viernes, 9 de mayo de 2014


                                                           MEMORY ACTIVATION


Following the guideline of an Open System model for language teaching/learning within a frame focused towards accelerated learning, I must objectively deal with the “memorisation problems” which so much scientific and pseudo-scientific literature has been producing during the last decades.

            As the participant finds himself actively acting during the formulation of personal sentences about many diverse and spontaneous themes, he logically understands the way to construct such sentences and all new sentences he will eventually produce during the rest of the course. Let us remember that his reference is his own language; therefore, he does not need theoretical descriptive grammar explanations in order to learn to communicate. Instead, the target language of the course will be gradually compared with the mother tongue of the participant. Even the same mistakes must be translated with the participants, given that this helps them avoid typical errors and get familiarised with the language, as for example, the verb “telefonear” in Spanish. Most of the participants will fall in the trap of saying “Yo teléfono,” which is incorrect and sounds in Spanish as if someone said in English “I am a telephone” or in Danish “Jeg er en telefon.” These types of mistakes, besides stimulating laughter in the participants, thus creating a friendly environment, are useful in order for them to compare how ordinary expressions would sound if they were mistakenly used by foreigners in their own language. Such discernment stimulates them, so they will pay more attention to little phonetic, syntactic, and semantic details, for it is obvious that they would not like to speak the target language as foreigners do when the latter speak incorrectly their own language. Here, fear of shame plays a relevant psychological role, stimulating the participant to pronounce words the best way possible, to structure phrases and sentences with the greatest coherence possible and, likewise, to construct complete ideas with the best congruence possible.

            In the example given above, the instructor simultaneously indicates the participant that even the last letter must be pronounced, when he is dealing with any regular verb, before reaching the infinitive form’s ending, placing the appropriate ending depending on the corresponding personal pronoun. Well, instead of giving the participant such a grandiose explanation as this one, he is simply told “Careful: ‘yo teléfono’ is as if I said ‘I am a telephone’ in your language.” Once the initial laughter is gone, the person immediately pays more attention to verb conjugation.

     We have to face the known fact that, in any European country, or more generally, in any country where Western culture is dominant, 80% of its inhabitants ignore their own language’s descriptive grammar. Therefore, it is illogical to try to teach a language based upon grammar rules and it is even worse to use “grammar explanations” which are not adequate for a common mortal, but rather for Linguistics and Philology specialists. We must take into account that all people who want to learn a foreign language by means of an accelerated course are only and exclusively interested in communicating in that target language, not in becoming phonetic, morphosyntactic, or – even less – semantic specialists. The only thing intended is to speak it and understand it. Once the participant controls his speech, perhaps he will later like to write it correctly, for which purpose I would recommend him a little grammar in order to know writing rules. But in that moment, he will not need any language instructor, for he already masters the language, and what he has to do is to train himself to write it skilfully. It is practically the same way in which we learned to study grammar in our own language. In other words, pure and formal grammar courses started when we were 7 or 8 years old. In that moment, we were both mentally and linguistically ready to analyse and delve into our own language – we already spoke it almost perfectly from a point of view of native speakers.

            I have indeed reliably confirmed all this. It is true that there are people who, although they are very successful in their professional and social life, have no idea about what an Undetermined or a Determined Article is. Consequently, the most correct way to teach those essential elements in order to construct coherent sentences is through comparison with their own language. Thus, instead of talking to an English participant about Determined Articles, it would be better to tell him that “the” is “el/la/los/las” in Spanish, inducing him by means of spontaneous exercises to understand its Gender and Number connotations, saving him precious time that would otherwise be devoted to morphosyntactic comprehension. All the exercises that spontaneously arise must have their counterpart in the language of the participant – especially, as I said before, in the basic levels.

            The other side of the coin, i.e. teaching without descriptive grammar but only using the target language from the first day, is obviously a waste of time and energy. Indeed, I have confirmed that those institutes which use such method only and plainly use it for one reason: their instructors do not speak but the target language. They do not master any other language. This, in my opinion, is an aberrant cynicism, given that we already know that any adult needs an “explanation” of some kind in his own language even at intermediate levels. Participants to whom I have taught English or Spanish who had previously participated in courses where they were “sold” the idea of the “Natural Method” always tell me that things went very well on the first day, given that things were as easy as “good morning-good afternoon-good night,” but from the time when the text’s dialogue became complicated – third or fourth day – comprehension was minimal, given that it was a process of guessing, the instructor playing the clown trying to mimic things as, for example, “Mañana voy a trabajar por la mañana, pero no por la tarde.” Show me how one can explain that with mimics! This way, nobody was really sure of what the “Natural Method” instructor or text was trying to say.

            Once the beginners have understood the logic of the target language by means of phonetic, morphosyntactic, and semantic exercises, it will be time for what we call “Memoristic Retention” to start operating, not before. It is impossible to remember things which we do not understand. Our memory does not work by accumulating illogical data. On the contrary, it is essential for our memory that the information with which it is working in a given moment is totally logical and as transparent as possible. Therefore, all those fake courses about “improving your memory” or “exercising your memory” have no room in any way whatsoever in the way I perceive language teaching or any other type of teaching. And that was one of the fundamental errors of Lozanov with his Suggestological Method. To Lozanov, it was essential that people would “memorise” hundreds and thousands of words during his sessions. The small but transcendental mistake consists in not understanding that, in order to master a foreign language, the goal is not to learn “by heart” a countless number of words, but rather to learn from the first moment how to coherently structure known words in order to create a correct sentence, congruently structuring the sentences being produced with the intention of creating a reasonable and fluent conversation. I call this the Process of Speech Spontaneity. The important aspect is not the number of words that a participant “remembers” in a given moment, but rather learning how to spontaneously use already “remembered” words in many different situations. The fact of knowing many words in the target language does not imply at all that the person is able to speak that language fluently and correctly. Indeed, many participants coming to my Spanish courses know a great number of words in Spanish and have lived in Spain during 5, 10, 15, 20, or – I have had some – 25 years. Obviously, these individuals had listened and learned many words and had participated in many conventional courses, etc. Nevertheless, they came to me because what they needed was to learn to construct coherent sentences and hold congruent conversations. They made such huge mistakes as “Yo gusto,” which translated to English would be something as “me like” or the Danish “mig kan lide.” Such expression, as it was used for many years without ever realising that their strongly rooted habit was a mistake, is very hard to erase from the participant’s lexicon. By the way, it is very difficult to work with this kind of participants: one must first “clean” all the errors they have acquired throughout so many years and then teach them to speak properly.

            For this reason, in brief, memorising material which makes no sense for the participant is a waste of time and, in the end, the participant subjectively believes he has a “bad memory,” given that “he is already too old to learn a foreign language,” as well as many other false conclusions which frustrate and inhibit people in their attempt to learn something new. They do not even realise that this is due to the method or methods with which they have been tried to be taught. This is so true, that when participants come to my courses, many amongst them tell me that they always – for many years – have been only using the Simple Present tense. “And clearly, people understood what I meant,” they tell me, “but now that I know how to use the Past and Future tenses, I realise how ridiculous I sounded.” A typical example would be: “Ayer voy a la playa,” which translated to English would be “yesterday I go to the beach” or Danish, “I går, går jeg på stranden.”

            In many courses, I have been astonished to find out that many participants between the ages of 78 and 82 had a fantastic memory capacity. But of course, they first had to logically understand the contents of what was being exposed and then their memory started to operate wonderfully. I am not at all saying that they retained information as quickly as participants aged 20 would. They did not, but they retained most of the given material and learned how to use it effectively in their social environment. And that, I believe, is the essential aspect of their achievement.

            Therefore, once the inner logic of the target language is understood, memory activates itself. This activation of memory, by means of logic, implies that the organism learns through experience. The participant himself has to “discover” that logic in the target language. The instructor’s duty is to guide him towards that “discovery.” When the “Aha" experience takes place and the participant realises how mechanical the procedure indeed is, as it happens, for example, with all regular verb conjugation in Spanish, his memory triggers and the fact of creating an infinite number of sentences as he “plays” with these regular verbs is a real pleasure for the participant, enabling him to create true spontaneous conversations with the instructor. When the participant has assimilated the mechanics of regular verbs, I actually proceed to teach him, little by little, irregular verbs – exceptions. Doing the opposite is absurd. Many participants in my courses have told me that the first thing they had learned in Spanish was the verb “ser” (to be), which is irregular. And besides having spent several days “memorising” said verb, they thought that all Spanish verbs possessed such characteristics (they thought there was no logical mechanics), which is not true for the vast majority of verbs.

This is why I find the Chomskian idea that language is a creative activity as totally correct. The instructor’s role as a motivator is essential. Without a good motivator, any intensive language course would be doomed to fail. As I explained before, it could be said that the participant’s interest indeed already exists innately, his acting being the one to produce the necessary energy to learn quickly. However, if the instructor does not give the proper spontaneous and effective feedback to acting, interest declines drastically and results, consequently, are not the same. The instructor must know at all times the specific cognitive structure of the participant, the one which must possess what David Ausubel called “logical meaning,” which we must be able to intentionally and substantially relate to the corresponding and pertinent stage in which the cognitive structure of the participant is available in a given moment. This “logical meaning” obviously refers to the inherent characteristics of the elements to be learned and to their nature.

            This way of learning apparently existed already – although not for language teaching, unfortunately – in Ancient Greece. Mimetic poetry was first developed in Greece in the VIIIth century B.C. Homeric works were learned by heart by the students. Writing was almost never used, but rather any everyday message required a mimetic poetry effort. This gave place to the development of poetry in Ancient Greece, where rhyme was of great help for the quick and effective memorisation of verses. This conception was eventually carried on to Plato’s era (IVth century B.C.) with the name of dialectic poetry. This was, let us say, the summit of Socrates’ methodology of refutation and elenchus dialogue. This way, a different form or orality was born and developed. This was an orality created by philosophers. Dialectic poetry, used exclusively by Thales of Miletus and Socrates, had as its purpose to stimulate logical thought in the individual. Indeed, dialectic poetry’s full development is the basis of our so-called Western culture. The use of logic for learning and not only pure and simple repetition of mimetic orality which is, as I have said before, important but only using it sporadically and not giving it unlimited importance, caused dialectic poetry to also influence the development of writing. All written texts have to be somehow related to the world of sound, which is language’s natural environment. It is true that writing has created civilisation, but it is also true that “reading” a text means to turn it into sounds, either out loud or inside one’s mind, syllable after syllable. Writing never holds without orality, dialectic orality being the one that makes us understand logically the inherent mechanisms in a given system, in our case, a new language. However, without making it less important, mimetic poetry becomes part of the Open System of dialectic poetry, and not the opposite. I make myself clear: good memorisation depends on the good logic of the contents. It is necessary to first be able to understand things in order to memorise them. Not as was done in Homer’s era, where children learned “by heart” several episodes of the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to recite them in public without understanding anything at all about its logical meaning. Fortunately, dialectic orality ended such state of things. However, it seems that, with the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages, the method of dialectic poetry was left to oblivion.

            I hope this explanation makes clear that the role of the instructor in accelerated language courses must be that of a facilitator and not of an inhibitor. It is obvious that the participant’s knowledge of his mother tongue facilitates the task towards his learning of the target language. The Chomskian concept of “competence” is itself integrated to the vernacular language of the participant. It is equally obvious that during the unfolding of the course, the participant learns to apply his own instruction strategies. It is necessary that the instructor develops the ability to allow the strategies, maybe innate, of the participant determine our way of teaching in a specific moment and under specific circumstances and that said participant determines our Open System as well. It is more effective, because of the results’ speed, as well as for psychological connotations already exposed, to learn to adapt to the needs of the participant rather than imposing on him and inhibiting him with our preconceived ideas about how to learn, what to learn, and when to learn it, following the guide of a simple “textbook” conceived by then current “experts.” I think that the idea is even more precise and explicit as stated by von Humboldt: “Indeed, we cannot teach a language, but only create the conditions in which it develops properly and spontaneously in the mind. We shall never be able to improve our ability to create such favourable conditions until we know more about the way in which the student learns and the characteristics of his internal program.”

The latent language structure already described by Eric H. Lenneberg leads us to conclude the same statement regarding a Teaching/Learning Open System. Of course, I believe there is a latent psychological structure which is waiting for the moment to be activated when an adult tries to produce sentences and dialogues in the target language he is learning. The participant’s own language is an essential part of this latent psychological – and I would dare say physiological – structure. This is also clear to me, as it is certain that the most “difficult” language for an adult to learn is the second language, for all the information is at first totally new for the participant who only speaks one language. But for those participants who already master two languages, learning a third one is easier, and a fourth one is even easier, etc. This is why, when people ask me which nationality is “better” or “worse” when it comes to learning languages, I emphatically reply that nationality is not a condition for that purpose, but rather the number of languages a person masters already. It does not matter if languages are correlated or not. I make myself clear: I have had participants who spoke perfect Portuguese or French, for example, and given the similarities between these two Latin languages and Spanish, the course has been easy for them from the very start, results showing quickly. Likewise, I have had participants who master Finnish, Russian, or Swedish, for example, and who have been as quick as those who mastered Latin languages, for they were aware that what they had to do at all times was to get fully and deeply involved with the new linguistic system, and nothing else. Therefore, inhibitions, fears, and other barriers in the participants who speak only one language do not exist and learning becomes more fluent.

            Similarly, I have had participants who spoke seven or eight languages and, when they came to me, reached level 3 in 50 sessions. If we take into account that for each normal participant, reaching level 3 requires 150 sessions, one may very well appreciate the difference. Besides, I want to add that those persons who learned in a rather vertiginous way came from countries as different as the Netherlands, Iran, and South Africa.

            Now we may confirm that learning must conduce to a significant change of the experience, in the words of David Ausubel: it must be a simple change of behaviour. It must enrich the participant in all senses. Not only, as in our case, for the acquisition of a new language in the short term, but also and consequently, I would say, for personal development which provides the participant with increasingly satisfactory and healthy self-confidence in his development of the target language and directly in his whole personality. The use of what I consider as the creative memory, together with the dialectic poetry, is the basis of the Speech Spontaneity Process, which will be analysed later.

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