The dirty tricks of memory

I’ve asked my German partner three times so far to explain to me the German school system – and I’m not trying to say that the system is so complicated that someone needs powerpoint to explain it. The nerving thing is, I still don’t remember what ‘Oberschulreife’ is, and how that is different from, say, ‘Fachochschulreife’, and what the ‘Sekundarstufe I’ is, contrasted to ‘Sekundarstufe II’. After putting this failure down to my aging brain cells, I took a more constructive approach and played back the film of our conversations on the topic of German schools.

That’s how I realised that although I did understand very well what these notions mean, and although at that moment it felt like I’d connected the German words to a meaning, as soon as we dropped the subject I closed a door in my head. I probably considered it settled, solved, clarified, so it no longer needed attention, and I sort of ‘filed’ it away.

It became therefore clear why my young student claims he has learned the words for our lesson, but as soon as he’s supposed to produce them, he’s (or they are) lost. I’d asked him to tell me what exactly¬†he does to learn the words, step by step. He explained that he first writes the words all over again one under the other, each with their explanation or translation, then he reads them several times, and finally covers one of the columns and tests himself if he can come up with the missing words. Not bad.

But having understood why I still can’t remember the meanings for the German school leaving exams and for the different types of education, I realised that he also closed a door on the English words as soon as he was through with them. When he feels (relatively) confident that he has ‘learned’ them, he most probably puts the papers away and turns on his TV, or starts his computer game, or goes to the kitchen to get himself a slice of toast with Nutella. For the next few days he is the actor in dozens of such small¬†activities until he is sitting again face to face with me, when he’s supposed to recover the meaning of a word like ‘develop’, for example, and then …. SILENCE. There’s an immense blank in his mind; he can remember precisely that he learned the word, what the weather was like outside, and what he had for dinner afterwards; but the word itself has vanished into thin air, as they say.

We’ve done lessons on ‘what we should know about a word if we want to use it correctly’, or on ‘how to learn words effectively’. But all this doesn’t help if he finishes the learning session and then goes on with his life. What learners need to do is to keep their minds in a questioning mode, for example:

What was that word for ‘develop’, once again? – ‘Entwickeln’ or This job involves…, what? – This job involves doING overtime’ and so on, even while watching the advertising break on TV, while waiting for the computer to access a page, or while smearing a toast with whatever goodies.