Back to School Part Three: lessons of forgetting and laughter

They say that learning a foreign language is a good way of avoiding dementia in later life, but with learning Russian I sometimes feel that maybe dementia has already set in! Words taught mere seconds ago can become a blank and I find myself stuck in a loop of asking “What’s that word?” and “How do you say …. again?” I’m obviously not the first student to face this problem, and for many, it can lead to the feeling that they are somehow ‘bad at languages’ or maybe just a useless person full stop!

How far such negative feelings take over has something to do with a student’s own resilience, but it also has to do with how the teacher (we might even call them the carer!) responds to this state of forgetting. In brief, telling students that “I just told you” or saying “Don’t you remember?” or “But I taught you this last lesson” in a tone of barely suppressed incredulity really isn’t going to help! And the lower the level, the more true that will be, as students are probably already in a vulnerable state as they’re stripped of their ability to communicate their thoughts and personality. So, as teachers, we might think more about how we can build up students’ resilience and maintain their motivation through the inevitable stages of forgetting.

Most of you are probably already aware of the idea that it takes several encounters with a word for it to become part of your productive vocabulary. Most studies suggest a minimum of six encounters, but as this article makes clear, it could easily be 20 – and might even be an unlimited limited of encounters in some cases! I think it would certainly help students develop their resilience to forgetting language if they knew this fact, but I think it might also help to go a bit further than that. Students may be tempted to see this ‘statistic’ as describing a kind of quantum leap in learning, where we fail completely in our remembering of words the first five times and then suddenly on the sixth time (or seventh or eighth or whatever), we get the word. The reality is that it’s better seen as a tipping point, where each time we’re adding something to our learning, even if each time fails to allow us to communicate the meaning we want (yet). Eventually, we have accumulated enough exposure to tip the balance towards an item becoming an active part of our vocabulary. With my current efforts, I feel that the ‘something’ which is added by each new encounter with words I’ve already met before could be any of the following:

– remembering I have seen the word

– the basic meaning when I see it

– the shape of the word when I try to recall it (Is it long or short, for example)

– the memory of certain letters being present (though not necessarily the memory of the correct order they should appear in!)

– the beginning or end of the word

– the right word, but the wrong grammar form

– the right word, but badly pronounced

– (occasionally) a correct word, but applied to the wrong meaning

And of course, this excludes the point where I basically can produce the words in some form, but then can’t hear them when they’re spoken to me or I can hear them, but then can’t process them quickly enough as part of a ‘text’ for me to be able to take part in an exchange!

I should also note that there seems to be no linearity about this. Sometimes I find I remember the correct beginning of a word, but then next time, I remember the end, but not the beginning! Words which I have successfully pronounced a few times can then become somewhat mangled again.

The other thing to recognise is that there is a big difference between the receptive matching of reading a word and matching it to a meaning in L1 (English in my case) and recalling the Russian word / phrase from memory. I have been using Quizlet a lot. I create cards from a list or from phrases that have come up in class. The app then has the following stages in its ‘learning’ phase:

1) Match a meaning (which in my case is a translation in L1) to a choice of L2 target words/phrases.

2) A word or phrase in L2 is given and you have to recall the meaning in L1.

3) You’re given the L1 meaning and have to write – correctly – the target word/phrase in L2.

There are times that I can go through stages 1 and 2, but then reach 3 and pretty much don’t know where to start! Almost all I will be able to remember is whether it was a long or a short word! That’s pretty strange when you think about it. You can read and understand a word several times, but then have no memory that can help you start to produce it. Maybe that’s partly why just reading on its own is so poor as a strategy for acquiring language.

I won’t focus on specific strategies to help memorise words and chunks here, but I will comment on the teacher’s role. Firstly, teachers can keep things light and laugh problems off. Laughter, of course, is a bit tricky. There is laughing at someone, which may make them feel stupid, and then there’s the laughter with – making light of something – or laughter out of joy.

I think we know which we are doing as teachers . . . and students know it too, because what goes around the laughter in each case is different. Laughing that makes light of things comes out of the teacher being interested enough and patient enough to try to understand what the student is saying, and fully comes from the triumph of actually getting there. ‘Oh, you mean this!’ That’s motivating for a student because the teacher is already showing that what the student said wasn’t wholly wrong. It may, of course, also come from the student (me!) finding humour in the absurdity of the mental effort needed to recall something so small, but I still need the teacher to share that. I sometimes also praise myself – “Well, I got three letters”! And, in the case of my teacher Anita, she shares that joy at some progress and at other times also points it out.

Obviously, that kind of laughter and lightness may happen whatever methodology the teacher chooses and I would say that I have certainly seen it with at least one teacher in the more traditional ‘grammar’ classes I’ve taken part in. However, I’d say that there is also something about grammar-focused methodology that also can reduce the opportunities for recall and for laughter at forgetting.

Firstly, if we are to increase recall of vocabulary, really you need to allow students greater freedom to have their own conversations where they have to search for words. While I would say that the book we use in our more traditional course makes good efforts to recycle words in exercises and texts, there are few, if any, opportunities for students to talk about themselves and communicate using what they know so far. And if language is just seen and not used, it might never be remembered. What’s more, if the student is just producing different kinds of transformations where they are given the words, inevitably the only focus is going to be on a narrow area of accuracy. There’s no need for the teacher to struggle to understand, no need for them to show interest in what the student is saying beyond whether or not it’s the right form. And where recall is reduced to forms of a word, there is also less opportunity for a student to show most of the incremental stages of progress mentioned above, and less to celebrate! In such circumstances, it is easier for any laughter that is generated to become more a kind of mockery.

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2 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Bekes says:

    Hi, Hugh, were you referring to this book in the title?

    The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
    by Milan Kundera,
    Aaron Asher (Translator),
    Serena Vitale (translator)

    I hope you enjoyed it. One of my all time favourites.

    Take care,


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