Strategy use, learning and forgetting

I’m still working through Llingo and complementing it a bit here and there with the Memrise alphabet course. This morning I was quite excited (sad, I know), to complete a session with prepositions. On the assumption that there is no verb to be in the present tense in Thai (I have no idea whether this is the case or not, I’m just overextending my knowledge of Mandarin for no other reason than they are in a similar geographical area), this means that I can now say some more complete sentences. Somehow preposition use makes me feel like I’m really getting somewhere – much more so than just simple statements such as ‘the man drinks’.

The sentences were long, and some of them were only presented to me aurally, but mostly I got them right. Mostly this involved a fair bit of thought, a repetition and a conscious scanning of my mental lexicon to translate them, but every now and then I had a sense of automatisation.

But there was another process/ product thing going on. The way the app is set up, it tells me something (in writing, or aurally) and I have to pick the picture which best describes it. So here, the product is getting the right answer in the form of picking the correct picture, even if I don’t fully get what is going on. I am still focussed on my words ‘boy’ ‘girl’ ‘woman’ or ‘man’ – now supplemented by other nouns. I am working out which is the right picture without necessarily grasping the correct preposition – after all, there isn’t a picture of the girl under the bus stop, on top of the bus stop and inside the bus stop – so as long as I get ‘girl’ and ‘bus stop’ I will get the answer right.

Strategy use has been a big thing in Applied Linguistics and there’s plenty of evidence out there that seems to suggest that, at the very least, strategy use correlates with proficiency, and some evidence suggesting that strategy use brings about language learning. But I’m now wondering the extent to which task design plays a part in this. Because in what I’ve done today, my strategy use isn’t helping me learn my prepositions. Sure it’s reinforcing my nouns, but but I can fudge it without the prepositions.

There’s another random thought I’ve had – and that’s about forgetting. So, there was a section I wrote about where there were six verbs – run walk jump stand sit and lie. I got good at them. And then I didn’t revise them – the next chapter went on to something else. One or two of them came up again in my section on prepositions. The best I could tell you is that I knew we had covered them in the past. But I couldn’t tell you what any of them meant (even though my app still has a lovely shiney 100% next to that chapter). The conscientious learner in me had a little panic. Should I go back over them and revise? Help, I learned them and I forgot them – even though I’m sure I did them the 10 times that ‘research’ says I need to in order for them to move into long term memory (but not on the right time-scale!) Now, I’m a conscientious language learner – I wonder how the typical teenager feels in a modern language classroom when the same situation arises. Here’s a word I know we’ve done but I’ve forgotten it. Oh no, I’m rubbish. I am grasping some of what’s going on but I feel out of my depth… then when my mate shouts to me across the classroom, that’s instantly more appealing.

I was at a conference yesterday about langauge learning in secondary school, and this brings me to two things that different speakers mentioned. One – that vocabulary teaching should be built up really carefully with lots of repetition, and that there’s a huge risk inherent in topic-based learning that whole sets of vocabulary get learned within a certain context, then totally forgotten again (as exemplified by my ‘stand run jump’) etc. Second, that there’s a school of thought (not empirifically justified, but worth considering), that says that language learning should be absolutely transparent. Every word needs to be understood. Aiming for approximate understanding, they say, will lead to confusion and demotivation. It certainly would have helped with my prepositions, although for other reasons I’m not convinced. More on that next time.

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Author: Kedi Simpson

I'm a teacher of modern foreign languages in a UK school and have nearly finished my Master's in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at Oxford University. Former journalist, doula and childbirth educator.

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