A key to understanding anything in a second language is being familiar with the context. There are many ways to become more familiar with context. Actually living the experience is the best but is not always possible. That is why extensive reading and listening is the best alternative to actually living the experience.
When I lived in Hong Kong and studied Mandarin I built up a vast library of content on different subjects of interest that I would read and listen to often. Each time I listened I would seem to focus on different words and phrases until they became natural to me. The local environment did not give me the opportunity to “experience” Mandarin.
Even when I lived in Japan I still had my own language world of reading and listening because it was too difficult to get it all from real life, either because my Japanese was still not good enough or simply because reading can cover more ground than I could experience myself.
Experiments have shown that if you give language learners a glossary or vocabulary list of new words for a text they have not seen it will not help them understand the new text. They simply will not remember these words which they have tried to learn out of context. If they are already familiar with the subject they will understand better, but the vocabulary list will not help.
So the lesson is that all attempts to memorize isolated vocabulary lists, TOEFL vocabulary lists, technical vocabulary lists, antonyms and synonyms, or memorizing the dictionary which Chinese learners sometimes try to do, are very ineffective ways to learn.
That is why in The Linguist we make sure that all words and phrases are learned in the context of authentic content chosen by the learner. Usually the learner will choose a subject that he/she is already familiar with and that makes comprehension and the learning of new vocabulary easier. All occurrences of these words and phrases are collected in the learners’ database for regular review.
You have to experience the language. You have to communicate with people, and to read and to listen a great deal. There are no short cuts. The more efficiently you learn new words and phrases the faster you will grow your language power.