Remembering to Forget
Tim Hahn, Spain
Tim Hahn is a free-lance teacher/trainer who has been living in Barcelona since 1986. He has been working with Pilgrims since 1983. This is a version of a chapter in Why Language Learning is Hard and How to Make it Easier, a book he is currently writing.
Life would be considerably more challenging than it is, if for example we had to learn how to get to the bathroom every time we needed it, but fortunately memory serves to make the trip automatic, so automatic in fact that we can get up half asleep in the middle of the night and get there and back to bed. Some of us manage the trip without even turning on the lights. This sort of memorization affects our daily habits from things as essential as swallowing without getting food in our lungs to remembering to avoid that crabby old man down the street who manages to darken our mood every time we talk to him. These kinds of memory are useful and life enhancing or even life-saving and more useful than other types.
Socially, it’s considered good form to remember people’s names as well as their faces. It’s often taken as a sign of true interest to remember birthdays and anniversaries, and other significant dates. Actually it’s easy for some people to keep these things in mind. Others have to work at it or use some sort of aide-memoire. The little booklets that at family gatherings my aunts used to compare to keep up-to-date with the latest births in the family are being replaced by specially designed applications in P.C.s. However the dates are recalled the memory of them is usually considered a sign of cordiality, even if the motives are other. I have no doubts that the birthday greetings the bank, the phone company and the department store send me have nothing remotely associated to affection.
We admire people who we consider in possession of a good recall for scholastic matters and sometimes rely on them to refresh our memories when preparing an exam. We may even try to sit next to them when actually taking the exam. There’s always the possibility we can copy a couple of answers from their papers. The truth is in many cases that the person who we perceive of as being gifted with a good memory for scholastic matters is actually a hard-worker who puts in more time or simply uses time more efficiently than the rest of us.
All of us are good at memorizing things. Discussions about dates and special moments between partners and close friends sometimes can only be resolved by checking diaries or dates on photos from the past, but both people remember. They just color their memory with their own perception of life. When we tell stories form the past we usually embellish them. The added details make for a better story. We are always telling tales. Story-telling is a skill we all carry with us. Perhaps it evolved into an art in order to hone our ability to memorize. For a long time in our history only a small part of the population could write and read and story-telling was one of the most efficient ways of relaying information and teaching people how to act.
I tell stories a lot in my classes. Students of every level can count on an anecdote every three or four hours and at least one good, long story every term. The anecdotes of course come from my day-to-day life and require little preparation on my part. I have to decide what tense to use and how much I have to limit my vocabulary, but I aim to tell the stories as naturally and normally as possible. The tales I tell come almost entirely from the collection gathered by Idris Shah and I try very hard to adhere to the vocabulary and turn of phrases he presented. I feel that I need to respect these stories just as much in their language as in their plot. After all they are stories that people have been telling for centuries. Listeners to my stories often comment on how good my memory is to be able to have such a large collection of tales on tap. Memory is obviously an important piece of equipment I need, but just as important is my ability to live the story as I tell it. I never get tired of telling tales. Although it may sound contrived, I experience the stories anew each time I tell them. I give the listeners a journey and I get back a lot in their reactions to the telling. Some stories give me different messages each time I tell them. Preparation takes time and starts with the selection. Is this something I’ll feel comfortable telling? Once selected, I do an outline and redo it once or twice till I’ve got it down to the bare essentials in their proper chronological order. The first few times I always have my notes with me and feel no compunction about using them if I get lost.
There are some powers of memory that are not very useful and even at times harmful. If you eat food that’s gone bad you may experience a physical revulsion the next few times you see it on a plate in front of you. Your memory tells you quite strongly and very directly through a tightening of your gut to avoid it. Unless you’ve developed food allergy you can most likely eat it again with no unpleasant consequences, but your memory warns you to be careful. If you find you can’t bring yourself to trying it again you need to talk to yourself about how attached you are to your bad eating experience. Finding out which foods were edible and which were dangerous needed to be a speedy learning process for our ancestors. Nowadays we cannot let ourselves be at the mercy of an automatic reaction which triggers disgust. We have to actively overcome fear that some memories cause. Falling off a horse is the classic one. The remedy is Get back on, and ride again. These forms of memory are useful only in very specific ways in daily life and the same is true when learning a language. So what if you’ve made the same pronunciation mistake three times in a row. Don’t stop trying. Possibly you should put off trying again for a while, but get back on your tongue and ride again.
A good memory is a blessing and a curse. Dwelling on past memories can be a pleasant way to pass the time. It can also be a quick trip to Blues City. Bad memories linger and being gifted with a strong memory can make us miserable. Everyone has had the experiences of being transported through time into the past to relive a tragic moment. Reliving an unhappy, though not necessarily tragic memory is something most everyone has to contend with. When we let memories of betrayals or deceptions take hold they can turn into grudges which keep us from functioning rationally.
The thing called historical memory is little more than a excuse for a group people to keep in mind past transgressions. Holding a grudge is something individuals do often enough, and in some case historical memory activates a collective grudge which complicates going forward. Time and again I’ve been told that we must remember history in order not to repeat the same mistakes, yet those communities whose memories seem most alive are the very ones who experience shows are most concerned with finding ways of getting revenge. The more we are able to live in the present the less we need to refresh our memories of things that went wrong. They lose their importance when we can be freer to live the moment.
Memory has long been associated with learning. In some instances memorization is an acceptable substitute for learning. Learning some things by heart is the only possibility in certain cases. I can still recall, without a great deal of effort, several sentences from my catechism classes. I learned them well. That is obvious. They’re still available for easy recall. The purpose behind memorizing them is more of a mystery today that when I was 7. Then I just thought of them as more pointless piece of homework, now they provide a basis for doubting the religion lurking behind them. How long have we considered learning something by heart to be learning? Since we learned to tell stories? Since Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain? In the Middle Ages scholars constructed mental memory palaces like Matteo Ricci’s to walk though in their mind associating everything in the rooms with something that needed to be committed to memory. This was a step up from rote learning in that it’s necessary to mentally construct a building, and with practice hundreds of buildings, fully decorated and lavishly outfitted with furniture, ornaments and everything imaginable, and preferably outlandish, to work as mnemonic trigger. According to Ricci we learned this sort of aide-memoire from the Greek poet Simonides whose memory of the places his fellow guests occupied at a banquet before the building came down on top of them was of a great help in identifying the mangled and mixed up bodies.
Some societies elevate memory to a sacred level. Over the centuries members of these groups have developed many ways to reinforce their memories and to help them when they face a memorization-based challenge. Periodically an article appears in the papers or on a web-site about someone who has committed to memory an entire phone book, all the stations on the London underground or something equally as useless. There is no doubt about the importance of memory in learning a language. Unfortunately for the majority of us the systems used for teaching and learning languages are much too concerned with learning things by rote. In one fit of frustration with one of my Russian teachers I laughed: “Lara, you want me to memorize the Russian language. First off I don’t enough time left here in this world, and besides my head isn’t big enough to hold all those items.” She didn’t have a clue about what I was going on about. She truly believed that I needed to memorize all the endings in order to be able to speak the language. Lara was extreme in her expectations, but in general we all - learners and teachers alike - put too much emphasis on memorization. The teacher who gets by with regular vocabulary quizzes can help learners acquire a large vocabulary, but if they are unable to pronounce the words intelligibly there’s not a whole lot they can do with them. A large number of words is nice to have, but if you can’t put them in a sentence you are not likely to feel comfortable when faced with the need to communicate.
To be functional in a language with such a large number of case endings as Russian memory is of little help. Native speakers of languages like Russian or German are apt to confuse and “forget” the right endings when living abroad in a different linguistic milieu. When learning a language with lots of declensions we need to use several types of memory and the one that is most often associated with language study is probably the one with the lowest pay off. Teachers need to do a real serious study of the different forms that words can take when declined and work with the most commonly used endings. These are the one to work on in class. Learners who continue their studies will pick up the others as they become more familiar with the language. It’s more efficient to practice and practice the different permutations until they feel right only in the proper combinations.
When there’s real desire or motivation even rote-memorization can provide a pleasant interlude. You memorize poems for your teacher, or maybe even for your family or friends to recite for their delight on some special. It helps if you’re a beguiling child. You learn a song by heart for public performance as well. You learn to say your prayers or the pledge of allegiance to your country or organization. You memorize the subject matter to be able to pass an exam. You can also learn a poem by reading it over and over as you react to its multiple meanings. Poems have a way of sticking because of their rhythm and rhyme. When people put music to them they have an even easier time becoming part of our memories, part of us. Prayers and pledges can become part of us if they are bound to our brains by beliefs, patriotism or just the desire to belong to a group. Facts learned for exams will stay around until we’ve put our pen down, but they rarely make a change in us and therefore usually fade away quickly.
On a flight once from Madrid to Atlanta I had problems with my headphones. I asked the lady next to me if she could hear on hers. She said no, but then recited the dialog for me until the phones started working again. I was impressed and troubled. She had memorized the dialog of this really silly romantic comedy. I didn’t ask her how she’d done this bit of rote learning, but my guess is that she didn’t set out to do so. She was a student and not preparing for any career that requires learning of lengthy texts. Each time she watched the film she probably became entirely engaged with the characters. This makes memory work second nature.
There are moments when it is necessary to commit to memory certain features of a language we are studying. It may be the many verb forms in a Romance language or the declension tables in German or one of the Slavic tongues. Whatever it is we will be most successful if we find a way to make the rote work amusing. It doesn’t have to be fun, but it must be engaging. There are tons of games we can play with words that we need to learn by heart. Little note-card-sized flash cards can be a great help and are portable. Experience has shown me that the dead moments on public transport or when waiting for an interview or whatever are perfect for working on Chinese characters. Studying with a friend adds a new dimension to the fun and expands the possibilities as far as games are concerned. I get ideas for games from the few classes I give to youngsters and from the web. I find that looking at sites to do with childhood games and stories I can recall many of the ones I played and pick up some new ones.
When a language item has been internalized memory does not play an important role. The bit of language is ours and can come out spontaneously when the situation calls for it. Once learning has begun we can surprise ourselves. We learn to feel the correctness of what we’re saying and eventually we don’t need the teacher’s confirmation. We simply say “It sounds right.” This means we’ve passed a major milestone on our way to making the language part of us.
It is important to know how we commit things to memory. To live a full life we also need to how and when to let go of memories. In the case of English students, it helps to remember that a very high percentage of questions in the language have some form of do or be at the beginning. For example: “Did you see Leo last night?” “Are you coming tomorrow?” Learners have to revise their theories when they hear people say for example: “See that?” “Ready?” And they have to make use of their memories again when they want to ask questions with words like, can, must, should and so on. The same is true in life. Our memories are useful tools, but we need to know when it’s convenient to let go of the memorized items.
There are lots of ways of forgetting. I can forget to turn off the washing machine as a way of prompting my partner to talk to me. Even if it’s just to remind me how forgetful I am. Forgetting to fill the ice-cube tray, or to put a new toilet-paper roll on the dispenser are as often as not purposeful forgetting useful as labor-saving devices. “Let somebody else do it!” Forgetting is harmful for dieters. “Oh, have I already eaten my portion of bread today?” Forgetting a birthday or an important anniversary can lead to hurt feelings and embarrassment, but usually the consequences are not serious. If you stop and think about how common forgetting is, you can stop beating yourself up about forgetting things in a language you’re learning. You can also ponder whether or not the forgetting is true or trumped up for some ulterior motive of your mind.
There are periods in life when our memory seems to be weakening. The first years of my fifties I was convinced that I was losing my short term memory completely and that my longer term one was on its way out as well. I couldn’t remember if I watered the plants form one hour to the next and found myself sticking m fingers in the pots to see if the earth was dry. Always lousy at remembering birthdays and anniversaries and found myself checking my phone book for the significant dates. I confused the cats’ names with those of their predecessors and sometimes sat staring at the dog wondering what his name could be. I became hopeless at getting the shopping done in one go, for I kept forgetting the lists I so conscientiously made. The solution was easier than I’d anticipated and required just a bit of effort and some common sense. I kept on making up just one shopping list which I reminded myself not to touch unless it was time for me to hit the shops. I carried the list with me, but refused to look at it until just before I was ready for the checkout counter. I began to control friend’s birthdays by assigning them seasons of the year and then major festivities near their birthdays. So Dawn became aurora and by association spring and eventually April. That was enough to remind me that the first of April I needed to check if her birthday really was the 26th, as I write this at 65 my memory is better than ever. It is so good in fact that I now worry that I’m headed into that zone where things from the distant past become more available than ones that happened last week. I can live with that. It’s a new way of taking stock of my life so far.
There are times in life when forgetting is more to our advantage than remembering. We need to control our memory and our ability to forget in order to continue with our lives. It is of absolutely no use to a dead person to continually remember them, although the pleasant memories can make us feel good. If we choose to base our future on a past we shared with someone no longer with us we’re doomed to a life full of frustrations. Moving on is not just a catchphrase, it is at times a necessity. The same is true in learning languages. There’s not much sense in constantly remembering the mistakes we make unless we use these memories to correct ourselves. In that case it’s best to get ourselves into the position of pre-correcting.
Memory is of course useful when learning anything and languages are no exception. It’s good to remember that some words are false friends, and it’s helpful to recall the changes in some verb forms which follow no logical pattern. Still, if we want to become operative in the language we study these things have to become automatic and that happens when they become part of us, or when we surrender ourselves to the language.
Nobody, with the possible exception of people with A.P.D. (Antisocial Personality Disorder and formerly called psychopaths), nobody sets out to memorize an emotional event or a banal one. Still, some memories are nearly impossible to dislodge,. Things become memories through our experiencing them. We can make a new language part of us in much the same manner as we acquire new memories. We just have to live the moment. This is something that has been ignored during many years of theorizing about teaching and learning. By emphasizing the theoretical we have pushed a normal part of living aside and turned the classroom into a sterile environment full of gadgets and techniques, but lacking in normal human interactions.
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