Allow me to explain using a related problem.
Vocabulary lists in a run-of-the-mill Spanish textbook usually look something like the below, taken from real-world sources I won’t shame by naming:
- La mano – the hand
- El arbol – the tree
- Las muñecas – the wrists
- ¡Nos vemos mañana! – See you tomorrow!
- Mande? – Sorry? Pardon? What did you say?
- Ahorita vengo! – I’ll be back in a minute!
Pretty typical, right?
Sadly, this format is also priming students for failure. Two reasons:
Spanish is listed first, so we’re training recognition. If you want to be able to speak (produce) Spanish, you should list English first, then Spanish: cue and target. For at least the first month, you will be translating from English in your head before most speaking. Have your materials mimic this process, or you’re working backwards.
Incredibly, almost no textbooks get this ordering right. If you train for recall, you get recognition automatically; if you train for recognition, recall is terrible, or as slow as molasses.
Think I’m exaggerating? How many times have you handled or seen pennies and quarters in your life? Tens of thousands of times? Millions? Try and draw both sides of either from memory. Recognition does not = recall. You have to train specifically for the latter.
A fixed list equals inflexible recall. By illustration, answer this: what number is the letter “L” in the alphabet? 5th, 14th, which? What is the third line of your national anthem? Slow, isn’t it? The answers depend on order — on the pieces before them acting as cues. If you learn words in a fixed list, the preceding words act as a recall crutch for your target word. You’ll eventually get it, but it’s plodding and haphazard. This is a major problem. This is also why, 10 years later, I can still sing (poorly) a few entire songs in Italian, but I could never recall those words independently for conversation.
We want RAM—random-access memory—where we can pull any word from memory quickly.
If you have a textbook with a fixed list, just practice doing them backwards and also in evens, odds, every-third item, etc.
¡Mucha suerte, ché!
If you like these shorter posts (as opposed to my longer, monster posts), please let me know in the comments and I’ll do more of them!
Posted on: June 19, 2014.