A disquieting observation about learning languages and teaching retrieval skills

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So I am teaching … let’s say Esperanto. It doesn’t really matter. Spanish, French, Japanese or German, the problems are mostly the same. Spanish problems are somewhat worse . Too many students effectively have been obliged to learn Spanish. Counselors set them up with the two required years of a foreign language for college applications and, if students have no particular interest in any foreign language, they are usually channelled into Spanish, which is perceived as useful and easiest to learn.

But it takes about 5,000 words in a language to manage daily life and more like 10,000 – 20,000 to be effectively fluent. Well-educated speakers of English may have a vocabulary in excess of 50,000 or even 75,000 words. That’s a lot of words to stuff into a brain, especially a reluctant brain.

There’s no shortcut either. There’s no magic Spanish or German calculator that will get a student around the fact that they don’t know how to construct a sentence. Yes, they can look up words on their phone. But they can’t simply plug in words and have some electronic device spit out the answer.

(Actually, they can if they know enough. I used an online translation program to write a thank-you letter in Portuguese once. But I know a great deal about romance languages. A beginning language student often can’t tell if a translation program is giving correct answers. Students try to use these programs and the cheating is apparent and sometimes pretty funny. For example, I put a line from a French version of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” into a translation engine. I left out the accents, as students frequently do. “On n’avait encore jamais vu dans Privet Drive quelque chose qui ressemblat a cette homme” became “We had never yet seen in Harry’s Adventure Begins At Number Four Privet Drive something that ressemblat has this man.” Then I tried the Spanish for the same line: “En Privet Drive nunca se habia visto un hombre asi.” and got  “On Privet Drive had never seen a man as well. The correct English translation is something like “No one had ever seen a man like this on Privet Drive.” I can’t give the word-for-word translation because I loaned my English copy of this Potter book to a Spanish-speaking student. I will say this: I have done my part to help make J.K. Rowling rich. That Number Four Privet Drive in the French translation is especially interesting because the original phrase has nothing like “Number Four” in it. I seem to have stumbled into some associated translation. I checked and put the phrase in twice. That’s an intriguing glitch in the translation company software.)

To get back on track: Teachers are taught to emphasize information retrieval skills using available technology. They are taught to use critical thinking questions to stimulate making connections between disciplines. The problem is that these approaches do not work well in early foreign language studies.

Teaching retrieval skills may be fine for history or or psychology, but languages require drilling and memorization. Even if you take a conversational approach, forcing a word into long-term memory requires repetition. What does it take for a person to become fluent in another language? Among other things, he or she has to learn and remember a great many new words and ideas.

I am seeing far too many students who consider the idea of memorization an imposition. More importantly, I am seeing far too many students who don’t know how to memorize new words, facts or ideas. I help them by making suggestions: 1) Play an online language game. 2) Make some flashcards. 3) Write your notes so that you can cover up a word or its definition and work your way down a list. 4) Ask a friend to go through new vocabulary with you. Etc.

I shouldn’t have to be teaching this to fifteen and sixteen year olds.