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What Is Contextualization?

By B. Turner
Updated May 23, 2024
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Linguists study the structure, meaning and use of languages and how these languages relate to one another. Contextualization represents a theory within the field of linguistics that is based on the idea that words cannot be completely understood without also considering the context in which they are used. By ignoring context, speakers and listeners open themselves up to misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Linguists who support the contextualization theory emphasize that the point of view of the speaker and listener matter just as much as the words themselves. Given that everyone has a different life experience and history, linguists also assume that every individual has a unique understanding of language.

People rely on a variety of cues to help them put the correct meaning to words within a specific context. A change in tone, such as a rising intonation at the end of a sentence, can indicate a question, an attitude of deference to the listener, or a lack of confidence. Word choice can also act as a cue, particularly in terms of dominant pronouns, or referring to the audience in a respectful versus a dismissive manner. Non-verbal actions, such as body language or specific motions or actions can also play a major role in defining context. Without these contextualization cues, it's difficult to communicate effectively.

Contextualization also plays a role in understanding the written word. Rather than take words at face value, readers must attempt to understand documents in a social, political, or historical context. This means looking not only at the words, but at the attitude and background of the person who wrote them, as well as the attitude of society at the time. The concept of contextualization is particularly important when it comes to historical research or religious studies, as the works of dissenters or those with non-majority opinions may not have survived to the present day. Readers should also look for bias or agendas when interpreting a text.

Based on the theory of contextualization, linguists must examine the entire picture to understand a language, speech or document, rather than just the words themselves. This means attempting to put aside one's own opinions while simultaneously considering the unique thought processes, beliefs and history of the writer. It also requires using all available cues to interpret the meaning behind slang or colloquial language, and trying to separate fact from fiction or opinion. Given that people's experiences and viewpoints are constantly under change, contextualization theory even suggests that words can have different meanings at particular points in time, even when read or heard by the same individual.

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