Other than the fence blowing apart, the water dispersing across the kitchen floor and the flashing antics of the oven, I’ve had a reasonably quiet week. Buried in grammar books, my mind remains settled and content. It has problems it can mull over: little things that keep it occupied. And for me at least, immersed in literature, the dullness of reality doesn’t seem so bad. I fear though that the lack of novelty in my life doesn’t make my writing particularly exciting. And that the lack of input results in a regurgitation of the same small thoughts. Despite normally being able to conjure an emotional calamity wherever I place myself – and thereby excuse myself from clear thinking – my moods remain mundane, and I fear my thoughts boring.
Literature fills a gap, but it can’t replace the excitement of screwing up.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Note the dummy variable. If anything, I tend to be an optimist. And these thoughts (about adverbials and complements, relative adjectives or attributional nouns) do make me professionally more competent. There is no doubt that my understanding of the grammatical differences between Spanish and English is helpful to my students. That was an example of a cleft sentence. No doubt I’m also developing a deeper awareness of the prejudice that obnubilates the distinction between how I speak, what my father considers correct, fustian language, beautiful language, clear language and phrasing that compels action…
Bonus points for guessing which of the above words I learnt this week.
My favourite new word is ‘pratfall’, which is American (but let’s not be prejudiced), and ought to be used by football commentators both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Now I’ve written it on the blog I shall wait for my parents to throw it into some dinnertime conversation. Thanks to the pandemic, they are learning grammar whether they like it or not. Accidental language awareness helps too. I was pretty chuffed when a student mistakenly wrote ‘to probe’ meaning ‘to try’ and I suddenly realised the connection between ‘probe’ and the Spanish ‘probar’.
“You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.”
My mum used to despair at how tangled my hair would get when I was little. Both me and my little sister have great volumes of hair. So much that it even amazed the hairdresser. It’s long, mostly straight, but comes at you from every angle. After an hour or two of playing in the garden it did look like we’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.
It used to get into the most dreadful knots.
I remember my mum lecturing my dad on the importance of using conditioner
After giving us our baths one evening, and sending the first of us downstairs to have our freshly washed hair combed, my dad thought he had done a good job. That was until my mum tried combing our hair. My dad had not used any conditioner and so the dry, rough hairs matted together. However, hard my mum tugged, the comb wouldn’t go through.
We returned to the bathroom, and with a dollop of gloopy conditioner she smoothed the hairs, making them less likely to catch on one another. Finally, she could untangle our hair.
Conditioner was not optional in our family. It was essential for pain-free combing.
But how can we apply these principles for pain-free language learning?
Context is the extra gloop you need so new vocabulary lays smoothly in your mind
Unless we have context, all that vocabulary becomes knotted. You’ll have words you know you know but can’t remember, and words you know but are meaningless because you have no idea of what they mean.
As we get more proficient learning, we tend to start thinking that we’re cleverer than we once were. We repeat a word a few times in our heads and imagine that we’re just going to remember it. We rarely do. Instead, the words that stick are those that we feel something about, the ones we’ve used, the ones we have associated with other ideas.
Which is why learning with context matters
However, context is not simply a matter of learning all the words to do with the beach in Tuesday afternoon’s class and words to do with a hospital all in Friday morning’s class. And it’s often impractical to go to the beach or the hospital for a language lesson.
Instead, sometimes you need to play pretend
If the vocabulary is about going to the beach, then perhaps pack your bag and get ready for a beach trip, noting the vocabulary you’re coming across as you engage with the items. These items can become a show and tell game. Everyone has a story about a time they visited a hospital. How many of the words you’re learning can you fit into your story?
Perhaps a brief account of that time you went to the beach, when your son was stung by a jellyfish, had an allergic reaction and ended up in the accident and emergency department. Use props.
Does it feel a little childish?
Probably. Sitting behind a desk and writing words on a piece of paper is often easier than acting a story. There’s less chance you’ll look foolish. I don’t say it lightly. I’d take silent reading over charades any day. However, if you watch children playfully learning to speak a language, it’s hard not to be jealous of how they adapt.
Moving around in role-play (games of mummy, daddy and baby dolly for example), drawing pictures and singing songs might seem childish, but children do these things because it’s how they learn.
We learn in three distinct ways
Kinaesthetic learning is about doing. This means lying down on the floor and pretending to sunbathe. Having a make-believe conversation with a friend in which you argue about the price of an ice-cream, with one person playing the role of vendor, and the other playing the role of sunburnt tourist.
Visual learning is about pictures. Photos are great because they refer to specific memories. But making a collage from magazines (or a travel brochure), drawing pictures, doodling and watching videos all helps.
Auditory learning is about hearing. What television adverts can you find telling you to visit so and so country. Or look up adverts for package holidays or airlines. But even small things help, like putting on a recording of the sea, gentle sloshing waves, or squawking seagulls and children crying.
There are many online tests to work out your predominant learning strategy, but you will learn through all three methods, and it’s worth using them all if you can.
All these small context prompts act like conditioner
They organise the vocabulary in your mind, allowing you to move through the words to find what you’re looking for. It stops you getting stuck on the wrong word, instead you can think of others and keep up the momentum. Like the comb sliding through the hair. Finally, you land on, if not the perfect word, something you can use.
With a little bit of context to help organise your brain, your mind won’t feel like it’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.
Textbook learning can tie us in knots. We end up knowing a lot of words, but not necessarily what they mean. Or we can’t reach them, quickly, from our memories.
Building a context helps us integrate the words into our minds.
The building blocks for context building are the visual, kinaesthetic and audio cues that we learn from.
Sometimes it’s worth getting creative about how you find your context
When I first learnt Italian numbers, it was after a glass of wine (or two) during a game of monopoly. The Italian young men whom I was playing with had no qualms about stealing from each other. They would lie openly about who owed whom what amount. And, when convenient, pretending not to understand English.
Determined that the Italians wouldn’t swindle me. I learnt to count my lira, make demands and gesture in wild Italian. It was playful, fun and hard work. Sentences were beyond me, but even a few weeks later, I could order whatever weight of salami Milano I wanted from the butcher. I had all my numbers.
Have fun with your language learning.
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