On Reluctant Memory and How to Vanquish It

Put that way it sounds a lot more dramatic than it really is, but ever since I started tutoring I’ve realized that being a good one depends a lot on being on your toes regarding that particular language, and keeping a keen eye (and ear) out for the student’s weak points, and thus have come to a major realization.

More often than not, when a language student is only on his second language and hasn’t built up effective study habits of their own yet, they tend to depend a lot on assistance, this in the form of tutors, classes, courses, etcetera. This isn’t a bad thing–as human beings, we suck at operating solo, and some personalities carry out their best work when they have to be part of a group. However, some students unknowingly fall into what I’d consider a fairly bad habit: growing dependant to that environment.

Let’s say you’ve been learning in a classroom for two years, and nowhere else: you don’t practice with natives or other students outside the classroom, have never been to the country, and don’t particularly have an use for the language you’ve been learning other than for leasure, but boy, you’re good at that language: your grades tell you so. This is really the case of a minority, since not many people start learning a language “just because”, but it does happen, and when it does and you suddenly get the golden chance to stretch your wings in your target language with a native, you get the feeling you’re not good enough, make mistakes, and go home with a heavy little gray cloud hovering over your head. In reality, two things happened to make this tragic situation occur: your brain shorted at having to use a known resource in an unknown environment, and your memory is incomplete, or as I call it, “reluctant”.

Thing number one can’t be fixed if not with practice. Breaking a habit, any habit, is hard, but not impossible, and with enough exposure to this kind of situation, anybody can and will grow used to using the resource of a foreign language in different situations. However, how to deal with reluctant memory?

Recently I read The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he makes mention of transactive (or shared) memory. The context in which this concept was explained in the book was couples, and in a larger scope, small companies, and can essentially be explained in one line: we use not only our own memory, but also that of our close relations as a sort of “external memory”. If the idea of your spouse being a human USB key sounds absurd, then consider all the things you do in the house that she or he doesn’t, and viceversa, and then think about all the things you’d have to mind if your spouse wasn’t there. Where are the cleaning supplies? How do I change a tire? What was the teacher’s name again?

The external memory comes in handy right about then, doesn’t it?

Most relationships share this aspect of reciprocity; we are better enabled to do things in twos and threes than alone. In a teacher-student relationship, the exchange is even more straightforward: it consists almost exclusively of information. The problem with this is that in these relationships the memory exchange can become dangerously one-sided. I have had walk-in students come to me from another teacher, and when the moment comes and I ask “now, how would you say this?” about something they should know, the student ‘thinks’ for less than a split second, responds with “I don’t know” and looks at my face as if expecting me to give them the answer. This is what I call “reluctant memory”: the information’s there, but only barely, so I’d rather rely on someone who knows.

Don’t get me wrong: if a student truly doesn’t know the answer, I won’t stare back and expect them to magically know, as if knowledge could be acquired by osmosis (I’d much rather they challenge themselves and try to answer anyhow, since I’ve already mentioned I believe mistakes to be a huge part of the learning process, but that’s a topic for another moment). However, if a student originally had a “parrot” teacher who didn’t care to enforce a deeper level of understanding in the student, then the information will be stuck in their minds only superficially until it fades away for good, and since the student knows that the teacher knows, it’s easer to rely on whose memory’s the information’s fresher and quite probably correct.

So how do you vanquish reluctant memory? It’s not easy, but here you go:

Stop saying “I don’t know”.

“I don’t know” is a crutch expression for when we’re vexed and can’t be bothered to try–it’s the lazy brother of “oh, I knew this!”. Things you truly don’t know will not have you saying “I don’t know this”, they will make you say “what is this?!” and either run away or stare in awe.

We’re used to a world where we have to answer right away or be taken by fools, but take it from me: it’s better to wait a second, rack your brains and either say “I can’t remember” or “oh, THAT!” instead of “I don’t know”. Because if you’ve learned “it” before, you do know. You just may not remember, and the exercise of trying to remember will do wonders to strenghten your memory–and if you didn’t, at least you tried.