Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Language Learning: Making it Memorable

An important part of living in Mexico as a foreigner is being immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment. Many newly-arrived expats I meet in Mérida ask me about how or where they should study Spanish. I decided to write about it, and soon realized that the topic is worth several installments. This is the first of several planned posts about language learning.

fecunidad -- feminine noun (a) (fertilidad) fertility (b) (productividad) productiveness

(from Webster's New World Concise Spanish Dictionary, Second Edition)

I will never, ever forget the Spanish word, fecunidad, which is an equivalent of the word fertility in English. The word is unforgettable because it was tattooed on my brain at the age of sixteen when my prim and proper high school Spanish teacher said the F-word in class.

The teacher, Miss Reitsma, was about forty years old and still lived with her parents. Knowing everything, we teenagers were all pretty sure that Miss Reitsma had very little experience in certain aspects of life, if you know what I mean.

One afternoon in Intermediate Spanish dear Miss R tried to point out the latin root of the vocabulary word
fecunidad by comparing it to the very similar fecundity, a synonyn of fertility in English. But poor, innocent Miss Reitsma, pronouncing the syllables separately as she did in English, "Fuh-K-UN-di-ty," didn't seem to understand why the roomful of dirty-minded adolescents broke up laughing before she had finished uttering the second syllable. Miss Reitsma had a brave heart. She tried a couple of times to pronounce fecundity, but only succeeded in provoking louder waves of snorts and giggles.

She failed that day to demonstrate how to decode word meanings by comparing the roots with similar known words. So, Miss Reitsma did as she sometimes did when things were not going well in the classroom. She loudly sighed. She then, as she often did at these junctures, gazed blankly and a bit sadly into the distance outside the classroom window. As the level of animated chatter in the classroom rose, Miss Reitsma, seemingly oblivious, began a little monologue in French (she was a double language major), "Je ne comprends pas..."

The point of the story is that memorable experiences make learning a language easier by helping to form connections that imprint new concepts in the memory. When you're having fun, are surprised or laughing, for instance, it's easy to enjoy the diversion. When an activity is meaningful and engaging, the learning becomes natural and pleasurable. In these situations, the task can seem almost effortless. Anyone who has been involved in a romance in a foreign language will attest to how rapidly they learned to communicate with their lover. In fact, they will tell you that, even decades later, many important words and phrases from that learning are still easy to recall.

When we were small our parents didn't "teach" us language. We soaked it up by observing and participating in life, nursing, eating, having our clothes or diapers changed and playing with family and caregivers. Although as adult language learners it helps us to have a knowlegeable person explain and clarify grammar, structural elements and provide context for vocabulary and cultural knowlege, we still learn more effectively and better retain the knowledge if it is gained while involved in engaging activity.

How can you have these sorts of language-learning experiences?

Well, Miss Reitsma didn't set about to create a memorable situation that day when she brought the house down. It was just an accident. However these days there are many language teachers who try to make language learning interesting and memorable.

If you are shopping for a language class, it's important to find one of these teachers. Find someone who tries to create interesting situations. Look for a teacher who creates ways for you to actively participate in your learning as opposed to the traditional, didactic approach that consists of lots of time with an instructor standing in front of a room explaining, drilling, then having students memorize quantities of rules and words as homework. The didactic approach is still widely used in Mexican schools, so you will find teachers who use traditional methods. Look for a course or instructor who takes a balanced approach, with an emphasis on active student involvement. You'll need structure and will want explanations, but you also want the material to be of interest, readily applicable in your life and presented in an engaging manner.

It is possible to become proficient in another language, and although you have to invest some effort, it doesn't have to be a grind. I'll share more experiences in my next post.


  1. Your tale is such a hoot! And I've just discovered that I've been looking at what I thought was your home page, unchanged since our November visit, waiting for you to put up something new. Today I'm delighted, but embarrassed to discover, that I've neglected your last half dozen posts (since Alberto). I promise to pay closer attention henceforth.


  2. Well, Eric, welcome back to the blog. I noticed on your blog (and you later confirmed by email) that you were in Mérida. Glad you had a good time. Let me know next time you are in coming so we can be sure to get together.


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