…so I’ve been on a little blog hiatus over the summer. I used my time off after graduation to do some traveling and work on personal projects, and then starting intern year became this all-consuming effort just to keep my head above water. I’m still swimming, though, so it’s time once again to pick up the…keyboard.
One of the projects I was working on was improving my French. I grew up in Canada, so French was the second language to learn by default, and I feel like I’ve been learning it, badly, my whole life – I spent a couple years in elementary school in an immersion program, and then after my family moved to the States I kept taking it, in high school and then in college. But despite having things like AP tests and a minor in the language, I’ve always felt, well, bashful about it. Because I’ve never had to use it much, and so I feel very awkward and self-conscious with it.
I don’t think this is too atypical for American language students, although I may be especially bad. One of the things I realized when I started to study – using Memrise, among other tools – is that I had no vocabulary. The structure of the language, the grammar, is all still in there somewhere, although I’m a bit rusty with the subjunctive. But the words! 3000 words to understand enough of a text that we can effectively get the rest by context. My active vocabulary, when I started, was maybe 1/10th of that. (Admittedly, not having thought much in French for several years.) I can read quite a bit more fluently than that would suggest, and write quite adequately with access to a dictionary. But I had endless words that I kind of recognized, but couldn’t produce an exact translation, or translate from the English. Maybe not easy words, but not exactly uncommon ones – I knew how to say fish, but not tuna or clams, let alone the menu’s description of the dish. I basically had the vocabulary of a 2-year-old. No wonder I was always embarrassed about not being able to speak the language.
And then I started to think, why is that? Of all the years of school-based language learning, no one ever emphasized the importance of just learning vocabulary. I should have known, myself: when I rebelled and decided to study abroad in Italy instead of any of the many francophone countries, thereby introducing another romance language with which to confuse myself, I realized very early that any word I learned, no matter how seemingly “obscure” to a non-native speaker, would come up again. Words like poodle, festival, parking ticket. In fact, you can get by pretty well with some basic grammar – the present tense, a past tense and whatever you call the future tense where I’m going to do XYZ. But vocab is hard to fake.
That would be more understandable if it had to be painful, slow rote learning. But via memrise, I learned about spaced repetition: basically, as you learn a word, you review it less and less often, so that you can keep reviewing a lot of material efficiently. AND. It’s been known about for decades. It’s easier with technology – with memrise, or with software like Anki, but it’s definitely not necessary – you can have a system for organizing your flashcards. Why didn’t I know about this? In all of my many years of school, I don’t remember this ever coming up. And when I think about how much more I would have gotten out of French had I been spending 5-10 minutes a day reviewing vocab, well, it’s not a happy thought.
Better late than never, though, I guess. Anyway, all this is to say that I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how we learn – languages, medicine, history, and I’ll be blogging through it. Bear with me.