The life of a goldfish


Ok, I confess this isn’t about goldfish. In fact, it’s the annual passing of Remembrance Day that has got me thinking, apart from the obvious, about memory itself.

I don’t know about you but both my short-term and long-term memory aren’t the sharpest (I refer you back to the goldfish). I’m often told I’ve said something that I then can’t recall – which infuriatingly means that I lose many an argument. In terms of day-to-day jobs, if I don’t write things down, they generally don’t happen. Needless to say, I live by lists in order to function and this system works relatively well.
However, this affliction doesn’t make me the most natural of language learners. I often ponder why some people are able to adopt another tongue with liquid ease while others, like myself, struggle to express myself in L2. But on top of that, I wonder if it is really possible for a teacher to ensure that all their students are absorbing what is being taught effectively when language is such a personal thing. Surely, if there are, let’s say, 23 independent minds in a classroom, then they will each process information in many different ways.

On telling him of my intentions for this blog, my boyfriend lent me a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote about several of his patients. In this particular account, an intelligent and articulate man, Dr P, can’t recognize people, can’t distinguish them from objects or even identify everyday objects such as a pair of gloves despite being able to describe them in minute detail. The ultimate faux pas is right there in the title. Ironically, it turns out I’d actually read the story before and couldn’t remember doing so!
Anyway, the story itself says something about how our brains operate. With his condition, it is unimaginable how someone like Dr P could even put his clothes on in the morning. However, he devised a system for performing his everyday routines whereby he sang to himself and everything slotted into place.
This is, quite obviously, an EXTREME example of how someone copes with a biological setback in order to function. But, in terms of language-learning, do teachers really take into account students’ individual quirks and unique minds enough when presenting new grammar and vocabulary?

There have, of course, been oodles of tried and tested methods to get students to absorb information. Although most people have moved on from suggestopedia (reclining into a comfortable armchair listening to Bach isn’t everyone’s idea of a blissful environment for learning – and it’s not exactly the most practical layout for an ELT classroom!), there are still people who swear by banging an object and shouting its name three times (TABLE! TABLE! TABLE!), which isn’t motivating or effective for all.

Adrian Underhill had some illuminating ideas which enlivened a weary audience late on a Saturday afternoon at this year’s IATEFL conference. His talk, entitled ‘Using the “inner workbench“ to enrich teaching and learning’ addressed the fact that our individual and rather beautiful minds operated completely diffferently when given a simple memory task. One of Adrian’s many experiments saw him present the audience with a page of ten random words written in different directions. We were then given one minute to memorize them before they were removed and we were asked to write them down. Adrian was far less interested in how many we correctly recalled than, crucially, how we remembered them. The results were enlightening. Some people found pairing the most compatible words to be the most effective way; others constructed a story; a few people were inspired by the physical: either recalling the direction or shape of the words; a couple of people employed the ’Greek philosopher method’ of visualizing the items listed in rooms of a house; and one unique individual had the words explained to her by an alien. No, really.

The overall theme of Adrian’s talk (other than that it takes all sorts!) was that students should be unafraid of making mistakes – in fact, they should embrace their mistakes and, in Adrian’s words ’Ask them how they got there’. This approach gives learners greater autonomy which will, in theory, help those vital grammar points embed themselves in the mind.

So, do you agree? And do you have any suggestions on how to help students memorize language? Send them in and I’ll make a list …



  • […] However, this affliction doesn’t make me the most natural of language learners. I often ponder why some people are able to adopt another tongue with liquid ease while others”. READ The life of a goldfish […]

    Posted by The life of a goldfish | English Teaching Daily on November 15th 2011

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