they just move on knowing that they are closer to being “right”.

Many adult language learners shy away from guessing because they could be wrong when they guess. And who wants to be wrong? Instead, they consult their dictionary, or their grammar book or worse still don’t even try to sort things out, frozen by the possibility of being “wrong”. Only you will know where you stand, wherever you just realise that there is a place for guessing and it can be most helpful.

Guessing, in fact, is a higher order mental skill that needs to be developed by any language learner keen on making progress beyond what they are taught or learn from books and teachers. A study of language learners studying French some years ago found that the ones who were made to guess words from context (rather than study a word list) not only learned more words in less time, but they also retained the words longer.

Embracing guessing actively is something that will help any language learner. One thing that needs to be remembered is that guessing will only be productive if you apply yourself and learn to use all your faculties. When you go to a country where the languages you know are not spoken, you have little choice but to make guesses when people talk to you while you are going about your business. You make your guesses on the basis of the context ( shop, bus, airport, etc), on the basis of the non- verbal clues and on what prompted the interaction. In these situations, all your senses are at work, as you sift through the data and attempt to deal with the situation as best as you can.

Of course, guessing is only one strategy that at times might not be appropriate. Guessing at those times can yield results that don’t help you at all. So it is important to become discerning about the times that guessing can be used and when it is not a useful option. Guessing will never replace your ability to work things out for yourself. But guessing at times can help you move along faster. Just regard guessing as another tool in your arsenal.

You can learn to develop your guessing skills, my suggestion is that you first have a guess and then check it! You can leave the checking till next time you come across the word, or you go to some kind of authority like a dictionary when you have time.  Many times however this will not be possible. Like, when there is no time or when you are in a conversation trying to work out what that rising intonation may mean in a certain context! So sometimes you will have to rely upon your own judgement. This is an important realisation to come to, that we need to learn to rely more upon ourselves.

Another reason why guessing is important is that it opens the way to intuition. In another post where I talk about why exercising your intuition can enhance your language learning, you will, once you read it, see why guessing may, in fact, enhance your intuitive powers.

There are several games that might help you to develop your guessing. Charades is a good example of that. This is an example of how the clues that are given help the “guesser”. The clues are important. In real life, though you need to find the clues yourself. An attitude of looking for clues to unlock the puzzles before us and a willingness to guess is what makes a good guesser and ultimately a good learner!


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  • The great polyglot Kato Lomb said that she learned languages by reading books without a dictionary; it is only by making your own association between the foreign word and its equivalent in your own language (aka: guessing) that you cement it into your memory (as you describe above).

    A corollary to this is that words learnt using a flashcard program (no guessing) will probably only be easy to recall during your flashcard sessions, and not when you really need them in real life (not quickly enough, at any rate).

    Her free e-book on how she learnt dozens of languages (many of them at interpreter level) is well worth reading: http://www.tesl-ej.org/books/lomb-2nd-Ed.pdf

  • I totally agree with you! We must teach students to try their best to guess based on all the clues they find. Since they analyse images, sounds, clues, any hints, they are on the right way of communicating in another language. We do that all the time to live.

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