I’m being vulgar to catch your attention.
Oh, I have had to memorize things in my life. In high school chemistry I memorized the periodic table, and in the fraternity I memorized the Greek alphabet, the UW Greek system map, the fraternity’s creed, and some historical facts about the fraternity.
But in language class I didn’t memorize SHIT.
Sure, we learned words, and there were vocabulary lists at the end of each chapter for review. But they were at the end of the chapter because during the chapter we interacted with those words in context. We didn’t just read them; we spoke them aloud in class, we wrote them in questionaires pertaining to ourselves, we read them and then gave our own opinions about the text. And when we turned to the last page of the chapter, we saw the list and said, oh there they all are. Do I know them? Yes.
This was Spanish, French, and Italian. There was grammar to learn, and we learned it communicatively; we learned the grammar by practicing it immediately in real communication.
And it bears repeating, I didn’t memorize SHIT. There were no flashcards, no studying or quizzing myself with lists. The homework was grammar practice, and when I didn’t know a word I looked it up, and it was annoying enough have to look up a word more than once, so more often than not, you either sit there and let the word come back to you, or SKIP IT and see if you can finish without knowing the word.
When we didn’t understand something, we grammared and/or cognated our way through it, until we got it down. Lexemes, individual words, were LAST.
In fact, the other day I was looking at the word “la refaccionería,” which is a word I had never seen before in my life. Never. Ever. But I knew it meant “refinery” because the Latin gives you “a place where something is redone/reprocessed” and the word that follwed it was “diesel.” So duh, it means “refinery.”
And that’s pretty much how I aquired most of my vocabulary in Spanish, French, and Itailan: context and cognates.
That’s how I did my first summer intensive of Chinese as well; the prof as trained in communicative method, and although the sounds and structures were exotic and challenging, the words came easily enough with practice.
And then I went to China and it all fell apart.
The typical first lesson in Chinese in China is when they give you a list of 40 fruits, and tell you to memorize it. (Don’t laugh, the Tagalog profs did this to us too). Sorry, teachers of China, giving someone a list of 40 items and telling them to memorize it, and there’s a quiz at the end of the week, that is NOT a teaching method. I don’t EAT 40 fruits. The only thing a list of 40 fruits is going to prepare me for is your stupid 40 fruit test at the end of the week.
So I know people are crying FOUL at me for a lot of reasons right now, but seriously, a task based communicative teacher wouldn’t give a quiz at the end of the week. Instead, there would be group presentations on fruit salads. Because it’s fun? NO. Because a) group work b) target culture interaction buying the fruit c) 5 frakking senses d) oral presentation = an actual use of language, and e) YES, fruit salads are inherently more fun than quizzes. Drawbacks? The teacher would have to be trained in rubrics, and alas, the students would not learn all 40 fruits, ONLY THE ONES THAT MATTER TO THEM.
How do they learn the rest of the 40? Make it matter to them, duh.
By the way, will the student who learns only 20 fruits instead of 40 be handicapped in life? Seriously, what is the critical cut-off for fruit knowledge?
Anyway, I call bullshit on memorizing vocabulary lists. Don’t even get me started on flashcards. IT. IS. NOT. METHOD. “Go memorize this” is NON-method.
Which brings me to my point: I am baffled and amazed by people who learn Chinese well. They’ll say it’s because they memorized it; I’ll say that they learned it through communication, despite the memorization, and the general public will believe them, not me. Whatever.
Anyway, this is why I’m mostly silent on discussions about memorization, repetition; this is why I don’t get all tingly when someone metions spaced repetition. I never bought into the whole lexical approach, which seems to work in Chinese but in Spanish and other Romance languages is ONLY seems to be good for listening and reading comprehension.
(The lexical approach, from what I an deduce, is basically you learn a bunch of words, and eventually you’ll get it. It seems sound at first glance, but notice it’s exactly the OPPOSITE of the approach I described above, where I said grammar/context/cognates first, words LAST. And, to be fair, Mandarin and English are not cognate languages, and the grammar in Mandarin means word order and structures. So the lexical approach seems to be suitable to learning Chinese. However, it’s called a lexical *approach;* it’s not actually a method).
Spiders were born with an instinct for spinning webs; humans were born with an instinct for acquiring language from meaningful communication. Seriously, where is the meaningful communication in “go memorize this?” Where is the meaningful communication in “quiz on friday?” We have a huge capacity for acquiring a system natively, which is our birthright AS A SPECIES, but we spend time and money on flashcards, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone? Where is the METHOD?
A few months ago, my friend who speaks Mandarin at a superior level, and learned to do so as an adult in Taiwan, decided to learn Spanish to prepare for his trip to Central America. He was listening to my podcasts, working through a book, and yes, his primary means of review were flashcards he made himself. I was like, oh man, you’re killing me, but he looked at me with hostility and said, “everybody learns differently, JP.”
Oh really? Because I have an advanced degree in Foreign Language Pedagogy and 12 years teaching experience….
No, I didn’t say that out loud. He used flashcards when learning Chinese, and I’m sure they gave him great comfort in studying Spanish, and really, no one believes me when I tell them that there are more effective ways of learning vocabulary than flashcards anyway. No one wants to hear it. I just want to study flashcards… alone. As if language is spoken alone.
I said, look, when you’re in Central America and taking classes, you will acquire those words faster than you can manage flashcards. He misheard me and thought I meant that he would be given more words to memorize than he can manage, and I clarified, no, you will know and own those words faster than you can physically write out flashcards. 1) it’s a cognate language, 2) it’s multisyllabic, i.e., relatively easy to distinguish 3) it’s written in a phonemic alphabet that you already know, 4) the phonology is relatively simple and for the most part familiar. Actually there are more than just 4 reasons, but by now you get the point.
So how’s my friend doing with his Spanish? I don’t know yet, he’s still in Central America. But I’ll bet money he quit using flashcards.
That’s a sucker’s bet actually; my fellow SpanishPod teammates were all polyglots and flashcard advocates. You could tell they were advocates because there were flashcards sitting on our desk, untouched, and they all felt guilty about not drilling themselves with them every day. I, on the other hand, don’t give a rat’s ass for flashcards, as you all know.
But back to my original point: I aquired a degree of fluency in three other languages as an adult and I didn’t memorize SHIT. I studied it in context, yes, I looked it up when I couldn’t deduce if from context or cognate, but there was zero drilling, zero self quizzing, zero memorizing. And zero flashcards, in any form.