Memorization and Becoming Fluent

In their book on foreign language learning in adults called “Becoming Fluent,” the authors Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz bring research in the field of cognitive science to bear on the  question of how best to study a foreign language if you are an adult.

In the seventh chapter called “Making Memories …”, they discuss what cognitive science has to say regarding the process of forming long-term memories, and what ways to study a foreign language are best suited to take advantage of them.

  1. Working Memory

As opposed to long-term memory, short-term memory or “working memory” is used to actively manipulate mental contents.   Many factors effect the size of one’s working memory but multitasking DEFINITELY decreases it.   So when you are trying to learn a foreign language, try to filter out distractions such as checking one’s e-mail, or checking out an IM on Facebook.    Avoidance of multitasking is a good idea in any type of work that requires mental concentration, but this is especially true when studying a foreign language.

2. Shallow vs. deep processing

Shallow processing of vocabulary means focusing on the superficial characteristics of words such as how they are printed, or how they sound, whereas deep processing focuses on the meaning of words.    A lot of people study vocabulary through a series of flashcards, either actual ones or virtual ones such as the ones found on apps such as Anki or Memrise. The problem about using a word in another language to trigger the word that means the same in a different language is that you can focus too much on the appearance or sound of the word itself and not on its meaning.   This is why I like the app iKnow! because it gives each vocabulary item in Japanese or Chinese together with a sample sentence.   This means that you are focusing on the meaning of each word rather than its sound or the shape of its kanji.    On the other hand, Chinese characters are a form of writing where concentrating on the shape of the components may give you clues to the deeper meaning of the word.   The word for “electricity” has the radical element meaning “rain” on top of a radical element that looks like a box kite with a tail.   These superficial shapes can lead you to picture a story such as Benjamin Franklin taking out a box kite under a rain cloud and discovering the phenomenon of electricity, exactly what the character means.

3. Maintenance rehearsal vs. elaborative rehearsal

When you repeat a vocabulary in a mechanical way hoping by brute force to enter one’s long-term memory, you are using maintenance rehearsal.   When you repeat a vocabulary item by trying to connect it with other vocabulary items (for example, by learning the words for “knife” and “fork” when you learn the word “spoon” so you can relate them all to the concept of “tableware”), you are using elaborative rehearsal which is much more effective.

I will continue to discuss these cognitive skills related to memory, and how they relate to learning a foreign language, in the next post.




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